TAMPA, Fla. — As a Black student at the University of South Florida, there are times when Gareth Dawkins feels somewhat alone.
Dawkins, a fourth-year Studio Art major, said their experience in the classroom has been alright. However, other instances have felt isolating.
“A question that I ask myself is like, ‘Why aren’t there more Black people on campus,’” Dawkins said.
According to USF’s 2021-2022 factbook, 9.5% of the student body is African American, a percentage that does not mirror the communities around it. According to the U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts data, Tampa is 23.6% African American; St. Petersburg is 22.2% African American.
To Dawkins, the percentages represent a disparity worth protesting, and the group Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) has done just that.
In the past, the group has staged several protests at USF concerning the underrepresentation of Black students on campus. Dawkins, a member of the group, said more protests will likely happen in the near future. Additionally, the group will host a news conference at 4 p.m. on Friday at Crescent Hill to denounce the disparity and demand more corrective actions from USF administrators.
“Within our contemporary society, education’s like a really important part of financial stability and well-being,” Dawkins said.
Dawkins said their protest will also demand more Black counselors and professors.
“People will say, ‘Oh, we need more Black professors for things such as…Africana studies or Black studies.’ We need more Black professors in general in all of the fields that USF has, you know,” they said. “It’s important to have Black professors in art. It’s important to have Black professors in STEM. It’s important to have Black professors in, you know, history.”
USF has acknowledged the need for more diversity.
“Over the last five years we have seen a decline in Black student enrollment, particularly among freshmen,” a university spokesperson wrote in a statement.
However, the university said it doesn’t view the trend as “inevitable or irreversible.”
According to the university, it has taken steps in recent years to reverse the trend. During the 2020-2021 school year, it was awarded a grant from the Helios Education Foundation “to work with our colleagues in the Black Leadership Network to devise new strategies to help grow Black student enrollment.”
USF said, in the fall of 2021, it welcomed its most diverse freshman class in school history, “including an increase of 16% in Black students, compared to the previous year.”
The university spokesperson said USF is committed to taking future steps that will increase Black enrollment and close the gap in graduation rate gap by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
Dawkins, though, isn’t yet convinced that the university is doing enough to increase its diversity and ensure its Black students and staff are in “sustainable” positions where they feel welcomed on campus and have the resources they need to succeed.
As a result, they say the protests will continue until the campus looks more like the communities it serves.
“We have made it very clear that we’re not going to stop, and we’re going to keep on going,” Dawkins said. “We definitely have…a lot of things in the works.”
Online demographic data for several other Florida universities show USF is not alone in its underrepresentation of Black students.
According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, “while Black students have made enrollment gains over the past two decades, there has been less progress in closing the degree attainment gap.”