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Friday, April 12, 2024

Holding UF accountable: Black faculty recount experiences of discrimination on campus

Black faculty

After 27 years at UF, Michelle Jacobs said what she sees today is just a continuation of what’s always been: an inequitable reality for Black faculty and staff at UF.

Jacobs, a professor of law since 1993, is one of six Black faculty members who spoke with The Alligator about the varying forms of racial discrimination they’ve experienced on campus. She and two other Black women reported receiving threats and hate mail via letters, emails and voicemails while in the workplace.

“I suspect there is still racial discrimination at every college at UF,” Jacobs said.

As the new academic year approaches, eyes are on the anti-racism statements sent out by President Kent Fuchs and other department heads. Black faculty members like sociology department lecturer Corey McZeal say they are weary of what long-term change this will bring an institution with its history rooted in segregation.

As hopeful as the statements may be, they currently remain unsubstantiated, McZeal said.

Upon joining UF in Fall of 2018, McZeal was the only Black faculty member in his department. Campus-wide, Black faculty only make up 4.14 percent of all faculty on campus—that’s 238 people out of 5,747 according to UF workforce data.

Black faculty

“I think when you are at an institution that was built on denying opportunities to certain people, changing that takes explicit action. Inaction just perpetuates the trend,” McZeal said.

The trend, he said, is one of undervaluing and underrepresenting Black life not only in employment, but in the available curriculum as well.

For Vincent Adejumo, that observation holds true.

“We have to deal with racism in addition to our teaching loads being the most because we have the least amount of faculty members and representation on campus,” he said.

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Adejumo is a senior lecturer of African American studies who has been at UF since 2011. He spoke before UF’s General Education Committee for Curriculum Approval in 2015 to request diversity and humanities credit for his Black Masculinity course. The response from the two white faculty members on the committee, he said, was tone-deaf and irresponsible. Adejumo did not recall their names, and the chair of the committee, Dr. Lindner, did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

The male faculty member on the committee, according to Adejumo, expressed concerns about students being able to create a rap album for an assignment. Adejumo said that the assignment was to create a musical or spoken word album, but that he hadn’t once mentioned rap music in the syllabus. The female faculty member also voiced her disapproval. Adejumo said she told him her concern was that his course would “create a whole bunch of Malcolm X’s.”

Though his request for diversity and humanities credit was approved two years later in May of 2017, Adejumo said the charge of those comments point to a source of systemic racism that will take more than some sensitivity training to solve.

Sharon Austin, a professor of political science who has been at UF since 2001, says that discrimination directly undermines the safety of Black faculty on campus. She said she experienced this first hand during an incident on April 13, 2019.

When a white man stood at the door of her office and began making racist comments about Black women, blocking her and her colleague’s path, Austin said she felt threatened and trapped. Her assistant called the University Police, but nobody came — so she called again.

When they finally arrived, the officers seemed impatient, Austin said. They stayed outside of the building in safety, refusing to remove the agitator. “Just come on out,” the officers shouted at the women inside, telling them to push their way past the man. With no other choice, they did.

“I found that to be really offensive,” Austin said. “I doubt that would have happened if we had been white, and if Black men had confronted two white women. I don't think the police would have told them to ‘just come on out.’”

When asked for comment on the aforementioned instances, assistant vice president of communications at UF’s Office of Strategic Communications and Marketing Steve Orlando replied on behalf of the university.

“Any such instance that is reported to the university has been and will be addressed swiftly,” he said. “We continue to work toward creating a welcoming environment for all students, faculty and staff and that work is critical and ongoing.”

UF’s current lack of equity echoes from a long-standing history interwoven with discrimination, faculty members say.

In 1971, 118 years after UF was founded, the university had only 3 African American faculty members out of a then-total of 2,600. This history segued into Black faculty, both full-time and part-time, remaining underrepresented present-day in each college on campus. A daunting problem requires a lofty solution, according to McZeal.

“How willing are institutions to actually change the structure of how they operate? How willing are you to dismantle a system that perpetuates stuff like this?” he asks. “Changing the names of buildings doesn't necessarily do anything for retention rates or make our campus more well-represented among different groups.”

When moving forward, faculty say they are closely watching for developments, and plan to hold the institution accountable to its promises. In the midst of these unprecedented calls for change, faculty like McZeal say they can’t help but ask: Is this a performance, or is this real?

Black faculty express their exhaustion with accepting difficult realities and waiting for change. Of the six faculty interviewed, each of them voiced their hope for a better future, balanced with the doubt that history will fail to repeat itself.

“For someone to ask me why am I still there, I would say that there's always that moment in time where it looks like UF can push through whatever that obstacle is that really keeps them from getting it right,” Jacobs said. “We’ll be right on the edge of pushing through and I just keep telling myself I can just hang in a little bit longer.”

With almost three decades of experience under her belt, Jacobs recalls the college of law as a challenging work environment. The college sparked national attention following Kenneth Nunn’s resignation as associate dean, which prompted other law professors who had previously been at UF to speak out against the hostility that remained present throughout their time there.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the correct percentage of Black faculty employed at UF. 
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