Prompted by costume incident, Machen plans diversity training for UF students


Published: Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 3:33 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 3:33 p.m.

Following criticism of the University of Florida's response to an incident in which fraternity members wore racially charged costumes, UF President Bernie Machen announced Thursday that new diversity training and programs were being developed.

In an email to students, faculty and staff, Machen said the university is looking to provide cultural training for employees and expand diversity training for students.

UF is also creating an African American studies major and plans to include books on issues of race and culture in its Common Reading Program, he said in the message.

Machen, attending a Florida Board of Governors meeting Thursday, said the costume incident allowed him to address issues that had been raised to him for months.

"There's more issues there that we were trying to get out on the table, and it gave me a platform" to do so, he said.

The incident involved two white fraternity members wearing costumes that evoked the blackface makeup once used in minstrel shows. The students, members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity attending a "rock stars and rappers" party, wore dark paint on their faces and bodies along with baseball caps, gold chains and sagging pants.

After a photo of their costumes was circulated on social media, the students received widespread criticism, and those students involved issued apologies.

At a town hall meeting on the incident last week that drew more than 450, several speakers said the incident revealed bigger problems with race at UF and criticized Machen's response to it as insufficient.

One of those speakers, anthropology graduate student Justin Dunnavant, said another incident involving a student wearing a blackface costume that followed the initial controversy showed that problems remain. Machen's statement is a start to addressing some of those issues, he said.

"It was definitely a step in the right direction," said Dunnavant, second vice president of the Black Graduate Student Organization.

The group had called for changes in response to the incident. Machen pledged to make some changes in his message, such as cultural competency training for students.

The group also called for an official statement from UF on the incident and changes to the student code of conduct to include representations of minorities as hate speech.

Dunnavant said UF officials had suggested that other schools faced free-speech challenges for changing their conduct code in that way, but he thought something could still be done.

"There are alternative ways it could be addressed," he said.

In Machen's message, he said demeaning any race is intolerable and that he shared the "anger and hurt" voiced by those at the town hall.

The incident showed that UF needed to take additional steps to improve appreciation of cultural and racial differences, he said.

"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," he said.

The steps outlined in the message included expanding the Common Reading Program, a book assigned to all freshmen before they enter UF.

Previous books have focused on international issues, but Machen said the topics would now cover broader diversity, including issues of race and culture.

An issue raised at the town hall was that UF has an African American studies minor, but no major. A proposal for a major is scheduled to be reviewed by a Faculty Senate committee in the coming weeks and could be approved as early as next year, Machen said.

Dunnavant said that creating the major would mean more opportunities for students to take classes in the subject.

While he said that and other steps were positive, he didn't expect they would prevent incidents like the racially charged costumes from happening.

"I don't expect it to be stamped out completely," he said.

Contact staff reporter Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com. Visit www.thecampussun.com for more stories on the University of Florida.

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