A year after pledge, positive steps against racism continue across university

In late March, a group of 30 first- and second-year Black students interested in health professions gathered for the first time on Zoom. They discussed their family lives, their experiences at the University of Florida, and their common desire to pursue careers in fields such as medicine, pharmacy, nursing, dentistry, public health and veterinary medicine.

The meeting, which marked the launch of a new year-long program titled “Keys to Success,” left students feeling excited and motivated about their opportunities at UF and beyond. The program would create a cohort of African-American students who would together explore mentorship, shadowing and research opportunities in the health sciences as well as opportunities for social and personal growth.

“Seeing the deans of the different colleges really pour into us and step into that mentoring role gives me encouragement that I can do this and that my peers and I can succeed,” said Reina Fortune, a first-year health sciences major who plans to go into dentistry. “As a student at a predominantly white institution going into a profession that’s not particularly diverse, I’m now better able to visualize my future.”

Keys to Success, funded by a UF grant, is emblematic of work that has expanded and accelerated across the university’s colleges and units following a pledge last summer from President Kent Fuchs that UF would increase its focus on the Black experience, racism and inequity in the wake of a national outcry over the killing of George Floyd. Fuchs pledged positive steps in three broad areas: education, research and community engagement; history, symbolism and demonstrating behaviors consistent with the university’s values; and representation, inclusion, opportunity and accountability.

“Across the university, our students, faculty and staff have embraced the commitment to members of our Black community,” Fuchs said. “In a year that has posed many challenges, I’ve been inspired to see the UF community come together to educate and learn from one another, advocate for their peers, and work to create a campus environment that supports and welcomes all.”

At the central level, UF has created a presidential task force to document the history of UF in relation to race and ethnicity. The task force expects to develop a document providing context to the African and Native American history at UF by the end of summer. A second presidential task force is engaged in discussions on honorary namings. This task force is charged with creating a set of recommended criteria to be utilized when considering an honorary naming in the future, while endeavoring to understand historical criteria used and evaluating how to effectively measure the totality of a person’s contributions in the space of higher education at a certain point in time.  UF also redoubled its efforts to support local business and vendor diversity and has increased collaboration with local governments and community groups to foster and enhance a culture of community service and learning. Additionally, the UF Faculty Senate organized town hall meetings and added a standing agenda item on diversity as a part of its monthly meetings.

Further, UF awarded competitive research grants to more than a dozen faculty teams across campus. The projects include one that addresses racial disparities in clinical trials of treatments for some of the nation’s most prevalent chronic diseases, like obesity, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, heart and kidney disease. Another project examines reluctance by some Black individuals to take advantage of traditional health care and whether they might be more likely to use telehealth options that have grown significantly during the pandemic.  

Across campus, efforts are also comprehensive and far-reaching. At least 30 academic and business units are aligning their strategic plans with university values; conducting climate surveys to better understand the Black experience on campus; enhancing student and faculty recruitment efforts to attract diverse applicants; creating privately funded scholarship opportunities for graduates of historically Black colleges and universities to seek graduate degrees at UF; and supporting UF’s commitment to diversity of thought and expression on campus through a wide array of outside speakers and guest lecturers. 

In the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, for example, Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources J. Scott Angle acknowledged the low levels of Black student enrollment as well as faculty in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. In an email to 60 academic units in IFAS, he vowed to strive for greater parity in recruiting and retaining a representative faculty and student cohort and challenged each unit to develop a plan to “create an inclusive climate that values contributions from all members of society.”  IFAS plans to assess its progress at the end of the year to codify what has worked. 

In UF’s Division of Enrollment Management, an existing committee on diversity was expanded into three committees, with 28 employees at all levels volunteering to serve. The committees focused on events, recognitions and celebrations, professional development, education and awareness and outreach and access. Outcomes include increased outreach by the admissions and financial aid and scholarship teams to diverse populations as well as events and resources for underrepresented groups and first-generation students. 

Academic units are also pursuing strategies to ensure educational curriculums and experiences are representative of the broader population. In the College of Pharmacy, for example, a task force is examining how students are taught about biases and disparities in healthcare. The task force has developed an approach to ensure students on their clinical rotations can gain experience across socio-economically and racially diverse communities.

“We’re looking at where our students receive their experiential education and whether they have the opportunity to interface with people that mirror the demographics of the state of Florida,” said Teresa Cavanaugh, assistant dean for student affairs and clinical associate professor in the College of Pharmacy. “Exposure to diversity enhances your education and makes you a better professional.”

David Canton, director of African American studies at UF and a member of the president’s task force documenting UF’s racial and ethnic history, noted that -- while the progress from the past year is significant -- the hard work has just begun.

“As a professor of history and of African-American history, I can tell you that change takes time. But we have the information and resources to make change quicker,” he said. “As my father used to say, ‘a steady rain beats a downpour.’ Let’s do a steady rain, continue our work, and make sure we are proactive going forward.”

June 25, 2021