MAXWELL:  Lombardi is no racist

1/18/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


At a Christmas party in December, John Lombardi, president of the University of Florida, called Florida’s new university chancellor Adam Herbert an “Oreo” _ defined as an African-American who is black on the outside and white on the inside.

Lombardi has apologized, and the two men met in Fort Myers and patched things up, at least for public consumption. Rumors are swirling, however, that Lombardi’s days are numbered at UF because of the racial epithet; some accounts suggest he may already have been given quiet directions to leave in the near future. Many of his detractors are calling him a racist.

I hope that Lombardi does not lose his job.

I was a graduate student journalist at UF when Lombardi became the president. Without fear of exaggeration, I can say that before Lombardi’s arrival, UF was nearly a racist institution. Relations between white students and their minority counterparts were at an all-time low since the school integrated after the 1964 Civil Rights Act became law. I cannot count the times that I removed racist signs that had been posted by the White Student Union, a group of bigots in search of a cause.

On the other side, the Black Student Union mounted crusades challenging the White Student Union. As a correspondent for the independent Florida Alligator, the student newspaper, I constantly fielded complaints of racism from African-American students, along with black faculty brave enough to talk.

I knew several black students who withdrew from UF because of how they were treated by white students and their professors. Granted, although my white professors and the white students in the College of Journalism treated me and the handful of other black students with respect, I felt like an alien on campus.

Something in the air was not right. Tension filled the space where whites and blacks gathered at the same time. I had no white acquaintances, except for the few I met in class. Outside of class, I spent all of my time in the libraries and bookstores on and off campus. I did not want to have any confrontations with whites.

Then came Lombardi. Things changed immediately.

He neutralized the White Student Union and the Black Student Union. How did he do it? By giving both groups freedom. He gave the WSU the right to organize, find a faculty sponsor and receive student funds. In time, the group imploded.

After the BSU took over an office, Lombardi waited them out and finally spoke with them, winning the trust of many.

Since those days, race relations at UF have steadily improved because of Lombardi’s efforts. And, for sure, black students have benefited. For example, black enrollment has increased, and scholarship funds for blacks have risen dramatically.

Lombardi has been a positive force in the black community, as well.

Frankly, I would not have permitted my son or daughter to attend the UF that I attended. But I would let both attend the school today because Lombardi has improved the racial climate.

Needless to say, I’m distressed that he uttered the word “Oreo.” I am distressed not so much because of the word and its meaning, but because it may cost Lombardi his job.

I cannot end this column without mentioning another reason that I admire Lombardi.

I knew one of the female students killed by Danny Rolling. I still marvel at Lombardi’s skill in holding UF and the greater Gainesville community together. Although he pulled no punches in describing the danger under which we lived, his compassion and strength reassured us.

I wish that Lombardi had not called Herbert an “Oreo.” He did, however. Now, I want to see Lombardi forgiven. I want him to remain president of UF.

Lombardi is not a racist. He is a good man who committed a foolish act.