USF community protests DeSantis’ higher education proposals, investigations as part of statewide walkout

Organized by junior economics and philosophy major Ben Braver, walkouts occurred throughout the state’s public universities. ORACLE PHOTO/ULIANA LEARNED

Following an on-campus protest he led against Gov. Ron DeSantis’ gender-affirming care investigation on Feb. 1, junior economics and philosophy major Ben Braver said himself and other USF community members felt compelled to create a larger platform for underrepresented students and faculty. 

“We are here to celebrate diversity in thought and freedom in education,” he said. “We are doing walkouts across the state of every single public college campus in the state, in many of the private campuses and in many of the high schools to celebrate what makes our education amazing because we, as students, love our education… we want to show Ron DeSantis that we care about our freedom in education.”

In the wake of DeSantis’ Jan. 31 announcement of his plans to eliminate funding for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs and critical race theory on Florida’s public college campuses, defending the rights of students and educators to continue studying the histories of marginalized communities seemed like nothing other than a necessary endeavor, according to Braver. 

Braver worked alongside leadership from a group of community organizations and USF clubs  – including Dream Defenders, Stand for Freedom (SFF), the Trans+ Student Union (TSU) and College Democrats – to coordinate a statewide walkout in protest of DeSantis’ recent proposals and investigations for students and faculty on Thursday between noon and 1 p.m. 

Over 500 students, community members and faculty gathered on the Marshall Student Center lawn to listen to a series of guest speakers, professor-led teach-ins and speeches from club leaders. The floor was also open to any others who wished to speak.

Attendees held cardboards, protest signs and posed with pride flags during the walkout. 

Colleges received support from the United Faculty of Florida and state House Representatives Anna Eskamani and Maxwell Frost. ORACLE PHOTO/ULIANA LEARNED

As speakers began to touch on the importance of DEI and diversity as a whole, the audience shouted in support – at one point chanting “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Ron DeSantis go away.” 

While coordinating simultaneous walkouts across many of Florida’s public universities – including FAMU, FSU, UNF and UCF – was challenging for himself and the leadership team of SFF, the organization coordinating the protests, Braver said he appreciated students and faculty being able to come together as a collective regardless of campus. 

TSU president Charlie Suor opened the floor of the walk-out by speaking on the impact of DeSantis’ investigations on LGBTQ students, their rights and the future of LGBTQ education. 

Citing his personal experiences with struggling to find education on transgender history prior to attending USF, Suor said barring students from learning about LGBTQ people will cast a shadow on narratives that have historically been understudied. 

“When I found out about queer history, I was in high school and I had to teach it all to myself. So when I got to college, I was like ‘Finally, there are queer classes, I can learn about it.’ When we talk about queer history, we just talked about the Stonewall riots, but there’s so much more before that and there’s so much more that came after that,” he said. 

“I think the best way that we can change [a lack of knowledge] is by teaching ourselves about trans history, finding places that you can learn about trans culture. And one of the best places to do that is at universities because it’s where we’re allowed to be these things.” 

Rallied up by Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society speaker Lauren Pineiro, students and faculty alike repeated “Stand up, fight back.” Pineiro said only a strong student movement, such as the fight to increase black enrollment in universities that has been around since the 1960s, can “save” diversity programs. 

Sophomore English major Andy Nipper, who attended the walkout, said as a transgender student himself, he initially felt scared for his physical safety prior to attending the protest. However, he said it gradually became a concern that the protest may receive negative backlash from DeSantis.

“Before I came here, I was kind of nervous about violence happening, because we are in Florida and there’s some fears I have with the gun laws and everything. I hope the only negative thing that comes out of this is just going to be a general right wing backlash like ‘Oh, the students are gathering on campus,’ I really hope [DeSantis’] response is just words and that it doesn’t get worse,” he said. 

Members of USF faculty, such as associate integrative biology professor Christina Richards and philosophy professor Lee Braver, were also able to join the conversation by performing a teach-in. 

Despite fearing negative repercussions for speaking out at the protest given his position as a tenured professor, Lee said he felt the responsibility to join his son, Ben Braver, and use the protections of his tenure to bring students together and remind them of their ability to create political change. 

“I hope [today] gets more students involved. I hope it registers more students to vote. Voting is the ultimate place where the rubber hits the road. A lot of students can come and talk a lot and yell and get excited, but if they don’t vote, then at the end of the day people still get elected that they’re going to disagree with,” he said. 

The USF walkout saw over 500 students in attendance. ORACLE PHOTO/ULIANA LEARNED

Getting the students involved is the best way to fight back, according to Richards. Though many faculty members stand in opposition to DeSantis’ proposals, Richards said faculty feel as though they have no power and are afraid to risk their livelihoods. Students, however, find themselves in a different position, she said. 

“Once we get the students to understand what’s going on, then the students will engage and then we’ll have the power of the voice of a group of people who actually really care about this,” Richards said. “That’s gonna drown out the voices of those who don’t want to support DEI or who want to cancel it.”

As event organizer Jonathon Chavez read SFF’s mission statement, the crowd roared in support. SFF demanded Gov. DeSantis take back proposals eliminating DEI and to work towards improvements as well as to support both academic independence and tenure. Chavez called for state senators and house representatives to vote against any blanket DEI ban that undermines academic freedom. 

SFF will be holding another protest at New College Feb. 28, according to Braver. Given their list of demands, Chavez said the purpose of Thursday’s protest, along with future events, is to raise awareness to the idea that students, not legislatures, should be able to control their own education. 

“It is insulting each and every one of us that the governor would make it so clear that he does not respect the will of the people and their capacity to make choices and to better themselves and to educate themselves,” Chavez said. 

“We want to ensure that all students have continuity, have access to the resources at their universities which provide them assistance or improve their university experience. We want to give a platform to empower the voices of elected leaders who have already taken strong stances of supporting higher education and the content.”