Celebrating diversity at USFSP

Holly Kickliter, Regional Vice Chancellor and Ann Taylor


ST. PETERSBURG – A crowd of people gathered at a beautiful home overlooking Tampa Bay. They weren’t there to sit on the dock and watch the sunset or have a dip in the pool, they were there to celebrate the diversity efforts of the University of South Florida—St. Petersburg (USFSP).

The breathtaking house belonged to Ann Taylor who sits on the board of Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students, Inc. (COQEBS) and is a volunteer with USFSP’s diversity initiatives. The evening’s event was her way of saying thank you.

“I decided to show appreciation to the chancellor and the university for making the effort to do the right thing,” said Taylor.

A few years back at an annual meeting, officials at the university were giving out figures and statistics about faculty members and their positions when Taylor asked how many of those staff members were persons of color.

“The answer was zero,” Taylor recounted.  “So I challenged the chancellor to do better and to see if we could come up and make a conscientious effort and go out and solicit qualified competent people of color to fulfill these positions.”

USFSP Chancellor Sophia T. Wisniewska accepted her challenge and ran with it.

“We work hard to be an interesting, diverse, welcoming campus,” stated Wisniewska.

Diversity, featuredShe said in terms of students the university has reached its goal quantitatively, and this past year was exceptional in terms of faculty. Seven of the eight tenure-line faculty members were of diverse backgrounds.

 “We are really working hard to make sure we are reflective of modern day society…we know that the strength in creativity, the strength in quality, the strength in mutual support comes when you have people from different backgrounds,” Wisniewska averred.

One of the ways USFSP works to advance diversity is through their Family Study Center under the charge of Dr. James P. McHale. The center works closely with COQEBS on their School Readiness committee, focusing on pre-kindergarten aged children.

“We realize the achievement gap issue is not just a K-12 problem, it’s a pre-K problem,” said COQEBS President Dr. Rick Davis.

Studies have shown that 85 percent of the brain is developed by age three and during that short period of time, most of the cognitive development occurs.

The Family Study Center and COQEBS are working together to train and educate parents as well as early learning providers in the community so that they can bring their levels up and provide a higher quality learning experience.

“You have to get them early,” said Dr. Davis. “We need their support. We can’t do it by ourselves. You need a leader and the chancellor is committed to it.”

Catherine Cardwell, dean of the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library at USFSP, took a few moments to talk about the university’s efforts in helping to preserved Pinellas County’s oldest African-American news outlet, The Weekly Challenger.

USFSP received state funding sponsored by Senator Darryl Rouson to digitize and archive past and present issues of the weekly publication.

“It’s going to be a repository that is available around the world,” said Cardwell.  The history of St. Petersburg and the African-American community will be out there for the world to see. I think it’s a wonderful accomplishment and great record of cultural heritage.”

Wisniewska and her team have worked tirelessly to create an inclusive campus. Several new hires have been black including the Cecil Howard, the new Chief Diversity Officer, and two of the three candidates for the dean of the College of Education are also African American.

“We can work together and accomplish all types of goals and hills that in past times have seemed unclimbable. I believe in God and have the faith to know that if you keep praying and keep working towards anything favorably, favorable outcomes can and do happen and this is an exact example of what can happen when like minds work together,” finished Taylor.

New issues of The Weekly Challenger are being archived every day at digital.usfsp.edu/challenger/

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