TAMPA — For an hour Thursday afternoon, a throng of about 200 students and faculty shared their fears and hopes of fighting back against Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education policies, gathering for an emotional rally outside the Marshall Student Center at the University of South Florida.
They joined similar groups at eight other state university campuses, Rollins College and Largo High School — part of a statewide protest against the governor’s proposals to limit diversity programs, weaken faculty tenure and change curriculum to better align with conservative values.
With signs that carried their messages (“Ron DeSantis, we won’t let you gut our classes,” “Diversity is democracy” and “Protect trans youth.”) they gathered in a semicircle while speakers addressed the crowd.
“People need to speak up and people are starting to speak up,” Elijah Keila, a junior majoring in English, said. “The rest of the country is watching. There are people watching, waiting to see if they can copy what Ron DeSantis is doing to our universities in this state…. We’re not shutting up.”
Ben Braver, the USF student who helped organize members from different campuses into the Stand for Freedom movement, stood in the center with a pink guitar that has become familiar around campus.
“Hate spreads when it seems ridiculous,” Braver said. “When it seems like taking a stand is an overreaction, overreact. Take a stand.”
He said he hoped Thursday was the beginning of a broader movement, and that people could work with the Legislature to develop a student and teacher bill of rights.
“We’re not just students yelling at the wind,” he said. “We have come with the start of a solution.”
Anna Broich, a public health graduate student in anthropology, said she was most concerned about a recent request from the governor’s office for universities to hand over details about the gender-affirming care they had provided since 2018. She was also worried about being able to continue in her discipline.
“To be able to fully talk about our topics, we need to be able to talk about things,” she said.
Andy Pham, a senior studying biomedical sciences, spoke to the crowd. He said he did not think it was coincidental that bills targeting diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory have been filed during Black history month.
“We’re not here to be spoonfed a sanitized version of history,” he said to cheers. “If Black people, indigenous people, all people of color have to confront racism every moment of our waking lives, white folks can certainly handle reading about it.”
Braver’s father, USF philosophy professor Lee Braver, walked to the center of the circle. He told the crowd about the time Socrates was sentenced to death, with charges of “corrupting youth” and impiety.
“Authorities didn’t like being questioned then either,” Lee Braver told them. “You can always tell when a leader is scared, they go after educators.”
Christina Richards, a professor of integrative biology and member of the College of Arts and Sciences diversity, equity and inclusion committee, praised the student-led movement.
She explained to students why some faculty — particularly younger members, assistant professors or those without tenure — may be hesitant to express more support in fear of losing their jobs.
“I want you all to know the faculty are behind you,” she said. “We support you.”
The USF students have another protest planned for next week at New College, where DeSantis recently installed six conservative members to the school’s board of trustees.
One of the new trustees, conservative activist Christopher Rufo, tweeted that he was unimpressed by Thursday’s turnout.
In addition to Rollins College and Largo High, walkouts were held at the University of Florida, Florida International University, Florida State University, Florida Atlantic University, Florida Poly, New College, the University of North Florida and the University of Central Florida.
Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.