After a rash of resignation announcements at UF’s Multicultural and Diversity Affairs, details of the department’s apparent instability have begun to surface.

One official called it a toxic environment. Another said it was crumbling. A third doubted it could change.

In a span of 11 days, three directors for UF Multicultural and Diversity Affairs announced their resignations, two of whom left after holding their positions for only about seven months.

In four years, 12 directors have resigned. Since MCDA’s inception in 2002, which is intended to be a place to support underserved communities, the longest-serving director has stayed for five years.

UF’s Vice President for Student Affairs David Parrott said turnover is common as people leave for other jobs.

Records show most of those who resigned said they wanted a new opportunity, but reports of infighting and structural disarray have cast doubt on the department’s stability.

“After four years, there’s only so much you can take,” said Vee Byrd, the former director of Black Affairs. Byrd has said she is one of many directors who have been essentially pushed out of the department.

• • •

On Feb. 1, Roxie Patton, the former director for LGBTQ Affairs, announced she would leave for a position at the College of William & Mary on Feb. 23, citing a new opportunity elsewhere.

On Feb. 7, Byrd announced she would leave for a position at Florida State College at Jacksonville, citing a changing university and new opportunity elsewhere, according to Alligator archives.

On Feb. 20, Krystie Nguyen, the director of APIA Affairs, sent in her resignation, citing a need for self-care.

Despite what their exit interviews said, however, deep tension may have contributed to their departures.

But outgoing and former directors said the department’s damaging culture made them leave. Ambassadors said some directors made them feel unsafe in their offices.

For Byrd, the final straw was when she said she was overlooked for the interim executive director position after former MCDA executive director Lloren Foster’s contract was not renewed in September, according to Alligator archives.

Documents between Mary Kay Carodine, the assistant vice president for Student Affairs, and UF Human Resources show Foster was fired for multiple reasons, including lack of leadership, failure to meet deadlines and inappropriate communication — including him asking someone if they were having sex.

“Sex helps your skin look clear,” Foster said, according to the HR document.

Byrd said Carodine asked if she would consider the interim role. But after Byrd went on personal leave, she came back to discover she wouldn’t be getting the position, despite feeling like she met qualifications.

That same day, Byrd told Carodine she was leaving UF.

“I felt like I was backed into a corner, because there’s only so many times you’re going to get to disrespect me when I know what I bring to the table for the department,” Byrd said.

For Patton, every day in the office came with anxiety. She said Krystie Nguyen, the former director of APIA Affairs, harassed her, mocking her partner and disability until Patton was desperate to leave.

After hearing APIA ambassadors’ similar experiences, Patton said she wishes she came forward with the legal action she considered.

“It is the most toxic environment I have ever worked in in my entire life,” Patton said.

Patton said the issue wasn’t only Nguyen, but the work culture that allowed the situation to continue. She said several people were aware of her problems but were scared to speak up, in fear of being fired by Carodine.

Carodine said when the administration learned of the situation, they tried mediation and opened an investigation.

Patton said more could have been done.

“There’s a sense of if I speak up, if I say anything wrong, I’ll be next on the chopping block,” Patton said.

Following news of Nguyen’s plan to resign, allegations surfaced detailing instances of her asking students to fold her laundry and clean her dishes.

Madeleine Hill, an executive director for Gatorship, a program under MCDA, said she feels the department is crumbling.

“It’s a perfect storm of bulls--- and an administration that’s trying really hard in all the wrong places,” Hill said.

• • •

MCDA began in 2002 under the Dean of Student’s Office. When Carodine moved from her position as an assistant dean to assistant vice president, five departments, including MCDA, moved with her to Student Affairs.

Carodine said since then, eight new positions were created, including an LGBTQ Affairs director in 2004 and an APIA Affairs director in 2011.

She said she requested the 2018 to 2019 budget to include funding for a full-time associate director, a director of intercultural engagement and another program coordinator.

She said the three recent resignations are an opportunity for the incoming executive director to choose their own team.

• • •

Alex Cena, the director of APIA Affairs from 2013 to 2016, said MCDA’s purpose is unclear.

“Where’s MCDA going? What is the five, 10-year plan?” Cena said. “What is the mandate from the university to MCDA?”

Cena said the lack of clarity leaves directors confused about their roles and what to focus on.

Carodine said MCDA’s purpose is to support, educate and advocate for students from different backgrounds. She said directors should know about their area and be able to work with students and stakeholders.

On Wednesday night, Carodine and Parrott met with some MCDA ambassadors to talk about their concerns. They’ve held previous meetings with ambassadors, specifically those from APIA concerned about Nguyen.

Hearing from Parrott gave Kalimah Ujaama, a Black Affairs ambassador, hope for the department. She said Parrott listens to students and seems willing to take action, but she’s still cautious to trust them.

“If we can fix the internal problems with MCDA, such as hiring new people, hiring a new team, if we can fix the trust, the lack of trust that we don’t have and the lack of transparency and accountability, I think once that happens MCDA will be all right,” she said.

• • •

Carodine said reference and background checks for some previous candidates weren’t “to the caliber it needed to (be).”

Moving forward, she said there will be extensive background checks. Although the search for an executive director is ending, there will be three new search committees created to fill vacant director roles.

Ujaama said in the executive search committee, some offices within MCDA weren’t represented.

Madeleine Hill, a Gatorship executive director, said the committee appeared stacked in favor of internal candidates: current interim executive director Will Atkins and current interim associate director Gabe Lara.

“The least charitable reading I can give is that she’s trying to stack it in favor of Gabe and Will, and the most charitable reading is she didn’t even consider it,” she said.

• • •

Byrd said her department was made to fight on behalf of communities it represented.

Yet as a director, Byrd said she did more fighting in-house than out, receiving the most support from students rather than the professionals in the office.

Byrd said her last month at UF was one of the worst months of her career. She said that in an HR meeting with Carodine, she was told not to be vocal about her concerns and to write down her feelings instead.

“If that’s the group dynamic, then that’s something that we need to work on, not telling me to be quiet so that everybody else is happy, because I’m damn miserable in the process,” Byrd said

Lara, the interim associate director and current director of Hispanic-Latino Affairs, has been working for a year and a half, watching seven people leave or be fired.

“A lot of people didn’t expect me to last longer than a year or two,” Lara said. “But like I said in the (executive director) interview, I believe in MCDA.”

Lara said seeing colleagues leave can be disheartening after building friendship with them.

“At the same time, I understand why some left, why they needed to leave, why they weren’t happy. I get that,” he said, pausing for a moment. “It makes you wonder.”

• • •

Cristobal Gonzalez, the graduate assistant for the Institute of Hispanic and Latino Cultures in 2015 said during his time, the administration appeared to be in shuffle.

Although Gonzalez had a good working relationship with Carodine, he said she micromanaged.

Hill, who works closely with Carodine on Gatorship, also said she can micromanage. Hill said Carodine is deeply involved with students and cares for them and fostering diversity, but she said Carodine can be resistant to feedback and surrounds herself with people who agree with her, causing some to be intimidated voicing opinions.

“The expectation is definitely that we’re gonna just go by her vision,” Hill said.

Carodine said if she gives benefits or promotions to certain people, it’s because they’ve done their jobs well.

“I believe that when each person in each department fulfills the goals we have set, then you get to do more,” she said.

Hill said Carodine may have contributed to a “crumbling MCDA,” but doesn’t think it’s solely her fault. She said it’s a structural problem.

Hill wants to see change, especially as a student who once benefited from the security and comfort of the LGBTQ Affairs office before quitting in Fall, saying the environment grew tense after Patton was hired.

“There’s all this stuff about students having a voice,” she said. “But a lot of the time it feels like we don’t.”

Carodine said students do have power — the power to create the environment they want, to weigh in on searches and to create their own activities.

“In a way, too, that rebuilds that to being the kind of space that we can all believe in,” she said.

Byrd, Patton, Gonzalez, Hill, Cena and Ujaama are acknowledged there was no easy fix for the department. But Byrd said acknowledging the problem comes first.

“I think there needs to be some personnel changes in things that are done,” Byrd said. “But I also don’t think it’s going to happen.”

• • •

A planned review will look at MCDA within the year, Carodine said. The review, done in part by an undetermined outside group, will make recommendations for future courses of action, Parrott said.

An upcoming forum with UF President Kent Fuchs is also being planned, Carodine said.

Agassy Rodriguez, an ambassador with the Institute of Hispanic-Latino Cultures, said he still remembers when he learned Eric Castillo, the former director of the institute from 2011 to 2013, was leaving.

Rodriguez said he trusted and confided in Castillo, one of the few Latino faculty members Rodriguez knew.

He said he felt heartbroken, unable to confide in anyone else.

“As a student, you see professionals who look like you saying, ‘This is not a place for me,’” Rodriguez said. “What kind of a message does that send to the students?”

Contact Romy Ellenbogen at rellenbogen@alligator.org and follow her on Twitter at @romyellenbogen

 

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