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OPINION: USF’s Diversity and Equal Opportunity policy needs revision

Following the dismissal of associate head coach for men’s basketball Tom Herrion, USF needs to reevaluate the leniency of its Diversity and Equal Opportunity policy to better encompass the university’s publicized values. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/

USF Athletics announced June 15 it won’t renew associate head men’s basketball coach Tom Herrion’s contract after an independent review by the Lightfoot, Franklin and White Law Firm looking into insensitive comments made by Herrion to student-athletes found he violated USF’s misconduct policies. 

The review found Herrion didn’t violate USF Policy #0-007, Diversity and Equal Opportunity, which follows the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) definition of harassment that stipulates an incident must be part of a behavioral pattern to be considered a violation. 

This independent review comes on the heels of nine student-athletes from the men’s basketball team entering the transfer portal after the end of the 2020-21 season. Two unnamed transfer students cited the alleged issues as reasons they decided to transfer, according to the review.

If Herrion’s mistreatment of students is allowed to slip by diversity policies, USF needs to revisit the policy and broaden the standard for what constitutes a violation and enforce minor intervention for smaller transgressions.

USF’s current requirements for what constitutes an actionable item includes harassment as defined by the EEOC.

“Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex … or genetic information,” the definition stated. “Harassment becomes unlawful where enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile or abusive.” 

Three of the four alleged comments by Herrion were substantiated by the law firm’s report and two blatantly pertained to the race of the player Herrion was speaking to. While the comments were substantiated, they didn’t constitute a diversity violation as the firm didn’t find they met the requirements for harassment as Herrion never repeated any of his comments. Instead, they were labeled as misconduct. 

In the first comment referenced, Herrion had told a player to stop “swinging from the rim like a monkey.”

The second substantiated comment was made to a student-athlete entering a team workout with a sweatshirt supporting historically Black colleges and universities. The comment is listed in the report as, “What’s up with that Black sh*t, I thought you were [redacted]?”

This comment is the most blatantly offensive of the two that were substantiated by the review and had clear racial underpinnings. 

“The comment falls well below the conduct that USF should expect from employees, like coach Herrion, who hold positions of leadership and responsibility in relation to USF students,” the review stated. “However, we do not conclude that coach Herrion’s comment to SA [unnamed student-athlete] violates USF’s Diversity and Equal Opportunity policy in its current form, despite the comment’s overt racial content.”

To label such a comment as simple misconduct rather than a diversity law violation is taking away from the gravity of the comments, as it was clearly unacceptable on the basis of race. To ensure the safety of marginalized students, USF should follow in the footsteps of other universities’ efforts.

Columbia University is considered one of the safest colleges in America for Black students. It’s the fourth most diverse college in America with an incredible 90% graduation rate for African Americans, more than double the national average, according to data compiled in 2020 by the U.S. News and World Report.

Columbia’s diversity policies include “verbal abuse, epithets or slurs, negative stereotyping … denigrating jokes, insulting or obscene comments … that denigrate or show hostility or aversion toward an individual or group of members of a selected class,” as harassment that warrants disciplinary action. 

If an individual is found in violation of Columbia’s diversity policy, discipline can range from reprimands and restricted access to university facilities to unpaid leave and dismissal of employment, depending on the severity of the infraction.

USF shouldn’t wait for a pattern of harassment to emerge before taking action under the Diversity and Equal Opportunity policy. By revising the policy to include single instances as actionable offenses with smaller penalties, USF could prevent the escalation of instances into continued harassment.