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Students protest state education with walkout

More than one hundred students voiced their dissatisfaction with education costs Thursday by leaving their classrooms and taking part in the a “sit-in” in the Marshall Student Center (MSC).

The “day of action,” organized nationally by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and locally by SDS’s Tampa Bay chapter, began at Cooper Hall, where students were asked to protest state education budget cuts and university tuition hikes by walking out of their classes by noon.

The walkout was meant to be symbolic, as it showed what classrooms could look like if students were priced out of a college education.

Andrew Stapleton, a senior majoring in biomedical sciences who spoke outside of Cooper Hall, said SDS is seeking zero tuition hikes or budget cuts, even if the newly proposed cuts seem less destructive than those originally proposed.

“Unfortunately, (legislators) had proposed a massive cut that would have left USF a shell of itself, operating at 40 percent of its budget,” he said. “All of our students, workers and activists have been successful in thwarting this death sentence. However, we are hardly successful in our overall mission. We are only biding our time. We’re supposed to cheer and be grateful for only 20 percent hikes, coupled with never-ending tuition hikes?”

Greg McColm, an associate mathematics professor invited to speak by SDS, began his speech to students by telling them “you only thought you were going to get out of class today,” before explaining the work required to enact political change.

“Politics takes a lot of work,” he said. “This underlines the fundamental principle of our civics course: Power flows to those who do the work.”

Then the student participants, led by SDS, marched from Cooper to the MSC, where they would remain for several hours. Dani Leppo, a junior majoring in English and an SDS member, led the group in chants such as “Education is a right. Fight, fight, fight, fight.”

In the MSC, students sat cross-legged on the floor of the lobby where they could be seen and heard from every floor of the building. Leppo told the students and onlookers that they need to call their senators, including Sen. Mike Haridopolis, to let them know they are against state budget cuts.

“We want to call Sen. Haridopolis to let him know that you are not taking our $400 million statewide (that) keeps our university public,” she said. “Public. That’s what we want. Not the private, not the wealthy, not the elite, not the rich, but the working people (and) the poor people. We have the right to educate ourselves and better our futures.”

Johnny Wong, a Ph.D. candidate in geography and graduate student professor, said he effectively ended his 11:50 a.m. global conservationism class because of the protest’s learning experience.

“The majority of my students are really juniors, seniors and post-grads, so they’re really on their way out,” Wong said. “I can imagine that after many of them leave, they won’t really follow what’s going on in terms of education and budgets anymore. So this is like the last time to expose them to legislative politics.”

While much of the protest expressed student dissatisfaction with Florida lawmakers, protesters also chided university figures such as student government President Matt Diaz and USF President Judy Genshaft.

At one point, protesters caught a glimpse of Genshaft, who was on the second floor of the MSC for unrelated reasons, and chanted, “Judy, Judy, Judy.” She waved to students, some of whom booed her.

Dean of Students Kevin Banks said he hadn’t heard about the protest but stood to watch the entirety of its MSC portion. He said it gave him an opportunity to better help students.

“I applaud the student activism – it shows our students aren’t apathetic and they care,” he said. “The reality is we’re all fighting the same cause. So when I hear them say stuff like ‘We’ve got to talk to Judy,’ well, Dr. Genshaft has been a strong supporter. She’s been the point person (for USF) for this whole situation, so why they have some issues with Dr. Genshaft, I don’t understand.”