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USF's latest Board of Trustees meeting is followed by a rally to protest DEI initiatives

Students sit on ground inside building holding signs.
Meghan Bowman
WUSF Public Media
Students participate in a short, peaceful sit-in at the University of South Florida on March 7, 2023, following a Board of Trustees meeting.

Students at USF rallied outside a Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday to protest House Bill 999, effectively ending all diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives on state college campuses.

The University of South Florida Board of Trustees heard concerns on Tuesday from students and faculty about what some are calling Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “war on education.”

There was an unusually large turnout to the fairly short meeting, with the agenda aiming to approve consent agenda items.

Chair Will Weatherford opened the meeting by acknowledging the large turn-out.

“There are many people who are here that are planning to speak today and maybe who just want to be seen,” Weatherford said. “And I want you to know you have been seen and your voices will be heard.”

"I know there's a lot of conversation lately, particularly in Tallahassee, around higher education in Florida, and proposals that are being introduced in the legislature. I know many of you have come here to express your views. And we value that insight. And we value the discourse that it's involved."

People sitting behind a desk in conference room.
Meghan Bowman
WUSF Public Media
President Rhea Law (left) and Chair Will Weatherford (center) speak at the Board of Trustees meeting on March 7, 2023.

USF football quarterback and student Gerry Bohanon started the meeting off, offering thanks for the new indoor practice field, his excitement on the upcoming season, and the mental health and sports injury services he's received.

President Rhea Law shared updates on the university and accomplishments of the athletics. She said 10 USF students were selected as Fulbright scholars, the most the school has ever had.

But during the public comment period, most speakers voiced concerns about the university’s stance on House Bill 999, which would shorten review periods on faculty tenure and effectively end all diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives on state college campuses.

Jonathon Chavez, president of College Democrats and organizer for the Stand For Freedom movement, gave a letter to the board signed by 30 student organizations, representing thousands of students.

"It is our shared belief that the changes in Florida law featured in HB 999, the state of Florida's proposed anti-DEI bill, are a direct impediment to multiple items that were on the board's agenda today," Chavez said. "As well as for the general well being of the university that we all love."

"This bill contains a vague and broadly worded provision that may be construed as to limit the ability of USF to fund student (organizations), to allow other activities on campus, or even require that you prohibit certain student organizations altogether."

"I hope the board will affirm this, that so long as those requirements are ambiguous in the letter of this law that the university will take no such action. But where there is legal ambiguity, there will be legal challenges," Chavez said. "USF must be prepared for possible lawsuits against our school to bring all of those consequences to bear."

Senior Charles Suor, president of Trans+ Student Union, told the board that "prohibiting student organizations focused on culture and identity would devastate a major aspect of that social life."

"This is why I'm asking you today to please uphold student organizations and continue letting us help and support students by protecting student organization funding," Suor said. "By maintaining diversity on campus and in our classes, you guarantee that USF students will continue to receive a dynamic and well-rounded and fulfilling college experience."

Approximately 15 people sitting at desk during board meeting in conference room.
Meghan Bowman
WUSF Public Media
Board of Trustees meeting at the University of South Florida on March 7, 2023. Members heard concerns from students and faculty about House Bill 999 and its implications at the school.

Adriana Novoa, associate professor of Latin American history, spoke to the Board of Trustees and to students at the rally following.

“The absence of tenure and academic freedom does not shield us from the capricious nature of political power," Novoa said at the meeting. "But we need them. Because education can only be trusted when we have freedom from fear."

While trustees seemed receptive to concerns, students held a short, peaceful sit-in inside the Marshall Student Center before heading outside for a rally after the board meeting.

Attending the sit in was Lee Kasem, a transgender student majoring in women and gender studies. Kasem said if DEI majors are stripped from the school, it will make it much harder for their time on campus.

Another student, Enya Silva, said she joined the sit-in to support the four members of Students for a Democratic Society who were arrested Monday. She said the four students are charged with felonies, and were suspended from school.

"It's obvious that the majority of students support diversity and support trans healthcare and trans people. And we don't want to see our universities turn into these places that support white supremacy and support homophobia," Silva said. "We want to support teaching Black history (and) teaching LGBTQ history."

Man in purple shirt speaks to a crowd outside.
Meghan Bowman
WUSF Public Media
Sam Badger, co-president of the graduate student labor union at USF, speaks to students and faculty at a rally following the Board of Trustees meeting March 7, 2023.

After the sit-in, students moved outside to protest against HB 999.

Sam Badger is co-president of the graduate student labor union. He says the governor's education proposals threaten the university's healthy academic community.

“He doesn't care about how much damage he causes to you, to the scholars of this university, or the state. So this is why we need to keep opposing this," Badger said. "It’s why we need to keep talking about it. And it's why we need to keep working together in understanding and solidarity between all of us.”

Alex Levine, a professor of philosophy at USF, read two emails he received to students. One from an expert professor who turned down a position at the university citing concerns about Florida's politics. The second email he received earlier in the day from a transgender graduate student letting him know they'd no longer be continuing to study at USF.

"We lose people who cannot replace them," Levine said. "I do not have a single colleague, who has not talked about wanting to be somewhere else. And this is not business as usual for us."

The rally ended with students dropping a banner off a campus parking garage that read "stop house bill 999."

Nothing about my life has been typical. Before I fell in love with radio journalism, I enjoyed a long career in the arts in musical theatre.