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Mediator finds distrust, anger in UF law staff

''Racial differences have apparently been taboo subjects,'' notes a 26-page report that follows the resignation of a black administrator.

By MATTHEW BOEDY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2001


"Racial differences have apparently been taboo subjects," notes a 26-page report that follows the resignation of a black administrator.

GAINESVILLE -- An independent mediator hired after the University of Florida law school's highest-ranking black administrator resigned has found that the faculty is filled with "distrust and resentment" and recommended a "sea change" in attitudes.

The report issued Wednesday characterizes members of the school's faculty as intolerant of one another, and says the professors often resort to name-calling when they discuss race and diversity.

"What became abundantly clear was that no effective efforts have occurred to discuss these issues and clear the air," New Jersey-based mediator John Sands wrote in his 26-page report. "Racial differences have apparently been taboo subjects. . . ."

The mediator's report details 13 recommendations to fix what Sands calls "a loss of a sense of community" at the school, including peer mediation, diversity training and the continuing development of a civility code.

He also offered many examples of mistreatment of minority faculty members.

One departed minority faculty member complained that she did not get her name on a mailbox for five months and waited two months to get permanent office space.

"These were indignities that new white professors did not suffer but from which support staff 'got the message' that she was a lesser person whom they did not have to take seriously," Sands wrote.

Interim law school dean Jon Mills asked Sands to assess the school after Kenneth Nunn resigned as associate dean in September. At the time, Nunn, the highest-ranking black administrator at the law school, said he would no longer serve as "window dressing" for a school that he found hostile to black professors.

"Basically the report vindicates some of the comments I made when I resigned," said Nunn, who stayed on as a law professor. Mills declined to comment until faculty members get a chance to read the report.

Nunn stepped down after a stormy faculty meeting in which professors decided to fill several upcoming openings with an eye toward diversity. In that meeting, and a frank e-mail discussion that followed, some professors complained that their colleagues had implied that the school's quality would suffer if it hired more minorities.

About the same time, the law school was hit by another embarrassment: the discovery of 13 pages of highly derogatory notes written by some members of the school's moot court team during a round of tryouts. The notes included slurs against Indians, African-Americans, gays and women. All were directed against students competing for spots on the team.

In his report, Sands said students of different races must try to interact as well.

Last year, the school reported that African-Americans make up 11 percent of the school's 1,200 students, up from 6 percent 10 years earlier. Hispanics make up 12 percent, compared with 5 percent a decade ago.

Many professors have complained that they have been intimidated by both extremes of the debate, Sands wrote.

The report noted that although three black faculty members have left the school in recent years, UF recently hired a black woman in its first crop of hires since the debate began.

Nunn called the recommendation of an ombudsman to hear complaints from students and faculty "a nice step" and said it would put the school at the forefront of dealing with the nationwide problem of diversity in law schools.

"Most schools tend to avoid these issues and not confront them head-on," he said.

Sands mentioned the school's courtyard -- frequently segregated by race -- and last week's Black Law Student Association annual alumni meeting, which he said could be better coordinated with the school's general alumni visits.

In the courtyard Wednesday, third-year law student Rich Richardson said the school's reputation had been damaged since Nunn's resignation, even though the professor remains as a mentor. "I'm white. He's black," Richardson said. "But that doesn't mean everything's all right here."

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