Racially Charged Photo Sparks Controversy at USF

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Quentin Coppola

Brian Healy

Staff Writers

On Oct. 5, members of the USF community received an email from Associate Vice Provost and Dean of Student Development Julie Orio. It began with unsettling news: “Last night, members of our community reported seeing a disturbing photograph that was apparently taken in one of our residence halls and shared electronically.”

Although the email included a condemnation from the University, acknowledging the photo’s rapid and negative impact on members of the community, the lack of information regarding the content of the photo left many wondering what it could be about.

“I had people email me and say ‘Was there a terrorist threat? Was there a sexual assault?’ I mean, it was a guessing game,” said Barbara Thomas, Director of USF’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

Only until Oct. 13 did community members finally receive the information not included in the initial email about the photograph from USF’s Bias Education Resource Team (BERT).

“A photograph was taken in a USF residence hall showing a female Asian Pacific Islander student holding a rope around the neck of a male student who is perceived as African-American and self-identifies as half black,” read the email, authored by Vice Provost Wardell-Ghirarduzzi. The photo was taken by a white male student who sent the photo to his roommate, an African-American male student. The student who received the photo then shared it in hopes of seeking support and starting a conversation about its impact,” continued the statement, which also acknowledged the mistake made by administration in sending out the premature email on Oct. 5.

“The email caused additional hurt and feelings of marginalization within the black and African-American community by not describing the photo or identifying this community as being directly impacted by the content of the photo,” said Wardell-Ghirarduzzi, who spoke on behalf of the administration in accepting “accountability for the hurtful impact the communication caused.”

In an interview with the Foghorn, Orio said that once the image was brought to the attention of university leadership, a decision was made to respond as soon as possible so that members of the community understood the severity of the situation.

“The primary goal of the first email was to communicate, no matter what the details, that the image was unacceptable and against what we stand for as a University,” said Orio. She added that in an attempt to meet that goal, details were left out that ultimately hurt the community and raised more questions, something that many believe could have been avoided.

“It would have been better if the University had released a comprehensive email from the beginning and articulated that it denounced the history of pain and racism the picture evoked,” said Associate Professor Dr. Ja’nina Garrett Walker, a member of the Psychology Department and the Black Community Council.

As for the negative feedback received from community members regarding her original email, Orio said “I feel awful that the initial email caused additional pain and further negative impact to our community and have been taking steps to engage with those affected,” with her taking part in meetings with student leaders, faculty, and black alumni, among others.

“This series of events has served as a profound teachable moment for me and others in the administration,” said Orio. “I understand we need to do better and be more transparent and proactive with communication. I can assure you, we are actively taking steps to improve and learn from our misstep.”  

Part of that immediate learning process included attending and listening to the feedback at one of the many community dialogues. Orio took part in the Cultural Diversity’s Studies community dialogue on Oct. 13, where USF constituents formed small groups in which solutions for improving diversity engagement on campus were proposed. She also took in the community town hall meeting hosted by both Donald Heller, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs and USF President the Rev. Paul Fitzgerald, S.J, mingling afterward to talk with students.

The disturbing photograph, and the administration’s email about it, sparked outrage among the USF community, prompting some students to create the #USFCADoBetter hashtag, designed to act as a social media watchdog for social injustices on campus.

“I don’t think we as a school — including faculty, students and administration — do the best job coming together during times of crises,” said Walker, who believes a lack of communication is partly responsible for the uproar. “Students cope in their way, faculty does their thing and the same with administration. We need to do a better job of checking in with each other and asking ‘How should we handle this?’”

Students, faculty and staff demanded answers from the administration, which, according to some, still lack the ability to deal with issues of race, even though students are drawn to USF for its diversity.

The university community attempted to answer that question on Wednesday, Oct. 19, as students, faculty and administration gathered in McLaren Conference Center for a conversation about the circulated picture. Hosted by Heller, Wardell-Ghirarduzzi and Fitzgerald, the meeting was meant, as described by a school-wide email sent by Fitzgerald, “…[to] discuss, explore and gain direction from the variety of emotions triggered by the recently circulated, racially-charged photograph.”

After opening remarks from Fitzgerald and Heller in which they expressed empathy with those affected by the photo, students and faculty took to microphones made available for questions to raise concerns surrounding the situation. At the beginning of the town hall-style questioning, Rosea Brown, an undergraduate sophomore philosophy major, was one of the first to ask the leadership a question.

“I noticed during your speech, you talked a lot about diversity, but frankly, many of my peers and I can agree that doesn’t seem to be the case,” said Brown.

Brown began listing the 2015 statistics of USF’s diversity numbers including 6 percent African-American, .09 percent Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 1.2 percent Native American. The highest population percentage was 30.3 percent Caucasian. Brown continued, “What is this school actually doing to promote more diversity? It’s sad that when I walk into a classroom that I’m the only African-American student there.”

Fitzgerald responded, “With class sizes on average having 24 students, it’s not hard to see the problem of being the only person of color or only LGBT identifying person, but USF’s goal of a more diverse campus is being reached. In African-American enrollment, for example, the overall number is up, but it’s not where we want it to be.”

Similar questions followed, as did similar answers. Questions arising from staff and students heavily emphasized USF’s promotion of diversity. One notable moment came when Cohorts Five and Six — two groups of graduate students from the School of Education focusing on equality through education — had Fitzgerald read out loud a list of demands. The list included strategies for the University to implement organizations to promote increased numbers of people of color on campus, more staffing and funds for diverse groups on campus, and safe spaces for those who need them.

Last year, the Black Student Union (BSU) gave USF similar demands, which included provisions for an all African-American floor, increased representation during recruitment and required microaggression training.

After Fitzgerald read the demands, USF Law Professor Dr. Clarence Jones, former friend and lawyer of Martin Luther King Jr., stood up and moved to the front. In an impassioned tone, Jones provided an antithetical viewpoint to many of the arguments during the forum. He said, “I thought we were here to address the problems behind the photo, and after I heard the comments, I have to respond. Reading those demands [made by the School of Education Cohorts Five and Six], increasing the diversity, what everybody is talking about… Is not going to make one material difference on the issue you are confronting.”

Jones was greeted with looks of confusion, nods of agreement and even jeers of dissent from the crowd.

He continued, unfazed by the crowd’s reaction. “If you’re telling me that USF does this or does that to increase diversity and truly make a difference, that’s what I call an alternative reality… The real issue is students coming into this institution not understanding the impact that slavery has had, and continues to have, on this country.”

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Shawn Callhoun/ Flickr

After the Community Conversation, Vice President of BSU, Dallas Hogue, said, “I think a little was accomplished in terms of a little more transparency of a few things being done [by USF]. But a lot of it was people talking at other people, and not a lot heard in between. Not much was accomplished tonight, honestly.”

He echoed some of the agitation others have had with the University’s handling of the photo. He elaborated,“In the scope of this whole situation, our community at USF should have worried more about the group that was harmed, rather than what to say in emails.”


Photo Credit: Foghorn

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