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President Bernie Machen sends email about race relations at UF

University of Florida President Bernie Machen sent the following email to students, faculty and staff on Thursday morning, more than a week after fraternity students dressed in "black face" for Halloween and posted the photo to Instagram, causing a controversy on campus.

Nov. 8, 2012
To: Students, faculty and staff
From: UF President Bernie Machen
Re: Race relations at UF

During my first year here at the University of Florida nearly a decade ago, I asked the greater campus community to read Beverly Daniel Tatum’s “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”

Dr. Tatum is the president of Spelman College and her book offers great wisdom and insight about race, racial identities and racism. It urges all of us to get past our reluctance to talk about racial issues as a means to bring us together. The book provides powerful lessons that I believe are worth considering today as we wrestle with our own issues of race.

You may have heard that two white UF students covered their faces and bodies with black makeup and dressed as black rappers for an off-campus fraternity party with the theme of “rappers and rockers” recently.

A photo of the students was forwarded to me shortly after it was posted on a number of social media platforms. Understandably, the incident angered many in the campus community, and more than 450 students, faculty and staff  attended a town hall forum last week to talk about it and other race-related issues.

I personally share the anger and hurt voiced by many of those in attendance and believe that demeaning any race is intolerable.  This conduct is completely counter to UF’s institutional values and commitment to create a welcoming and inclusive environment.

The students and the fraternity have since apologized and they have said they were unaware of the negative connotations evoked by “black face,” a form of theatrics used by white actors in vaudeville shows and in other settings to represent African Americans in a highly demeaning manner.  Some students have suggested that we ban such behavior at UF.  Hateful speech, while it can be very hurtful and offensive, is constitutionally protected speech and cannot be prohibited.

The apology is a welcome, necessary and important step, but the incident clearly shows we need to take additional steps on our campus to improve understanding, awareness and appreciation for the cultural and racial differences that are so integral to the excellence of our university community. Progress will require a long-term commitment on a number of fronts that augment the programs we already have in place.

One initiative already under way is the creation of a major in African American studies.   This proposal is scheduled to be reviewed by the Faculty Senate’s Curriculum Committee in the coming weeks and the new major could be approved as early as next year.

I also am committed to creating some new programs to encourage dialogue and understanding of the broad diversity, including racial diversity that makes UF strong. We will ask the Faculty Senate to join with us in this effort.

At the same time, I believe it is important that our faculty and staff have the opportunity to talk about their own experiences, biases and feelings as well. For that reason, we are looking at the development of a cultural training module that would be available through Human Resource Services.

For the student body, Student Affairs plans to expand its diversity training so it will be available to more people including organizational leaders, Student Government representatives and the broader student population. Through a partnership with a variety of student interests, we will identify additional engagement activities.

We also plan to broaden the scope of the Common Reading Program, which now focuses on internationalization, to cover broader diversity including issues of race and culture. The book program is designed to provide first-year students with a common intellectual experience to stimulate discussion, critical thinking, and encourage a sense of community among students, faculty and staff.

Tolerance and acceptance of differences are fundamental to an institution of higher learning and as we become more diverse we must redouble our efforts to understand each other.  To be a great university, we must value and foster diversity!

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