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    Fighting attitudes on race inside UF

    Black professor Kenneth Nunn realizes he's in an unusual position to be criticizing his law school.

    By BARRY KLEIN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2000


    GAINESVILLE -- The speakers included state lawmakers Tony Hill and Kendrick Meek, heroes to many in the black community for their defiant protest last spring of Gov. Jeb Bush's plan to eliminate racial preferences.

    photo
    Nunn
    But it was Kenneth Nunn who got the night's only standing ovation.

    "You tell it, professor," shouted one member of the crowd that packed a church auditorium here Wednesday to hear Nunn explain why he thinks the University of Florida law school is a racist institution.

    Until last month, Nunn, 42, was the school's highest-ranking black administrator. Then he resigned from that post, saying he no longer would serve as "window dressing" for a school he says is hostile to black professors.

    Some faculty members, he told the crowd, do all they can to sabotage the hiring of black faculty. Too many others, he said, are so cowed by the school's oppressive environment that they are afraid to object.

    "No one is burning crosses, but it is made very clear to African-American professors that they are not welcome," Nunn said in an interview Thursday. "This is a good old boy school, and that's how a lot of people want to keep it."

    That kind of blunt talk has made Nunn an unusual figure at UF -- an insider willing to criticize a campus culture many here consider insensitive to race.

    Now the law school is struggling to deal with its latest embarrassment; a scandal involving racial slurs and homophobic insults by members of the school's moot court team.

    "Is it really surprising that some students here would think such behavior is acceptable?" asked Nunn, who sees his job as keeping open what he calls "a small window for change."

    "This is no time to back down," he said.

    Nunn's efforts have seriously aggravated a number of his law school colleagues.

    At a faculty meeting Thursday, several professors acknowledged their school is often an unfriendly place. But that's a lot different from racist, they said.

    "What we have going on here is a new form of McCarthyism -- racial McCarthyism," said Joe Little, a white law professor who says he respects Nunn but wants hard evidence that black faculty members have been victims of racist behavior.

    Interim law school dean Jon Mills said he doesn't require that standard of proof. He thinks the numbers are enough.

    Since 1980, 15 percent of the tenure or tenure-track professors hired at the law school have been African-American. But only one remains: Ken Nunn, who is still a professor, though he resigned his administrative post.

    "We can get them here, but we can't keep them," said Mills, who soon will hire a consultant to investigate the school's racial climate.

    The racial record at the law school has some bright spots.

    African-Americans make up 11 percent of the school's 1,200 students, up from 6 percent 10 years ago. Hispanics make up 12 percent. That compares with 5 percent a decade ago.

    But attitudes are another story, as evidenced by the moot court fiasco. Administrators announced this week that they are revoking funding for the team, which competes against other law schools in mock trials. That followed the discovery of 13 pages of highly derogatory notes written by some team members during a recent 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.

    Mills said the students who wrote the notes would be subject to university discipline and reported to the Florida Bar, which could end their chances of becoming lawyers.

    "A message is being sent," he said.

    Nunn said a lot of other messages already have been sent, many of them from intolerant professors.

    For most of the year, Nunn was the school's associate dean. He said he tried to work from within to increase diversity, but found himself blocked by a faction of the faculty he estimates at 20 percent.

    He said that faction would disparage a minority candidate's qualifications, or call friends and colleagues in a search for information that could be used against the candidate. Job offers were extended so late to some minority candidates that it was impossible for them to accept.

    "They maneuvered all kinds of ways," Nunn said. "These are smart lawyers, and they know how to use procedure."

    Finally, Nunn just gave up.

    Quitting isn't something he's proud of; Nunn said he went into law because he saw it as a vehicle for social justice.

    While an undergraduate at Stanford University, he helped organize an anti-apartheid protest that led to a takeover of the school's administration building.

    After getting a law degree from the University of California-Berkeley, he worked as a public defender in San Francisco, then as a staff attorney for the Southern Africa Project, which fought for sanctions against the white government in Johannesburg.

    Nunn gives affirmative action considerable credit for his success.

    "Without it, I would have never gotten to Stanford," he said.

    Now, 10 years after coming to UF, Nunn has no idea where he is going.

    He suspects the controversy sparked by his resignation will cost him any chance at a judgeship, a deanship or a political appointment.

    "If you're black and you step outside certain bounds, you get tainted," Nunn said.

    Meanwhile, he is actively job-hunting, which means the law school could soon lose its only tenured black professor.

    "I really believe something good can come out of this," Nunn said. "It needs to."

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