Students, faculty rally against state legislation targeting diversity initiatives
At a Tuesday rally intended to create student awareness for preserving academic rights, history professor Alex Levine read aloud two emails he received earlier this week from prospective employees and graduate students expressing fear for their future at USF.
One of the emails was from a trans philosophy graduate student who messaged him about her concern in continuing her assistantship program at USF in the state’s current political climate, according to Levine.
Levine said he was disappointed to see recent state legislation targeting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and critical race theory (CRT).
“We lose people, and we cannot replace them,” Levine said to the crowd. “I do not have a single colleague who has not talked about wanting to be somewhere else. This is not business as usual for us. This is new.”
Due to its possible effects on Florida’s education system and those involved in it, Levine joined Stand for Freedom as well as students and other faculty members in a rally against House Bill (H.B.) 999.
Determined to speak out against restrictions on academic freedom in Florida public universities, SFF held a sit-in at the Marshall Student Center (MSC) atrium after the Board of Trustees meeting at 11 a.m., which later turned into a rally.
Holding multi-colored signs, approximately 30 Stand for Freedom members formed a compact circle in the center of the MSC atrium, capturing the attention of the onlookers with some slogans reading “An attack on one is an attack on all” and “The people united will never be defeated.”
The group chanted in unison: “Ho Ho, Hey Hey, DEI has got to stay.”
At around noon, the group merged with the Graduate Assistants United in the MSC amphitheater in a rally featuring speeches from faculty members, including history department chair Brian Connolly and associate history professor Adriana Novoa. Connolly said the event worked against the encroachment of education imposed by the DeSantis administration.
The rally and sit-in allowed members of student organizations to express their concerns toward members of the board and the student body.
Multiple University Police officers were present throughout the afternoon.
Stand for Freedom consistently ensured USF administration was kept in the loop of Tuesday’s events, according to members Luna Demonte and Abigail Schnittker. They said that it is the organization’s priority to work closely with administration in order to ensure their voices are heard safely.
“I think there are certain student organizations that are not as willing to work alongside administration,” Demonte said. “Our goal with Stand for Freedom is really to cooperate in the most effective way possible.”
Psychology student and principle organizer in the Stand for Freedom effort Stephanie DeVlieger said they were pleased with the impact the organization was able to make at the Board of Trustees meeting prior to the rally, where students made public comments concerning H.B. 999.
“A lot of them actually agreed with us,” they said. “Their comments at the end were really encouraging, and they are reminding the other members of the Board of Trustees that they really need to listen to students, that our concerns are incredibly important.”
Schnittker said she expects the Board of Trustees to hear student pleas and make the most informed decision that will keep the diverse student population at USF safe and included.
Not all student organizations had high hopes for the board to resist the state’s request. Member of Students for Socialism Liam O’Reilly said due to how the passage of the bills would affect all students, the student body should be stepping up as a group.
“While I am not a person of color, I am not trans or a woman, these issues affect us on a class basis. The way I see it, an attack on one is an attack on all,” O’Reilly said.
Two proposed laws currently in the Florida legislature, H.B. 999 and Senate Bill 266, aim to reconfigure the Florida public education system, according to Connolly. The bills stipulate a reduction of DEI programs, CRT and related intersectionality and funding for gender studies and its derivatives.
DeVlieger said one major concern is the bill’s lack of specificity.
“We are concerned because [House Bill 999] is incredibly vague,” DeVlieger said. “We find it incredibly troubling that the state is attempting to limit what people can learn and talk about within higher education.”
The crowd – which had expanded to an audience of 100 in the amphitheater – cheered as the speakers went up and delivered speeches, all of which shared the theme of preserving diversity in USF’s curriculum. The event drew onlookers, including senior international studies and world languages and culture double major Ashley Kent.
Instead of leaving to have lunch elsewhere, Kent stayed at the protest to support its message even though she had no prior knowledge of it.
“I want to show my support…ideally, we could stop some of these bills that DeSantis is trying to pass,” Kent said.
Communications Chair for Graduate Assistants United Katherine Hall said the passing of Senate Bill 266 would be a direct hit to Florida education unions, as it dictates that a union must consist of at least 60% of an education body to be deemed a union.
Graduate Assistants United Secretary Alaina Scapicchio said to the crowd that the legislation will isolate and repel workers from seeking employment in Florida.
“This is just a way to get workers to leave the state because we already don’t have the right to strike unions,” she said. “DeSantis made it so that police, police officers, first responders, their unions, none of this applies to them. It’s a direct attack against education… and veiled attacks at killing higher education.”
Undergraduate researcher Tion Grant, a student at the University of the Virgin Islands working at a civil and environmental engineering lab at USF, conveyed his aspirations for attending USF as a master’s student.
“As a student in the Caribbean, we don’t have access to much,” Grant said. “That’s one of the biggest reasons why I came to USF, for the freedom to allow as much knowledge and access to so many different beliefs… So why should we stop having the opportunity to get information?”
The spirited crowd dispersed around 12:50 p.m., shortly following DeVlieger’s closing remarks.
“You still live in the U.S.? You still live in Florida,” DeVlieger said. “We still have these rights. We have this academic freedom. Don’t feel like the battle is over.”