The USF Advisory Task Force appeared ready to address internal concerns in Thursday’s town hall, though questions regarding systemic racism and the handling of disability accommodations on campus did not prove easy to answer.
Vice Chair Sylvia Thomas and President Steven Currall attended the Microsoft Teams meeting alongside 24 other faculty members in the first town hall of three this semester, the first step in determining what to bring to the Board of Trustees in June.
Led by Task Force Chair Charles Stanish, the 40-minute town hall fielded questions from six different pre-approved “public speakers,” ranging from faculty to students, with almost all speaking on how the university can better support staff and students, while Stanish and the task force responded with brief, vague responses.
Despite being scheduled for two hours, the livestream lasted less than half of that time, with most of the time going to “public speakers” awaiting any response from the task force in long pauses of silence. No questions were asked beyond those from the pre-approved speakers.
One of those “public speakers” was Denise David-Cotton, co-chair for the USF Black Employee Steering Committee. Davis-Cotton spoke up on concerns that a report the committee developed for the task force wasn’t adequately addressed by the task force.
“We produced a document that identifies the interlocking priorities necessary to address systemic racism at USF,” she said. ”I ask that the body examine this document that I sent to [task force member Thomas Unnasch].”
The document, sent to Stanish and Thomas, consists of four goals aimed at “ensuring racial equity, minority representation, anti-racism training and supporting black community-engaged research.”
“My question is, where is the synergy between the concrete recommendations offered in this document … and the strategic planning task force,” Davis-Cotton said.
Stanish said the task force would look at the document and “address systemic racism and will root it out at every corner.” He emphasized how it will not be tolerated across campuses.
Second-year English student Andrea Markovitz also questioned the board regarding discriminatory behavior at USF, speaking on her personal experiences with professors on campus.
“I have had experiences [with] the professor in the English department who I thought was not fully cleared for students with disabilities such as myself at all, and I think we need to make a change within that,” she said. “Not just for me, but for all students with disabilities.
“I am grateful for being taught at USF, but what I would like to account for is how are we going to fix things for students with disabilities.”
With no set of actions, Stanish said “[the task force wants] to make sure every student is welcome and comfortable” on campus.
“There is absolutely no excuse if a student is made to feel unwelcome for any reason including disabilities, and so we will address that implicitly,” he said.
The task force hopes to gather broad ideas of improvement for the university, then pass it to smaller committees to “work out the details,” Stanish said.
“This is not tied to the current budget issues. Currall told us it is merely aspirational. We are looking toward the future,” Stanish added, alluding to the budget cuts facing departments such as the College of Education.
For humanities professor Brendan Cook, it was hard to think about anything else.
“All I will say is that as hopeful as this conversation is about renewal and what we want to do going into the future, it feels hard for me to have it with the threat of something like the proposed cuts to the College of Education (COE) hanging over our heads,” Cook said.
“I really crave reassurance from the leadership of the university that ‘we’re gonna do everything we can to save as many positions as possible.’”
Cook’s statement saw no response from Stanish or the task force.
Jenifer Schneider, a professor from the COE, brought up issues regarding treatment of faculty, more specifically faculty who identify as part of a minority group.
“We have unequal pay for women, for people of color, unequal representation in leadership with women and people of color,” Schneider said. “We need to look at living conditions for faculty and move away from a model of top-down management.”
Schneider also discussed equality among colleges across the university. She said she felt the COE was not treated at the same level as some of the other colleges on campus.
“Not all colleges have the same level of support to find grants, to prepare grants, to manage the grants, and that creates a problem across all colleges,” she said.
Stanish’s response was vague regarding the treatment of the COE.
“While the particular area of [the COE] is being dealt with as we speak, we certainly wish to strengthen the [college’s] programs,” he said.
After responding to the speakers concerns, Stanish closed by pointing out how quickly change will come to the university, and said he felt confident USF will take those changes and reach its goals throughout the semester.
“USF is on the cusp of a great social movement, where it’s an inflection point, and we’re going to see to some rapid positive change to make sure that the university is part of that.”
The task force will meet throughout the spring semester, with the next town hall scheduled Feb. 2 from 3-5 p.m.