University of South Florida senior Charles Suor, 20, speaks to members of the school's board of trustees on Tuesday at the Marshall Student Center in Tampa. Suor, president of the Trans+ Student Union, said student organizations are where many students find community and family on campus. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

As the legislative session began Tuesday with a litany of bills focused on higher education, students filed into the University of South Florida’s board of trustees meeting with signs calling on school officials to fight state proposals targeting diversity programs.

A day earlier, a protest against those measures resulted in a physical altercation with USF campus police and four arrests.

Board chairperson Will Weatherford addressed students, who typically don’t show up for trustees meetings.

“I want you to know that you have been seen, and your voices will be heard,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of conversation lately, particularly in Tallahassee, around higher education in Florida.”

He told them he valued their insight, but that many issues were outside the trustees’ purview. The former House speaker also reminded them that they were still in the “first inning” of the session, with nine weeks for bills to be revised.

“We really appreciate the fact that you are here. We appreciate the fact you are willing to speak,” added USF President Rhea Law, who tried to allay concerns about legislation that would dismantle diversity initiatives at state colleges and universities.

“We are absolutely committed to fostering an inclusive environment for everyone here at the university and have opportunities for everyone, regardless of their background,” she said. “We will not back up from that commitment. … That is our stance and that is what we stand for.”

Three students shared their concerns surrounding HB 999, a bill that would bring about DeSantis’ wide-ranging proposals to change higher education and shift powers to boards of trustees. A faculty member spoke of the chilling climate and compared it to Cuba. One community member expressed his concerns over videos he saw of campus law enforcement’s handling of student-led protests on Monday.

Jonathon Chavez, president of College Democrats, spoke on behalf of 29 student organizations that signed a letter calling on the board to protect faculty tenure and maintain coursework in areas like gender studies and critical race theory that would be threatened under the legislation.

Chavez also noted that HB 999 has a provision that could allow universities to prohibit granting funds to student organizations, ban student organization activities on campus or ban some student groups altogether. He asked board members to commit to not doing that.

Charles Suor, president of the Trans+ Student Union, said student organizations are where many students find community and family on campus. Suor’s organization was a lifesaver for many, he said, adding that the same is true for many other cultural organizations.

“Prohibiting student organizations focused on culture and identity would devastate a major aspect of that social life,” Suor said. “HB 999 will directly harm USF’s morale and social fabric as well as admissions, revenue and student retention. But ultimately you cannot put a price tag on the spaces students create for themselves.”

Jenifer Jasinki Schneider, trustees’ faculty member, told the speakers that faculty stood with them.

Trustee Oscar Horton commended the speakers.

“My ask would be the rest of us as trustees take all these comments very seriously,” he said. “We have to be heard. Silence is compliance. If we don’t take the charge and speak up, any and everywhere we can, this will not end well. We don’t want that.”

He said he understood versions of bills could change, but encouraged the board to be diligent.

“I do implore us to continue to listen and to continue to be advocates for doing all of the right things,” Horton said.

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.