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Academic freedom, diversity dominate USF discourse

Mark Parker



University of South Florida St. Petersburg students participate in Feb. 23 walkout in protest of state government proposals targeting diversity programs. Photo provided.

What began with hundreds of students – and some faculty – walking out of their University of South Florida classrooms two weeks ago shows no signs of abating through the spring legislative session.

Protests increased in intensity with the start of the session this week, and the USF Police Department arrested four people on the Tampa campus Monday. Members of Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society posted videos on social media they say show officers using excessive force.

Students then marched into Tuesday’s board of trustees meeting carrying signs denouncing bills that target higher education diversity programs. Several spoke during the public forum, and board chairperson Will Weatherford credited them for their courage and thoughtful comments.

Weatherford, a former Speaker of the House as a Republican state representative, told students that their voice matters. However, he said, “the actual debate is taking place north of here, in Tallahassee.”

“So, I would highly encourage, don’t stop your comments here,” Weatherford said. “Take them to the place where these decisions are made and allow your voices to be heard. It’s important in this process for us to hear a wide array of opinions.”



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The debate and outrage stem from House Bill 999, filed by Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola. The legislation would ban subjects like critical race theory and gender studies in academic programs.

In addition, the bill would transfer hiring authority to the Board of Trustees and allow the body to review faculty tenure at any time. It would also prohibit school officials from funding activities or organizations promoting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

The proposed legislation states that general education courses should “promote the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization and include studies of this nation’s historical documents.” If passed, state officials would evaluate universities according to how they prepare students “for citizenship of the constitutional republic,” alongside graduation and retention rates.

Governor Ron DeSantis mandated that all universities detail DEI spending in early January. Later that month, DeSantis held a press conference announcing he would “eliminate all DEI and critical race theory bureaucracies in the State of Florida.”

He added that those would “wither on the vine” and outlined sweeping changes later included in HB 999.

While Weatherford said that much of the concern is out of the board’s purview, he said USF’s leadership can still help shape policy and are making their voices heard. He also noted that legislative sessions are nine weeks long, and “things change a lot.”

“It’s the first inning in a nine-inning game,” Weatherford added. “So, there’s a long way to go. There’s a lot of responsible people that are up there (Tallahassee). Debate and discussion are healthy for democracy, and that will take place in the coming weeks.”

Jas Trans is a student and works with the Office of Multicultural Affairs at the St. Petersburg campus. Trans said Thursday that the bill would directly impact the department and the myriad of culturally related student organizations it oversees.

Trans explained organizations like the Black Student Association and Pride Alliance create safe spaces for people of color and minorities, and promote community, connections and cultural education.

“The organizations are available for all students and aren’t limiting in any way,” Trans said. “I am Asian American and queer, so it’s personally been very scary for me to continue seeing bills and such proposed and passed that directly affect me – and those groups.”

It is not just students defending campus diversity programs and academic freedom. Some USFSP faculty members risked their jobs to march in solidarity during the Feb. 23 walkout.

Adrian Novoa, associate professor of Latin American history, spoke between students Tuesday. She compared the current political and educational climate to Cuba and the University of Havana.

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

Trustee Jenifer Jasinki Schneider told students that faculty members understand their concerns and stand with them through uncertain times. She said DEI is essential to all universities and is more than an office.

Schneider likened DEI to a steak’s marbling. “You can’t remove it; it’s integral, and it’s what makes us good,” she said.

Trustee Oscar Horton implored his colleagues to take the comments seriously and said that silence is compliance. He believes “this will not end well” unless USF’s leadership takes charge and speaks against the proposals.

President Rhea Law said she has spoken with several groups throughout the university system and promised that school officials are working at the local, state and national levels to protect diversity initiatives. She also offered her unwavering support of academic freedom, civil discourse and openly exchanging ideas.

“And we are absolutely committed to fostering an inclusive environment for everyone here at this university and for having opportunities for everyone, regardless of their background,” Law added. “We will not back up from that commitment … that is our stance, and that is what we stand for.”


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  1. Avatar

    Donna Kostreva

    March 11, 2023at8:41 am

    Kent State was a protest against the war in Viet Nam, not some imagined slight. We advance through our merits. When life saving surgery is need I want the most well educated, skilled surgeon, not the one chosen to fulfill some category. The USA is already the most diversified nation on the planet.

    Remember this, ”I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
    Martin Luther King, Jr.

    These protesters should write a strongly worded letter to those in charge for greater effect, but that takes work and is not showy.

  2. Avatar

    Mike Connelly

    March 10, 2023at7:02 pm

    Tin soldiers and Nixon/DeSantis coming We’re finally on our own

    This summer, I hear the drumming
    Four dead in Ohio/FLA

    Gotta get down to it
    Soldiers are cutting us down
    Should have been done long ago
    What if you knew her
    And found her dead on the ground
    How can you run when you know?

  3. Avatar


    March 10, 2023at6:12 pm

    It should be noted that what is in the first picture is a peaceful gathering of about 125 people that had just walked the St Petersburg campus. Beautifully done march and awareness enhancing event!

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