Listening, Learning, and Eliminating Racism

November 12, 2015
Kent Fuchs

Racial tensions at the University of Missouri and Yale this week underscore the importance of fostering a welcoming and diverse campus community and encouraging regular dialogue on a range of topics. UF President Kent Fuchs shares his thoughts in today’s Independent Florida Alligator. The piece also appears below.

In 1902, two years before he became the University of Florida’s first president, Andrew Sledd lost his faculty position at Emory University in Atlanta because he spoke out against racism.

Although Sledd served for only four years at UF’s helm and was controversial and subsequently rarely celebrated, I admire his aspirations that UF and its students would 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 that many others have not shared, and I know this has shaped my perspective 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 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 and seek to help others understand the heavy burden of its effects.  We have also seen acts of courage in the decision by University of Mississippi Interim Chancellor Morris Stocks to lower the state flag last month because it bears the Confederate flag, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s signing a bill to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol.   I pray that all of us in the UF family will be similarly courageous when we have the opportunity to oppose and to eliminate 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 and 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, and 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 that we need to increase our numbers of African-American students and faculty and are working to do so. In addition, the Bias Education and Response Team stands ready to provide those who experience or are affected by bias incidents an opportunity to be heard and supported and to guide UF in responding decisively.

Hollywood portrays leadership as being bold and resolute. I agree that those qualities are important. But I have found in my own career that it’s equally important to listen to others, to try to think and feel outside my own personal experience, and indeed to be willing to change when it is the right thing to do. 

I hope that 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 kent.fuchs@ufl.edu.

Link to Alligator article: http://www.alligator.org/opinion/columns/article_cc0c354a-88ec-11e5-9289-1f9315f64e61.html  

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