TAMPA As it moves to modernize and increase diversity, the University of South Florida is welcoming back an old hand.
Jose Hernandez, USF’s former director of diversity and equal opportunity from 2002 to 2008, will take the new position of chief diversity officer. He returns to USF from a stint as associate provost for institutional diversity and inclusion at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.
“Everybody sees diversity from their perspective and their history. But it’s an antiquated way of looking at diversity if you just list categories,” Hernandez said in a recent interview from Wilmington.
“We have to go into how does it benefit students, how do we mitigate our biases and develop respect. In the real world, you’re going to be working with diverse people. And diverse teams always do better than other teams.”
USF System President Judy Genshaft said in an announcement of the appointment that the school is moving into a “new, proactive era of embracing diversity as a powerful asset for our university.”
That means expanding from traditional diversity training, taking and investigating complaints, and recruiting minority students to a big-picture look at what the university can do to foster a climate of inclusion and cooperation.
“The USF system recognizes one of its greatest assets is the rich diversity of its faculty, staff and students,” Genshaft said.
The university will create an environment “that not only reflects the state of Florida and the communities we serve, but creates a future where everyone can thrive and reach their full potential,” she said.
Genshaft has created a new Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which Hernandez will head. And the university is awaiting a report from Virtcom Consulting, a global diversity management specialist that has been studying USF to present formal recommendations.
“Our goal is to broaden the mission of this office to improve and enhance relationships between everyone on our campuses and to foster an environment of mutual respect and teamwork,” Genshaft said.
Hernandez is a Cuban who spent much of his youth in Puerto Rico. While he acknowledges experiencing subtle discrimination, it wasn’t personal experience but a stint at the historically black college, Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, that led him to dedicate his career to diversity.
“When I started to work at Bethune-Cookman, I started connecting with the struggle many African-Americans experienced,” he said. “I really began to understand more and more about the African-American experience and the civil rights struggle.”
He spent 13 years at Bethune-Cookman, ultimately rising to head of the psychology department. He holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s in counseling from Florida State University, and a Ph.D. in education curriculum and instruction from the University of Central Florida.
At Wilmington, Hernandez strengthened the role of student and cultural centers, expanded an African-American cultural center, created the school’s first diversity conference and established Hispanic and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender centers.
As chief diversity office at USF, he said his priority is “not just race and gender – although there are issues there where we need to move forward.” He is also looking to create “a much more dynamic, vibrant environment” that integrates such diverse groups as the disabled, military veterans and the LGBT community.
He will also work to ensure that USF’s student population mirrors the community.
In the 2012-13 school year, 11 percent of students systemwide were African-American, 17 percent were Hispanic, and 62 percent were white, the university said. Census data from 2011 said Hillsborough County was 17 percent African-American, 25 percent Hispanic and 53 percent white-non Hispanic.
“We’re close to what the community population represents, and I think we can improve even more,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez starts in Tampa on July 1. Ted Williams, who has served as USF’s associate vice president for diversity and equal opportunity, will return to serving as a professor at USF Health.