On May 5, nearly 10,000 students graduated from the University of Florida’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. It should have been a cause for celebration—a time to dance, smile and blow kisses to family in the crowd. Instead, Alexander David Jacobs, a chemistry professor who was serving as a graduation marshal, bum-rushed and forcibly dragged offstage 24 students, mostly black, who did exactly that. When the audience should have cheered, it booed. Students threw pamphlets and water bottles at the stage; parents were visibly upset. All the while, President Kent Fuchs, sitting front row with other dignitaries, smiled and laughed.
About four months after the incident, UF offered recompense, gifting the 24 students framed diplomas. Fuchs reportedly called each student and sent them a personalized letter. But when it came time to make institutional amends for the overt abuse, UF decided in September to end the tradition of announcing students’ names during graduation in lieu of a university-wide commencement. Less than a week later, a University of Southern California Race and Equity Center study gave UF an “F” for racial representation.
“No one asked you to change graduation,” Anthony Rojas, a 22-year-old political science master’s student, said at a rally outside Tigert Hall, according to the Alligator. “We asked you to change the way you perceive us, the way you treat us and the way you shoved us.”
Yet as UF erases students’ names from graduation proceedings — effectively punishing black students for their own assault — its name is rising in national rankings. UF is now the eighth best public university in the country, according to the U.S. News and World Report (USNWR), and Fuchs has made it clear he wants to break the top five. This was exciting news for many, and as president, Fuchs is credited with reviving UF’s legacy. But the pity of it all comes with realizing these rankings do not mean shit for us. UF and Fuchs are gaining prominence not because of students, faculty and staff, but at our expense.
USNWR, the gold standard of collegiate rankings, purports to take a complete look at any institution by evaluating graduation and retention rates, class sizes, cost of tuition and, of course, how reputable other schools consider the institution in question (among other factors). UF cracked top 10 best public universities in 2017, four years after Fuchs was inaugurated president. The score is the result of “UF Preeminence,” a yearslong initiative to develop the school’s status, aura and respectability. It brings legitimacy to a school damned with a self-inflicted Napoleon complex. For once, UF actually feels deserving of its tongue-in-cheek appellation as “the Harvard of the South.”
Ironically, a huge factor in determining USNWR rank is research put out by faculty and graduate students, and the money it brings in. Yet not all students and faculty are treated alike. Students in the engineering college receive nearly $4,000 more on average than CLAS students in direct expenditures from UF, according to the university’s 2016 annual budget book. UF is prioritizing new hires in STEM specifically because they will bring in more money.
English students often find critical classes unavailable for semesters in a row due to budget restrictions. In the worst cases, students have felt forced to change their major. Liberal arts students are punished for not contributing to the high-profile scientific ‘breakthroughs’ that further UF’s acclaim. Thus, academia becomes important insofar as it can boost UF’s profile.
FUCH SERVES AS UF’S DE FACTO MASCOT, INSIDIOUSLY PROVING THAT A GOOFY SMILE, A FRIENDLY FACADE, AND A GRANDPA AESTHETIC CAN LET AN INSTITUTION GET AWAY WITH ANYTHING.
The university is now beholden to an essentially meaningless number — the Board of Trustees will do anything to secure its status as life for everyone else becomes harder and harder. Yet the additional pressure is not even accounted for when you consider that the Counseling and Wellness Center remains notoriously underfunded, with only one clinician for every 1,500 students.
Let us not forget UF’s part-time workers who still have yet to see missed wages from Hurricane Irma, the noose found outside Grinter Hall and the Richard Spencer fiasco—these issues seem notably absent from the USWNR ranking. Jacobs, who was temporarily put on administrative leave after May graduation, is still teaching in the chemistry department. What about students of color who must take his class to graduate? They become collateral damage as all accolades and credentials go solely to Fuchs and his band of administrative flunkies — the board of trustees.
University presidents and the rest of the upper echelon are typically private, behind-the-green-door figures who show up just in time for a photo-op before retreating back into the shadows from whence they came. Anyone who has spent at least seven minutes on campus has no doubt seen Fuchs from a distance, always in Plaza of the Americas or the Reitz Union, eternally escorted by a golf cart. Lines of students, reminiscent of war ration queues, wait at a chance for a quick handshake or a smile. Fuchs serves as UF’s de facto mascot, insidiously proving that a goofy smile, a friendly façade, and a grandpa aesthetic can let an institution get away with anything. Much like Dennis, the anti-Semitic, misogynistic human spectacle banned from Turlington, criticisms of Fuchs are met with scorn and derided as humorless by the general student body. Students are happy, memes are made, UF remains number eight.
When we idolize Fuchs, we ignore our exploitation. The school’s new rankings are an occasion to ask ourselves: What good is being the eighth best public university if we cannot afford to support our part-time workers or provide a safe campus for students of color? Why aren’t grad students better compensated? We must resist the distracting, sacrosanct image of Fuchs as a good-natured, lovable mascot who means well. It is time we acknowledge that meaning well is not the same as doing good. We must take an introspective moment to reflect on this administration’s shortcomings in an objective light.
This is not a call for Fuch’s resignation, but contemplating for even a moment will make it obvious: Kent Fuchs does not necessarily have to be your enemy, but he is certainly not your friend. •