Battling rain, over 30 people stood outside of the president’s house on the University of Florida campus on Sunday to protest the school’s decision to bring back in-person classes for the spring 2021 semester.
UF changed to an online course format after the pandemic reached Florida earlier this year. Since then, most students have taken classes through Zoom meetings and UF’s course management system on Canvas.
The event was organized by United Faculty Florida, Graduate Assistants United, UF Workers for Safe Reopening and Young Democratic Socialists of Gainesville. Sean Trainor, a member of United Faculty Florida, said that the protest was organized because students, faculty and concerned members of the community decided that going back to in-person classes is not the best solution that the university can offer.
“I understand that Kent Fuchs is an employee of the state of Florida. And he answers to the Board of Trustees and Board of Governors and many folks in the United States Government,” Trainor said. “I respect that position, but I also believe that we as workers, we as community members, and that we as students, we have the right to insist on what is best for us.”
Although the rain cut the protest short, the event included several speakers. Graduate Assistants United member Fi Stewart-Taylor, 28, read a letter from an anonymous UF teacher, who feared how the university would retaliate.
“Why are we the ones who might get furlough when Kent Fuchs is not out in the rain and sitting in that house?” Stewart-Taylor said. “They don’t have a union and UF made it very very hard to form a union. Those workers need to have space and people who do have a little more protection working to make sure their voices are heard.”
Fuchs earlier this year released a prepared statement about the proposed switch.
“Although we are justifiably proud of the effectiveness of UF’s online instruction,” he said, “the full experience of a residential university includes in-person instruction.”
Since the beginning of the fall semester, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has made it clear that he wants schools and universities to resume in-person classes. A spring legislative session is scheduled to begin in March, with DeSantis and the rest of the state government retaining the option to make deep cuts to higher education budgets as a result of plummeting tourism industry revenue across Florida.
“These are difficult times for government and family budgets,” Fuchs said. “Our best shared opportunity to retain full funding for our university, and thereby protect the jobs of our employees, is to provide more of our students with the full educational experience and opportunities they had before COVID.”
Bobby Mermer, co-president of Graduate Assistants United, wants the university to use its endowment. He said that mentioning a budget cut is a “shameless threat.”
“Yes, we may lose out some tuition money if we do not reopen fully,” Mermer said. “Yes, there might be more cuts from state-funding for us, but there is money in the school’s endowment to get us through this crisis. Use the endowment money. Don’t make us choose our lives or our livelihoods. We have money that can get us through this.”
The endowment solution is problematic, UF officials have said, because many of the funds that comprise it are designated for specific purposes that do not include helping to offset revenue loss from declines in tuition, room and board and state appropriations.
Stewart-Taylor said she is outraged that Fuchs and football coach Dan Mullen earn millions of dollars in salary every year. She said there is no reason the school needs to “fill out the Swamp” for football games or return to in-person classes. Fuchs rejected the suggestion to fill the stadium when Mullen proposed it earlier this year.
“A school should be a school,” said Stewart-Taylor. “It shouldn’t be a football stadium … A school should be for people to learn and practice the things they want to do for the rest of their lives.”
Trainor said while the protest was limited in turnout, it’s a warmup to one they are planning around an important university meeting that’s just over a month away.
“My hope is that this is part of the process whereby we get President Fuchs to change his mind,” Trainor said. “Our belief that this is a decision that is at least partially influenced by politics, so we are encouraging people to vote.”
The university’s next Board of Trustees meeting will take place on Dec. 3 at Emerson Alumni Hall.