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Friday, April 12, 2024

Message from an alumnus: Get off the sidelines and restore DEI

Opinions generic
Opinions generic

As a high school graduate from New England, I knew little about UF and had never been to Gainesville before I applied. After arriving as a freshman in 1984, I quickly became immersed in the culture of the school, served in Student Government and was one of the many founders of SCAAR, the Student Coalition Against Apartheid and Racism. Florida was still under the radar, but to me it was a hidden gem in large part because of its myriad of cultures.

As a student senator at UF, we met long into the night and took on issues of race and funding LGBTQ+ organizations in a system hampered not only by its own stained history of segregation, but by the almost all white student government. 

It was in our meetings with the upper echelon of UF’s administration regarding UF’s relationship with apartheid South Africa where the lack of diversity or interest in issues of race and diversity showed. Only Dean Arthur Sandeen, a veteran of the civil rights movement in Ohio, had the background or concern to truly engage us.  

When the university refused to divest its resources from the Apartheid regime in South Africa, students occupied the steps of Tigert Hall, the site where 14 years before, 66 black students were arrested and suspended for protesting after UF President Stephen O’Connell refused to meet with the Black Student Union or consider its list of modest demands. 

Despite decades of calls to change the name to this day, student athletes must work out and play under the O’Connell center dome, scarred not only by his treatment of Black students as UF president, but his legacy on the Florida Supreme Court. 

In a jarring act of judicial insurrectionism, O’Connell was among a majority who denied Virgil T. Hawkins admission to the UF law school in 1957 after the Supreme Court told UF Hawkins was entitled to “prompt admission.”  

O’Connell joined the decision which forced Hawkins to prove his admission would not lead white students to violence and withdrawal. The fact that the name of Stephen O’Connell rather than Virgil T. Hawkins graces that center is a testament to the lasting power and legacy of UF racism and a symbol of why DEI is so critical. 

By shuttering its office to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, the university is retreating to its darkest past legacy in which voices were stifled and risks becoming the unwelcome and hostile space Stephen O’Connell and his cohorts promoted. 

In expressing his disgust at UF’s decision to close its DEI office, UF football legend Emmett Smith said it best: “We cannot continue to believe and trust that a team of leaders all made up of the same background will make the right decision when it comes to equality and diversity.  History has already proven that is not the case. We need diverse thinking and backgrounds to enhance our university and the DEI department is necessary to accomplish those goals.” 

Mark Shmueli is a 1987 UF alumnus.

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