Editor’s note: This story is the result of multiple interviews with sources in UF Student Government and Florida Blue Key, many of whom spoke to the Alligator on the condition of anonymity in order to preserve their positions in their respective organizations.
Aundre Price wanted to join the most prestigious student honor society at UF.
The African-American student has been involved since he arrived on campus in Fall 2009. He’s been a senator, a committee chair and is now Student Senate President.
He is a UF Reitz Scholar and a rising member of the Unite Party.
Many Student Government officials were surprised to find that Aundre Price was not selected to join Florida Blue Key.
The prestigious leadership honorary comprised of UF students keeps limits on the number of students from minority student organizations and Greek organizations that are allowed to join, an Alligator investigation has learned.
Many applicants who are members of the Black Student Union, the Asian American Student Union and the Hispanic Student Association were not tapped, or selected, for membership in Blue Key during the most recent application period in early April. Sources told the Alligator that a predetermined number of students from each organization had been expected to get selected based on deals made among student leaders. In a similar vein, Greek organizations receive admissions to Blue Key and positions in UF Student Government based on agreements made by a small group of Greek student leaders, according to sources with knowledge of the process.
Weeks after he was not selected, Price wasn’t angry.
He feels that his future in leadership doesn’t rest on being a Key.
“Being in Florida Blue Key doesn’t make you any better of a leader,” he said. “If you’re not tapped, you just keep doing what you’re doing.”
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For students aspiring to hold public office one day, the path seems simple.
Go to UF. Get involved in Student Government. Get tapped to join Florida Blue Key. Make the right connections.
Even students who have no taste for politics yearn to join the prestigious honor society that boasts alumni like former senator and Gov. Bob Graham and current U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
The Alligator’s investigation shows the journey from wide-eyed freshman to seasoned campus politician can be tumultuous. It’s riddled with backroom deals to secure positions in SG, agreements to approve applications for Florida Blue Key based on Greek affiliations and handshakes that determine the future of campus politics.
Hovering over SG, Florida Blue Key and all of campus student life, is what is called the System.
The System is a fluid set of alliances governed by a select group of powerbrokers. Versions of the System have existed for decades, with the current iteration taking hold about seven years ago. It assigns power to a small group of campus leaders — members of five Greek organizations who have risen through the ranks — who have a hand in deciding everything from who gets to run for Student Body president to who gets tapped to join Florida Blue Key.
Most recently, the class of new Florida Blue Key initiates is nearly devoid of diversity. Of the 50 students selected in early April, six were members of what are called “the communities” — Asian American Student Union, Black Student Union and Hispanic Student Association. One student from the Asian American Student Union, two from the Hispanic Student Association and three from the Black Student Union got into Blue Key, despite an understanding among leadership that more would be tapped.
“It’s a system that’s inherently unfair,” said one source with the Unite Party who is a minority. “We’re constantly at the bottom of the table begging for bread crumbs.”
Some say the System doesn’t foster racist tendencies as much as it bows to the power of votes in SG elections.
Alex Cornillie, former candidate for Student Body president for the Students Party and an inactive brother of the Kappa Sigma fraternity, said the limits on tapping for Blue Key have nothing to do with race and everything to do with votes in SG elections.
“The function of Blue Key is to keep the particular groups of people in line for elections,” he said.
He said the same system of rewards and punishments exists for any Greek organization.
“As far as rewards and punishments, it is based upon how loyal you are and how loyal you’re perceived as being,” he said.
In an email Monday, Florida Blue Key President Wesley Maul said the organization does not track admission based on organization affiliations.
“Many Florida students hold positions of responsibility and leadership throughout campus and the Gainesville community, but merely holding such a position doesn’t insure [sic] membership in Florida Blue Key,” he wrote. “Our tapping process looks at a candidate’s overall record of success and achievement in determining his or her qualifications as a potential new member.”
He added that he and fellow Blue Key members are concerned with the diversity of the organization and the perception that it’s difficult for minority students or students in certain academic or campus organizations to qualify for membership.
“I don’t personally believe that’s the case, but perception can often be as important as reality,” he wrote.
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Myra Morgan will tell you that when it comes to SG, she has seen and heard it all.
She was director of student activities for more than 20 years, becoming an unofficial adviser to SG and Florida Blue Key.
Arriving at UF in 1985, she said she was, at first, surprised at first at how much power SG wielded.
“It was a real eye-opener for me at the time that it was easier for the Student Body president to have access to the governor’s office than the university president,” she said.
She’s watched SG’s ups and downs for years, and she said she sees the politics as a microcosm of how real politics works.
The problems and perceptions arising now are not new. She says it’s cyclical.
“If people are feeling disenfranchised now, or that they think there’s too much influence with Blue Key and too much influence from fraternities, all that goes full-circle,” she said.
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Florida Blue Key touts itself as Florida’s most prestigious honor society, boasting a rare collection of alumni that pepper the state’s major power brokers. Former governors such as Lawton Chiles and Bob Graham are alumni. Current Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives Dean Cannon, a former UF Student Body president, also hails from Blue Key.
But even dating back to the 1950s, the society has, at times, found itself embroiled in controversy regarding its relationship to UF Student Government.
“There was a lot of emphasis on clandestine activities,” Graham said.
He recalled incidents of stealing copies of the Alligator on days the newspaper ran editorials supporting the non-Greek, non-Blue-Key-supported party and tapping phones to listen in on conversations of opposing parties.
“I never encountered, in state and federal politics, activities as aggressive as at the University of Florida,” he said.
To him, the seedier aspects of campus politics served only to hurt future state leaders.
“If there were lessons taught, they were not good lessons,” he said.
He said he suspects that student politics has since cleaned up its act, and he feels students are smart enough to realize they should not be distracted by political sideshows.
More recently, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., chose to forge a path through SG outside of the System. During her time at UF in the 1980s, she successfully ascended to Student Senate President and managed the campaign of a non-Greek Student Body president — all without support from the System.
“We had to run a more grassroots campaign,” she said.
The parties she affiliated with never excluded members of the Greek community, she said, but the emphasis was less on rewarding affiliation and more on recognizing ability and qualifications.
Her independence didn’t come without strife. She recalled a time when she was in the SG offices and was cornered by a Greek-party Blue Key member who told her she had no future in Florida politics because he was going to block her acceptance into the honor society.
She said she never had an interest in Florida Blue Key. She now serves as the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
“I’m not in Florida Blue Key, and it seems like I did OK,” she said.
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Sources have told the Alligator that votes for approving Blue Key applicants are based on several factors, including the merits of applicants’ resumes and backroom deals struck to honor agreements with Greek houses and other student organizations.
In early April, several members of the multicultural communities had been given the impression by decision-makers that the majority of applicants from the communities would be tapped for the honor society.
According to sources, leaders from the five leading Greek organizations — Theta Chi, Sigma Phi Epsilon, Alpha Epsilon Phi, Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Alpha Epsilon Pi — decide who gets selected. These leaders, sources said, agreed to minimize the number of students selected from the communities this semester.
One source from the communities said they are receiving the blame for the the slim victory in this semester’s SG elections.
“It’s supposed to be our fault that the margin was too small,” the source said.
The source said there isn’t anything wrong with having a system that breeds good campus leaders, but it is flawed when the process for advancing is inherently unfair.
“They can only marginalize the communities for so long,” the source said.
Rising Student Body President Tj Villamil, a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon, said he is not aware of any connections between Florida Blue Key and Student Government, and he disapproves of any collusion to manipulate votes in Blue Key to favor some candidates over others.
“If that does happen, I denounce it,” he said. “I certainly don’t take part in it.”
Sources familiar with the tapping process said Villamil was part of the decision to tap fewer members of the multicultural communities — an assertion Villamil denies.
“I don’t decide who gets tapped,” he said. “I just focus on SG.”
Wesley Maul, president of Florida Blue Key, wrote in an email Monday that Greek leaders have not influenced votes in the process of selecting members.
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As director of Student Activities and Involvement, Nancy Chrystal-Green deals with all student organizations on campus, providing support for more than 900 registered groups.
Greek chapters, Student Government and Florida Blue Key fall under her watch, but she said her office stays out of the selection process for new members.
Chris Loschiavo, assistant dean of students and director of student conduct and conflict resolution, said his office is available if students have issues with campus leaders that need mediation.
He added that getting involved might be the best way to handle problems with student leadership, especially for students who desire to be leaders.
“As a student leader, if you’re not happy with something that is happening in SG or in student leadership, you as a student leader have to figure out a way to take it on,” he said.
Chrystal-Green said she expects all student organizations, including SG and Florida Blue Key, to choose the best students possible when selecting new members.
“That’s my expectation of any organization, especially one that is as prestigious as Florida Blue Key,” she said.
Myra Morgan, former director of student activities, now works in the UF Division for Student Affairs as the director of external relations, but she still occasionally speaks to students who have questions or concerns regarding SG.
She said when students complain to her about barriers to involvement, she asks them a series of questions.
“Did you vote? Did you go over and sign up to volunteer on a committee? Did you come forward with a project that you thought might be useful?”
Sometimes the answer is no.
“Well then you know what, you have nothing to complain about.”
Contact Joey Flechas at [email protected].