Campus activists kick off Occupy USF

A crowd of angry protesters marched into the Dr. Kiran C. Patel Center on Wednesday afternoon where they were greeted with smiles and handshakes from nine administrators. Senior Vice Provost Dwayne Smith led them to a conference room and wrote, “Welcome,” on a white board.

The protesters said they represented the “99 percent” at USF and had come to collect on a promise to meet with administrators made last month when they protested a 15 percent tuition increase, before the Occupy USF movement began its indefinite stay on campus.

Leonah Arroyo, a graduate student studying library and information science, said she sometimes can’t afford to eat because of the increased tuition she’s had to pay this semester.

Cody Childers, a senior majoring in biochemistry, said he has been laid off three times. His mother, father, aunt and uncle have also lost jobs, he said,with eight total layoffs in his family, making tuition harder to afford.

Childers and Arroyo joined members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a resurrected activist organization from the 1960s, and met with the administrators to voice their demands, which were both simple and varied.

They demanded tuition not be raised for the spring semester, which administrators assured would not happen, as the Florida Board of Governors (BOG) and the USF Board of Trustees (BOT) always set tuition prices for full academic years.

They also demanded a standing policy to ensure all tuition decisions be made when two-thirds of students are on campus, namely during the fall and spring semesters, so students would know of such discussions.

Tuition increased last year by 15 percent after the BOG voted to raise tuition by 8 percent in May, and the BOT followed suit with all other state universities in passing a 7 percent tuition differential. The hikes came after harsh legislative cuts in university budgets.

The protesters demanded the University include “union neutrality” in any contract negotiated with food service vendors on campus that employ students. SDS activist Dustin Ponder, who led a rally against tuition hikes last month, compared working for Aramark, USF’s food service vendor, to “living in a dictatorship.”

They also demanded the University require a clause that would force food vendors to serve at least 20 percent “real food” that was locally grown, ecologically friendly and humane, criticizing Aramark for their use of tomatoes grown by migrant workers who do not receive fair wages.

Ponder said he wanted to use the time before the Occupy USF protest began at 5 p.m. to illustrate who USF’s top 1 percent are – namely, he said, President Judy Genshaft and Provost Ralph Wilcox.

Genshaft and Wilcox were both attending the BOG meeting in Boca Raton, so they could not meet with the protesters.

“We wanted to put together a small list of demands, not a laundry list that the administration can ignore,” Ponder said. “We’re going to put our demands right on Judy’s door so that she sees those.”

The students also addressed other issues, varying from textbook prices to expensive on-campus housing. They criticized the University for spending money on “bells and whistles,” such as iPads that display nutritional information in the Champion’s Choice dining facility and flat-screen TV’s in the Patel Center.

Smith said he understood their struggle.

“I am very sympathetic and empathetic for you,” he said. “I was a first-generation college student in my extended family, and I worked at a paper mill.”

Ponder asked if that meant the administration agreed to their demands.

“No, because I don’t think some of them are realistic,” Smith said.

He said tuition is currently at the minimum it could be realistically, about $4,000 per year. Last month, The College Board ranked Florida No. 45 in the nation in tuition costs, meaning it is among the lowest in the U.S.

“Fine, we freeze tuition,” Smith said. “We get a 10 percent cut next year. Do you think your education is not going to suffer?”

Scott Beasley, chair of the College of Business’ Finance Department, suggested Ponder run for student body president, though he said he is not enrolled in courses this semester. Ponder then criticized student body president Matthew Diaz for voting in favor of the tuition differential increase and said former student body president Cesar Hernandez supports the movement.

About 30 minutes later, Hernandez, a senior majoring in biomedical sciences and political sciences, joined the meeting and offered the protesters some advice.

“I’m going to share something that I had to learn,” he said. “The University is broken up into three separate parts. You have faculty and administration, Student Government and then you have the student body. All three of those heads want the same thing, but aren’t in communication.”

Hernandez told the protesters they had the tools to achieve their goals.

“You can’t look at (administrators) and say, ‘These guys are the enemies.’ They are on your team,” he said. “There’s no communication here. You are Student Government. You’re just not flexing your muscles and wings. You (have) got to start flexing.”

Ponder stood up.

“The thing is, though, we had an excellent leader like Cesar, and we are still in the situation we are in,” he said. “We had someone with this much passion and energy, but no general can do anything without an army.”

Ponder said he and SDS were building that army. Smith reassured the protesters they “have been heard.”

“I don’t know that we are going to come up with any quick, easy solutions as a result of this conversation,” Smith said. “You’ve definitely been heard. There has been a lot of food for thought. The one that stuck with me the most is that there’s got to be more than an A and a B (solution).”

After the meeting, which was supervised by two University Police officers, some students marched back to the free-speech zone outside of Cooper Hall to take part in the Occupy USF movement, which focused more on the goals of the national movements.

About 20 protesters, a cardboard box and a dog sat on blankets, organizing the movement they hoped would gain momentum in time for the Republican primary debate being held on campus in January.

The protesters have no specific end date.