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The University of Florida's great divide

Despite decades of integration, many black students still struggle at one of the least diverse schools in the state's university system.

By BARRY KLEIN and BETH KASSAB

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2000


GAINESVILLE -- Family and friends in Miami warned Beverly Paul that she wouldn't be comfortable at the University of Florida, an institution many African-Americans consider elitist and arrogant.

But the school, the state's largest and most prestigious, offered her the best financial aid package. So she came anyway.

Now Paul is a 21-year-old senior finishing up a degree in chemistry; a success by any measure. She also is convinced her family and friends were right.

She is tired of being one of the few black students in every class. She is tired of the little comments from white classmates, the constant intimations that she and her black friends are somehow less qualified to be here since, after all, they are not like them.

"The things I hear students say, it makes you wonder," says Paul, who says many students are either ignorant or deliberately rude. "You never know what people here are thinking."

Such feelings of isolation are not unusual at UF, where even after four decades of court-ordered integration, many black students are struggling on a campus that remains strikingly segregated.

About one in 20 students at UF is black, which makes the school one of the least diverse in Florida's university system. There are so few black professors -- barely 3 percent of the total faculty is African-American -- that students can go years without seeing one in class.

Some black students complain that white professors treat them as academic inferiors.

"There is a lot of covert racism on this campus," says Jennifer Mann, 20, a black broadcast major who says some professors ignore her in class.

"A lot of people here aren't even aware of their own prejudices," says Duan Johnson, 21, a black computer sciences major from St. Petersburg.

Anyone doubting the impact of such perceptions need only look toward Turlington Plaza, a campus hub where large numbers of students gather throughout the day -- blacks in one area, whites in another.

The racial split also shows up in student graduation rates.

Though most of UF's 2,200 black undergraduates meet every admission requirement, university statistics indicate they are much less likely to earn a degree than their white or Hispanic counterparts.

In recent years, barely half of UF's black students earned diplomas within six years, a standard measure used in higher education. That compares with a 69 percent graduation rate for white students and 63 percent for Hispanics.

None of this is a surprise to UF administrators, who recently interviewed 50 black students in an attempt to gauge the "campus environment." The administrators concluded that most of them shared a "general sense of not being welcome" at UF, which has more than 42,000 students. That feeling was echoed, in varying degrees, by more than a dozen black students interviewed recently by the St. Petersburg Times.

The university is trying to make changes. It recently established partnerships with predominantly minority high schools in Miami and Jacksonville. It has added money for minority scholarships and is revamping its admissions procedures.

"But we clearly have to do more to make black students feel comfortable," says Harry Shaw, an associate dean in the college of liberal arts and sciences and one of UF's highest ranking black administrators.

Shaw has been at the university 27 years. He thinks today's black students tend to overstate the level of racial tension that actually exists.

"But in this kind of situation, perception is reality," he says. "That means we have to change the perception. That isn't easy."

Reaping the whirlwind

UF is not the only university where self-segregation is a fact of life. It is a phenomenon at campuses across the nation, as resistant to change as the attitudes that drive it.

But no university in Florida has a more tortured history with African-Americans than UF, which didn't have a black graduate until the mid 1960s.

And none has been more pessimistic about what will happen now that Gov. Jeb Bush has forbidden Florida schools from considering race in admissions decisions.

UF officials think the impact, at least initially, could be a significant decline in black enrollment. That's what happened at elite universities in Texas and California after racial preferences were banned there in recent years.

"We're going to try and make this work. It's in the best interests of the university to make it work," says student affairs vice president Jim Scott, UF's top black administrator. "But nobody as yet has been able to figure out exactly how to make it work."

None of this matters at all to Chris Smith, who is among the 74 percent of UF's student body that is white. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, he and about a half-dozen white friends were hanging out between classes at Turlington Plaza.

Not far away was a smaller gathering of black students. There was little chance the two groups would mix.

It's not that anyone dislikes each other, says Smith, a sophomore from Jacksonville. It's just the way things are.

"People are more comfortable with people they know, people who are like them," he says. "I think that's true for everyone."

It's certainly true at UF, where self-segregation seems imbedded in the university's culture.

UF has one fraternity system that is overwhelmingly white and another that is almost completely black. It has an Institute for Black Culture and another for Hispanic and Latino Cultures.

There is an Asian Student Union, a Hindu Student Council, a Hispanic Student Association and an association for lesbian, gay and bi-sexual students. There is one club for Jews and another for Christians. There is even a Humanistic Atheist Students Association.

Critics, particularly cultural conservatives who deplore the trend toward political correctness, say this is madness. Self-segregation is the entirely predictable result, they say, of any system that invites students to sort themselves, especially by race.

UF officials insist that is not their intent.

The goal, Scott says, is to provide minority students with a familiar environment.

"These organizations should serve as a bridge to the larger university," he says.

But do they?

As a success story, university officials like to cite the inroads minority students have made into student government, a system long dominated by white fraternity members.

UF's last three student body vice presidents, for example, have been African-American; two of them popular football players.

But those inroads came only after minority students started voting as ethnic blocs.

Even administrators say that's not exactly their definition of inclusion.

"This campus is a mini-replica of the world," says Harrison Pinckney, a black student from Miami. At UF, the 20-year-old says, ethnic politics make perfect sense.

If there is any campus institution that should be immune to the tug of voluntary segregation it is UF's two dozen residence halls.

Most students moving in are randomly assigned roommates. In many ways, it is UF's equivalent to the forced integration found in the military.

But students of different races still find a way to wall themselves off.

After one year, any student can request a transfer to a specific dorm. For black students, the most popular choice appears to be the Murphree area, where last year they made up almost one-third of the residents.

That's five times greater than their proportion in the total student population.

Built in 1938, Murphree is one of the university's oldest residence halls. It also is one of the cheapest, and one of the few that doesn't have air-conditioning.

At least some of the black residents refer to it as "the ghetto."

Johnson, the computer sciences major from St. Petersburg, is one of the black students who has lived in Murphree. He says he was happier there.

"I was by my boys," he says. "The color of my boys was over there."

Cultural divide

One of the worst things about being a minority at UF, 19-year-old Rosalynn Hamilton says, is the way white students and professors expect you to serve as a spokesman for all things black.

Take the discussion about Malcolm X in a recent history class where Hamilton was the only African-American.

"It seemed as though they looked to me to explain things. Like I'm supposed to be the cover person for all black people," the sociology major from Gainesville says.

White people, Hamilton says, just don't have a clue.

"Most of the students at the university are rich, white kids who are preppy and don't have a care in the world," she says.

That black students also indulge in stereotypes is not surprising given the lack of racial interaction on campus. But none of the white students who were interviewed could recall a single racial slight being directed at them.

That is not the case for black students.

"I was in a class last semester with a student who thought that if it wasn't for affirmative action he would have gotten more scholarship money," says Ava-Gaye Hue, a black student who graduated a few months ago with a journalism degree.

John McKnight, an 18-year old sophomore, says he has heard a lot of racial slurs.

"Some people aren't even aware they're doing it," he says.

McKnight's mother is a UF graduate. He says she never felt welcome at the university. He says he thought hard before enrolling.

"Friends of mine going to historically black colleges looked down on the decision," McKnight says. "They had a problem with my attending a predominantly white college."

Administrators are aware of the low regard in which UF is held by many black Floridians.

Some of it, they say, is historical.

UF didn't allow a black undergraduate to enroll until 1962. Nine years later, then-President Stephen O'Connell ordered 71 black students arrested during a sit-in at the administration building.

The protesters wanted increased minority enrollment, more black faculty and greater support services.

Within a week of the arrests, almost half of the school's remaining black students had withdrawn.

Steven Uhlfelder, a member of the state Board of Regents, was student body president at the time. He remembers black students lining up in front of the registrar to drop out of school. He also remembers the UF football coach going down the line trying to pull the black players out.

Uhlfelder isn't surprised that UF is still struggling to gain credibility among African-Americans.

"If administrators cared as much about recruiting black students as they do athletes, the university would be in great shape," he says.

Hotbeds of conservatism

During the 10 years John Lombardi was president of UF, he repeatedly emphasized the need for the school to reflect Florida as a whole, especially in its racial demographics.

It never happened.

African-Americans make up about 15 percent of the state's population. In 1990, when Lombardi took over, UF's black enrollment was 6.2 percent.

It was 6.6 percent last fall.

That compares with 12.4 percent at Florida State University and 10.1 percent at the University of South Florida, the state's two other research universities.

The only Florida university with a lower percentage of black students than UF is Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. It opened three years ago and is about one-tenth the size of UF.

Lombardi did not return requests for comment on UF's record. Neither did David Colburn, who is serving as interim provost as the search for Lombardi's replacement continues.

Colburn is one of many administrators at UF who have been working hard to figure out the ramifications of "One Florida," Bush's order banning the use of race as a factor in deciding which students should get in.

Administrators worry that even with greater recruitment, UF's minority numbers will decline unless the university is willing to lower its admission standards, which are the highest in the state.

That's not likely to happen, says Scott, the student affairs vice president.

He says the university is in a "tough spot."

"If we make this work, then it's like, well, the University of Florida could have done it anyway, so they were just blowing smoke about the impact," he says. "If we fail, then it's, well, the University of Florida didn't want it to work from the beginning, and they haven't worked real hard."

Some changes already have been made.

UF is adding $125,000 to its minority scholarship fund. It is requiring applicants to write personal essays, which administrators say should help them identify students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, a factor that correlates closely with race.

But nobody is talking about another crucial component of diversity: attracting minority faculty. That area may be UF's biggest failure.

Hue, the 21-year-old journalism school graduate, sat in the student union a few weeks ago counting on one hand the number of black professors she'd had during her four years at UF.

She stopped after two fingers.

Harrison Pinckney only needed one.

"We do the best we can," says the health science education major from Miami. But it would be nice, he says, to see a familiar face in front of a few of his classes.

Many universities have trouble attracting and retaining minority faculty. Hispanic and African-American professors are in short supply nationally and often are heavily recruited.

But Gerardo Gonzalez, interim education dean at UF and the university's highest-ranking Hispanic, says competition isn't UF's biggest problem.

The real obstacle, he says, is cultural.

Though often viewed as hotbeds of liberalism, universities actually are quite conservative when it comes to internal change, Gonzalez says.

"What you have is a culture that wants to perpetuate itself," he says. And since most of the people at UF are white, their values often clash with those held by the minority scholars they are trying to recruit.

Gonzalez has been at UF for 28 years -- first as a student, then as a professor and administrator.

A few weeks ago, he accepted an offer from Indiana University to become its dean of education. He declined a similar offer from UF.

Why would a Cuban-American who grew up in Florida, who spent more than half his life at the state's premier university, choose to start over in the Midwest?

"At IU, they made me feel like they were interested in me. It was a class act," Gonzalez says. "If I had stayed here, I think I would have had to prove myself capable."

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