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University of Florida Cuts Documentary Institute

By Michael Rose

Despite the best efforts by the documentary community to save it, the Documentary Institute at the University of Florida was recently eliminated. The institute had generated a petition in April that generated over 1,100 signatures, but neither that achievement nor a second consecutive Student Emmy Award was enough to sway the guardians of the ivory tower. According to, the University of Florida itself recently announced a total of over $30 million in budget cuts and 58 layoffs for the coming academic year.

"As you probably know, Florida has had its share of budget problems--including severe cuts to higher education," says Churchill Roberts, co-director of the institute, which operated out of the university's College of Journalism and Education. "We had the misfortune of having a new dean [Dr. John W. Wright] who didn't value documentary and decided it wasn't central to the mission of the college. He was quoted as saying it was too expensive."  

Dean Wright had cut the institute's $200,000 in 2008, which, according to Churchill, had paid for "assistantships, documentary thesis projects, travel, equipment, and seed money for faculty projects." The institute survived the next year on grants and gifts, as well as royalties from the sale of its films, which include Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power, Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of Harry T. Moore, Giving Up the Canal, Campaign for Cuba and Last Days of the Revolution.

But no sooner had the axe fallen when three universities expressed interest in taking over the program, and one, which will be announced officially at a later date, went a step further and offered positions to Roberts' colleagues, Sandra Dickson, Cynthia Hill and Cara Pilson. The Documentary Institute will officially move to that soon-to-be-disclosed university in 2010.

As for Roberts,."I'll remain here to administer our grants. We just received an NEA grant which doesn't become effective until July 1 and we have a $200,000 pledge from the Jerome A. Yavitz Charitable Foundation, which is being paid over time."