Darryl Gordon has carved one hour out of his wall-to-wall schedule to take this phone call. He doesn’t sound hurried or tired. He sounds … enthused when he says, “This isn’t a job to me. I love pouring into the lives of others. It’s my passion.” He has two full-time passions then: Advisor and coordinator in the College of Health Professions and Sciences, and president of UCF’s Black Faculty and Staff Association (BFSA).
The latter job requires hustle. It does not include a paycheck, and that’s just fine with Gordon.
“It isn’t easy,” he says, “but you cannot measure the benefits.”
For example, on the same phone that he uses for this conversation, Gordon also has the direct number for UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright. The president of one of the largest universities in the nation by enrollment hits “accept” when he sees Gordon’s name.
“That doesn’t happen at other institutions,” says Gordon.
There’s nothing boastful when Gordon talks about his connections. He serves as the youngest president in the organization’s history, having accepted the role at 30 years old. Yet, he fully grasps the importance of BFSA’s 50-year history. Getting to a golden anniversary has required resilience, belief, and the intangible he mentions so often: passion.
“I’m only able to do this because of my predecessors,” he says. “They are my motivation.”
There’s also motivation from these nationwide statistics: Only 6% of faculty members in higher education and less than 8% of administrators and executive leadership are Black, according to Inside Higher Ed. The percentages are dramatically lower when HBCUs are not included in the numbers. This points to the “why” for BFSA since its inception in 1971.
“Research show representation has a direct impact on the matriculation, retention and graduation rates of students.” — Darryl Gordon, UCF Black Faculty and Staff Association President
“Research show representation has a direct impact on the matriculation, retention and graduation rates of students,” says Gordon, who in addition to his two jobs is also working toward a Ph.D. in education. His research focuses on this very topic. “Practically speaking, we all need to see people like ourselves in the roles we aspire to reach.”
A tenured college professor or a dean, for example. Gordon ticks off a few names as if reading the lineup of an all-star team: Gerald Hector (senior vice president for Administration and Finance), Grant Hayes (dean of the College of Community Innovation and Education), Theodorea Regina Berry (vice provost and dean of the College of Undergraduate Studies), Lee Ross (research professor of criminal justice), and the recently retired Gordon Chavis (vice president for Enrollment Services), the retired A.J. Range (assistant vice president of Student Development), and the retired Martha Lue Stewart (the first Black female to be promoted to professor at UCF).
“Rising to those positions is an incredible achievement for people who have been double marginalized — in higher education and in life,” Gordon says. “We still have a lot of progress to make, but I want the people who came before me with BFSA to know their work was not in vain.”
It’s widely known that UCF opened in 1968 as Florida Technological University with the primary purpose of providing talent and research for the space program. The retrospectives about fledgling engineers and hopeful astronauts often overshadow the most dominant issue of that time: the civil rights movement. Black people were still struggling for basic rights as U.S. citizens. Major college football teams in the South were just beginning to integrate. All of this formed the everyday backdrop when three Black faculty members at UCF founded BFSA in 1971.
One of the early tenants of BFSA said the organization “serves as a role model, advisor, and encourager” in the field of academia. There weren’t many people of color in the field because they had not been provided opportunities. Without opportunities in higher education, there were few role models for Black students.
For their first few years as an official affinity group, BFSA (which for a few years was known as the Association of Black Employees, or ABE) could not meet on campus. Instead, they would gather at churches or around picnic tables in parks. They built up each other’s esteem after long weeks where they sometimes felt like strangers at the front of their own classrooms.
“It’s important to have a place to meet colleagues of color,” says Stewart. “There is no group on campus that measures up to the tenacity, perseverance, support, and care that [BFSA] has offered its members and students.”
Stewart set an example during her career in the classroom the way her own teachers in grade school had done for her. As a middle school student in the rural region of Florida’s panhandle, Stewart helped teach her father how to read and write. Her mother only had the opportunity to finish sixth grade.
Stewart’s teachers at her segregated school encouraged college as a next step. In her community, higher education seemed like a distant concept, until alumni came back to speak about their own college experiences. Their candid talks gave so much hope and unveiled so much potential that the school held assemblies for them.
“I would sit in the front row and listen to them talk about going to college,” Stewart says. “I’d never really imagined it, but when I saw those students I thought, ‘Yes, I could do that.’ ”
For Stewart, those appearances opened a pathway that would lead to a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and eventually a Ph.D. in special education administration. In 1981 she accepted a position as a visiting professor at UCF. She also became involved with the BFSA, which she says, “felt like family.”
That same feeling pulled Stewart back to UCF a few years after she’d left to do research in Washington, D.C., on the underrepresentation of teachers of color in schools. The university would name the student center after a former BFSA president, the late John T. Washington, a sociology professor who exemplified those tenants of advice and encouragement with students and colleagues as well as anyone. Stewart would help organize UCF’s first Martin Luther King Junior Celebration and co-write the school’s first McKnight Grant, which awards financial help to Black and Hispanic Ph.D. candidates who want to teach at colleges and universities.
The BFSA was fueling progress not necessarily at UCF, but through UCF.
Gordon came to UCF in 2018 for his own opportunity. As an undergraduate at Florida A&M, he engaged with Black instructors in every class and saw high-ranking staff in the front offices as mentors. His post-graduate experience at a non-HBCU in the Southeast, however, was a very different experience. During the entirety of his masters studies at a college in the southeast, he didn’t have a single instructor who was a person of color. After working at two community colleges, he decided to accept an offer to come to UCF.
“Being the only Black male in administration had become a reality early in my career,” he says. “During my first week at UCF my supervisor, Andrea Small, asked if I’d heard of BFSA. I hadn’t. So, she told me to block off time on my calendar to attend a meet and greet. She made sure I went because she knew how important it would be for me to experience it.”
This was no longer the 1970s. Gordon didn’t have to drive to a church or park to introduce himself. He walked into a room and met dozens of Black researchers, Ph.D.s, colleagues, and administrators like Chavis and Range.
“The mood was relaxed, where everyone could be themselves, like a true community,” Gordon says. “I knew some of those people had not been exempt from social obstacles of the past. That first mixer made me immediately appreciative for what they’d gone through to get to this point. It took hope and faith.”
Last February, the BFSA celebrated its 50th year at the Burnett House. President Cartwright was there with 17 past presidents of BFSA. Those presidents had created a 50-year bridge to a more inclusive future, and to the current president.
“Most of those presidents probably didn’t think they’d ever be meeting at the home of UCF’s president,” Gordon says. “My goal now is to do for others as they’ve done for me — remind people that they’re valued and that they belong.”
Gordon receives a new list of staff and faculty twice a month. He and his team reach out personally to invite them to mixers and events. He’s also formed an advisory council that includes the insights from a rotation of five past BFSA presidents. A few months ago, the BFSA launched a semesterly speaker series, where faculty and staff can learn about pursuing Ph.D.s, publishing books, even personal finances. The gatherings are open to all people, no matter their race.
“The struggles of the people before us were far more intense than what we face now,” Gordon says. “Those struggles led to the point where we can meet regularly on campus, we can talk openly with the president of the university, and we can have meaningful conversations like this one. Where we are now is a tribute to them.”