During the month of February, USF is proud to join the nation – and countries around the world – in celebrating Black History Month. It is a month to recognize the contributions and impact throughout history of Black Americans and to encourage and inspire education and research to increase awareness and understanding.
The celebration itself has changed and evolved in keeping with a growing need and ability as a nation and community to expand efforts to support diversity, equity and inclusion. What began in 1926 as a national movement to recognize “Negro History Week” during the month of February – to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass – gained support throughout the 1960s, galvanized by the civil rights movement. In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month with a call to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
At USF, the Office of Multicultural Affairs leads the celebration of Black Heritage Month with events throughout February designed to educate both the USF and Tampa Bay community on the importance of the history and significance of Black culture.
The month also is an opportunity to celebrate and reflect on the evolution of USF’s historic commitment to diversity and inclusion, which is among the core principles fueling USF’s success as America’s fastest-rising university. Below are highlights that recognize the achievements of USF’s Black and African American community members.
Organizational changes and synergies energize USF’s commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity
Over the past year, USF has continued an intentional and renewed commitment to further strengthen USF’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. University-wide organizational changes have been implemented to help position USF for future change initiatives.
In March 2021, USF took steps to reimagine the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity (DIEO). Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman, who had been in the role of senior advisor to the president and provost for diversity and inclusion, was appointed interim vice president for institutional equity. In the role, Hordge-Freeman has been leading a process with on-campus leaders and staff, as well as community stakeholders, to help define the role, responsibilities and goals of the office. USF also redirected the compliance functions historically held within the DIEO office to a new Equity Compliance unit within the USF Office of Compliance and Ethics. This will provide a more seamless and supportive experience for students, faculty and staff.
Also in 2021, increased attention on the nation’s struggles to address violence against Blacks and systemic racism fueled new grassroot synergies across One USF. Staff, faculty and USF affinity groups, including the Black Faculty & Staff Association (BFSA), Black Leadership Network, Committee on Black Affairs and Black Student Union engaged in inclusive and thoughtful dialogues on new ways to address systemic racism. Energized by a desire for real change, a group of 30 interdisciplinary faculty and staff formed the USF Black Employee Steering Committee (BESC) in summer 2020. The committee urged USF to think and act in new ways to combat systemic racism across its campuses and communities.
USF’s growing culture of collaboration also inspired the creation of a series of free online events focused on promoting inclusive excellence on all three USF campuses. The ongoing Enlightenment Series, led by College of Education Associate Professor Ruthmae Sears and Geveryl Robinson, an English instructor at USF’s St. Petersburg campus, is hosted by the BESC and BFSA and has attracted over 800 participants to advance awareness about bias and cultural competency.
“By recognizing that we are stronger together, we are forging new ties and creating new opportunities for solidarity with each other and across groups,” said Hordge-Freeman, who has facilitated the university-wide synergies as well as overseeing USF’s anti-racism website.
Importantly, support of such collective and sustained efforts across USF’s campuses continues to empower new collaborations and leadership opportunities in the areas of diversity, inclusion and equity.
Recognizing USF Black faculty and staff leadership
As USF works to become more inclusive overall, diversity among leadership roles at the university is increasing.
- In fall 2021, USF named a new assistant dean and director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA), Neudy Nuñez. This new position – with the addition of new roles in the Dean of Students office, such as coordinator for Black Student Success – has a university-wide focus on programming for students and training for the USF community around diversity, inclusion and belonging.
- College of Engineering Professor Sylvia Wilson Thomas, a pioneering researcher whose national leadership and advocacy is opening the field of engineering to historically underrepresented students, was named interim vice president for Research & Innovation. In 2020, Wilson Thomas vice chaired USF’s Strategic Planning Advisory Task Force, helping to craft the university’s next strategic plan
- Anthony Rolle, an experienced leader and former professor and department chair at USF, returned
as the new dean of the College of Education.
- Dana Thompson-Dorsey, associate professor in the Department of Leadership, Policy, and Lifelong Learning, was named director of the David C. Anchin Center for the Advancement of Teaching. The center was established in 1997 to serves as a hub for Florida’s educators, scholars, leaders and policy makers who have a passion for advancing the teaching profession.
- In the College of Education, Ruthmae Sears was selected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), becoming the university’s first Black faculty member to receive one of the world’s most prestigious honors for academic research.
- USF’s Call Me MISTER program, led by Director Brenda Walker, welcomed its first cohort of students to the College of Education. The program is a partnership with Pinellas County and aims to increase the number of male teachers of color in elementary schools with large populations of poor or at-risk students.
Enrollment gains reflect continued momentum toward diversity and inclusion
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, USF attracted the largest, most diverse and high-achieving class of first-year students in university history for the class of 2025.
USF took several strategic steps to increase the number of students of color, including organizing a successful calling campaign. As a result, the university-wide incoming class for fall 2021 was the most diverse to date, with an increase of 16% in Black students, 3% in Hispanic students, 14% in Asian students and 17% more students who self-identify as two races or more, compared to last year. The USF St. Petersburg campus saw significant growth in diversity from the previous year, including an increase of 30 black students, 81 Hispanic students, 33 Asian students and 28 students who self-identify as two races or more.
USF Health’s Morsani College of Medicine also welcomed its most competitive and diverse group of students in the college’s history with a median MCAT score of 517, placing the 2021 class in the 94th percentile. Groups traditionally underrepresented in medicine make up 20% of this year’s incoming class, including 12% Black students, including 11 males.
Course offerings at USF extend historic commitment to Black studies
USF was the first university in Florida to offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in Africana Studies. The Department of Africana Studies, initially named Afro-American Studies, was founded in 1969 in response to a nationwide movement of Black students who wanted a larger presence of Black faculty and perspectives in their classrooms. Now housed within the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, the multidimensional program is led by faculty experts who centralize their study on the Black experience and global African diaspora. The program has helped produce some of the most well-rounded professionals in disciplines around the world, such as law, public policy and community development.
Today, USF’s commitment to diversity and inclusion includes course offerings that focus on anti-racism. All USF students are required to take three hours in Ethical Reasoning and Civic Engagement as part of the USF Enhanced General Education Program and three hours in Human and Cultural Diversity. The College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) now offers numerous courses to address substantive issues related to race, systemic racism and anti-racism as part of the CAS for Change initiative.
To support diversity, inclusion and student success at the graduate level – and to reflect the increasing emphasis on STEM education in Florida – USF’s College of Engineering hosts the Florida Alliance for Graduate Education in the Professoriate (FL-AGEP), a collaborative research model among USF, Florida International University, an urban Hispanic-serving research university, and Bethune Cookman University, Florida A&M University and Florida Memorial University, three Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The goal of FL-AGEP is to develop, implement, study, evaluate, disseminate, and sustain a Florida AGEP Alliance centered on increasing the number and successful outcomes of minority women doctoral students, post-doctoral scholars, and early-career faculty in Florida.
Investing in inclusive and welcoming physical spaces
USF has also enhanced its commitment to inclusive excellence for students by creating new spaces dedicated to celebrating diversity. On the Tampa campus, a space on the third floor of the Marshall Student Center has been transformed into a student lounge based on a request and input from members of the Black Student Union. The university’s Institute on Black Life and the Office of Multicultural Affairs, a department of Student Success, collaborated with numerous partners to realize the students’ request to demonstrate the value of an affinity space to support the Black community at USF, especially for healing following the racial incidents of recent years.
USF continues to enhance the student experience through new themed housing options. On the St. Petersburg campus, Residential Community Programs offer students housing options to match their interests, cultures or affinities. The newest themed option, which opened in fall 2021, is King Suites, created for students of color who asked for a place to gather with peers from similar backgrounds and shared experiences.
Also at USF St. Petersburg, an art banner designed to honor 400 years of African American history is now mounted on Davis Hall, which is named after Lowell E. Davis, the first African American to serve as dean of the USF St. Petersburg campus from 1986 to 1989. Called “I am 400,” the banner was created by father and son artists Jerome and Jeromyah Jones from Richmond, Va. It is a collection of 69 painted portraits of notable pioneers from the African American community, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Arthur Ashe, Stevie Wonder and trailblazing NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson.
USF’s Black scholars drive innovative and collaborative research
USF’s stature as a top research university reflects stellar research by African American faculty and staff. The projects often leverage community connections and collaborations both near and far.
To highlight the collaborative work of USF’s faculty, students and community partners, the Institute on Black Life hosts an annual conference. The 2022 conference will focus on the African American Neighborhoods Project of Tampa Bay, which explores diverse perspectives on Tampa Bay’s African American neighborhoods.
At USF Sarasota-Manatee, Denise Davis-Cotton, director of USF’s Center for Partnerships in Arts Integrated Teaching, landed an historic five-year, $8.5 million arts learning grant, the largest award ever for the Sarasota-Manatee campus. The grant, from the U.S. Department of Education, funds a project to strengthen arts educational programming in the nation’s educational system. The project builds on Davis-Cotton’s desire to promote programs and secure resources in the arts for socio-economically depressed communities.
In USF’s College of Education, Patriann Smith, assistant professor of literacy studies, was awarded a three-year, $3.6 million grant from the United States Agency for International Development. The grant is in partnership with the University of the West Indies Cave Hill in Barbados to establish an interdisciplinary research center to support educational policy and innovation in Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean.
The grant will also establish a repository for research produced in and about the Caribbean. Smith, a native of St. Lucia, will partner with scholars at the University of the West Indies to study the significant educational issues on the islands, such as challenges with literacy and numeracy teaching methods, and make those insights accessible to researchers across the world. Smith says the work will allow USF to extend anti-racism efforts internationally by supporting humanizing efforts for Black communities in the Caribbean.
USF initiatives reflect commitment to community and business partnerships
With the establishment of the Office of Supplier Diversity in 2017, USF created an essential resource to grow USF’s relationships with diverse, minority- and Black-owned businesses in the Tampa Bay region. The office, under the leadership of Assistant Vice President Terrie Daniel, has earned national recognition as a recipient of the Jesse L. Moore Supplier 2021 Diversity Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine, the oldest and only print diversity and inclusion publication in higher education.
Strong partnerships often enhance USF’s efforts to support diversity, equity and inclusion. In 2021, USF and industry partner Skanska launched a free mentorship program for small and diverse business owners. An inaugural cohort completed the mentor-protégé program in November 2021 after an eight-week training designed to help the participants become more successful in the construction industry and with the competitive bidding process.
In St. Petersburg, the city commissioned a plan created by an interdisciplinary team of researchers coordinated by USF on how to identify and address structural racism in the community. Ruthmae Sears, associate professor in mathematics education and director of the Coalition of Science Literacy, and her fellow researchers presented the report, “The Examination of Historical and Modern-Day Impact of Structural Racism on the Lives of Black People in the City of St. Petersburg, Florida” to the city council. The report was undertaken and authored over a six-month period to research, examine and document the history of structural racism in the city and offered five actions to advance.
Demonstrating leadership in community response to COVID-19
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, health inequities have become even more apparent in communities of color, which have higher positivity rates with fewer individuals getting vaccinated.
Kevin Sneed, the inaugural dean of USF’s Health Taneja College of Pharmacy – which celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2021 – has been a leader in his tireless work in the African American community to promote the benefits of getting vaccinated and to advocate for better access to the vaccine.
For his impact, Sneed has earned appreciation across the state, receiving the Francisco Rodriguez Award from the George Edgecomb Bar Association, and recognition in Congress by Florida Rep. Kathy Castor. In a statement to the U.S. House of Representatives, Castor expressed thanks on behalf of the nation and the Tampa Bay community. “I am proud to recognize the service and leadership of Dr. Kevin Sneed, and his audacious, inspiring vision to transform health care in a way that empowers the clinician, but more importantly, the patient,” said Castor.
With expertise in mental health care, Kyaien Conner, associate professor of mental health law and policy, guided legislation to address inequities in care across the state. Signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, sponsored by Rep. Kamia Brown and Rep. Dotie Joseph and championed in the Senate by Sen. Darryl Rouson, it is designed to improve access to health care through the creation of new initiatives and fiscal resources to support the Office of Minority Health and Health Equity.
Also in 2021, Conner received a three-year, $2.5 million grant from the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute to examine the impact of Care Transitions Intervention, a nationally recognized program that helps patients learn self-management skills to ensure their needs are met during the transition from the hospital to their home. The study is designed to improve health outcomes and reduce hospital readmission for people of color managing chronic illnesses.