In 1902, two years before he became UF’s first president, Andrew Sledd lost his faculty position at Emory University in Georgia because he spoke out against racism.
Although Sledd served at UF’s helm for only four years, proved controversial and was subsequently rarely celebrated, I admire his aspirations that UF and its students be known for high academic standards and high moral character.
I especially respect the fact that he willingly paid a personal price early in his career for his opposition to racism.
My age and experience as a white man have given me privileges and powers many others have not shared, and I know this has shaped my perspectives of people and circumstances. Because of this, I feel a special responsibility to reach out to people from other races and backgrounds, to listen and learn from their lives and experiences and to try to see the world through their eyes. As UF’s president, I also have a special responsibility and opportunity to make a difference in eliminating racism in our community.
Like Dr. Sledd in 1902, we have seen students at Mizzou and Yale in recent weeks speak out to oppose racism while seeking to help others understand the heavy burden of its effects. We have also seen acts of courage, such as the decision by the University of Mississippi Interim Chancellor Morris Stocks to lower the state flag last month because it bears the Confederate flag, or South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s signing of a bill to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol. I pray all of us in the UF family will be similarly courageous when we have the opportunity to oppose and combat racism, no matter how slight or subtle, including when it means a change in our own perspective, words and actions.
UF has an opportunity to be a national leader in creating a community that celebrates and benefits from the diversity and contributions of all its members. To achieve this, we need leadership, goals, plans, continuous assessment of our progress and resources and full participation by every member of The Gator Nation. I intend to learn from and support our many excellent campus leaders such as Lloren Foster, executive director of Multicultural and Diversity Affairs, and Vee Smith, director of Black Affairs, among others.
The Black Student Affairs Task Force is assessing and providing recommendations that will lead to sustainable positive change, and the town hall meetings and surveys underway this year are helping us understand our community and plan for the future. For example, we know we need to increase our numbers of both African-American students and faculty, and we are actively working to do so. In addition, the Bias Education & Response Team stands ready to provide those who experience or are affected by bias incidents an opportunity to be heard and supported, as well as help guide UF in responding decisively.
Hollywood portrays leadership as being bold and resolute. I agree those qualities are important. But I have found in my own career it’s equally important to listen to others, to try to think and feel outside my own personal experience and, indeed, be willing to change when it is the right thing to do.
I hope as president, I will apply that experience to my interactions with all those who challenge me or the university and wish to work with me to help our university do better and achieve more.
We all have a responsibility to listen and learn. Please reach out to me at any time. My personal email is [email protected].
Kent Fuchs is the President of the University of Florida. His columns appear monthly.