Cristina Cabada, the Alachua County Labor Coalition Coordinator, speaks to a crowd assembled across the street from the Dasburg House during a protest against in-person classes this spring at UF, on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020.
About 40 members of UF’s faculty and graduate unions protested outside UF President Kent Fuchs’ house Sunday where, despite facing heavy rain and wind, they spoke out against the move for more in-person classes in the Spring.
Members of United Faculty of Florida-UF and Graduate Assistants United-UF, local representatives of the Democratic Socialists of America, Gainesville City Commissioner Harvey Ward and an Alachua County Labor Coalition member spoke at the event against UF’s plans for more in-person classes in the Spring due to COVID-19.
The President’s House, across the street from the UF Levin College of Law, served as the backdrop, with masked attendees — including a costumed Grim Reaper — who said the administration’s decisions put lives at risk. Protestors weren’t sure whether or not Fuchs was home.
Bobby Mermer, a co-president of GAU-UF, said in his speech that at-risk members of his union are being asked to choose between their lives and livelihoods.
“They’re being led into the slaughter,” Mermer said.
Jacob Giner, a 19-year-old UF anthropology sophomore and activist with the Young Democratic Socialists of Gainesville, said UF was complicit in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposals to re-open the state.
He said only those who’ve proposed face-to-face classes believe them to be successful.
“I’m not going to die on a ventilator so the politicians and administrators can ignore the problem,” Giner shouted.
The Board of Governors, the 17-member body that oversees the State University System, has not released official guidance on how to administer classes in the Spring.
Other speakers, like Roxanne Palmer, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America’s North Central Florida chapter, used more explicit language in describing their fury.
“Gainesville is a very small pond. UF is a gigantic fish and the fish is f------ sick and is bleeding poison into the environment,” Palmer said. “Show some f------ leadership, Kent Fuchs.”
The Sunday protest was the latest in a saga of disagreements between the faculty and graduate unions and the UF administration over in-person classes.
Once UF announced plans to hold more in-person classes in Spring, faculty members immediately expressed concerns, starting with an Oct. 5 petition that had more than 3,300 signatures as of Sunday afternoon.
UF Provost Joseph Glover acknowledged those concerns in a Faculty Senate town hall on Oct. 6 but stressed the importance of returning to the classroom.
The unions hosted a press conference on Oct. 20 stating their opposition to UF’s Spring plan, asking the administration to provide the option for faculty to teach remotely, especially for at-risk faculty and staff or for those who live with at-risk family members.
“We’re working harder than ever, but why is the University of Florida endangering our health and our well-being by forcing us to go back to face-to-face learning in the Spring?” Paul Ortiz, the president of UFF-UF, asked the crowd.
Sunday’s event will not change the UF administration’s mind, Ortiz said afterward, but it will be part of a pressure campaign. He said administration still has time to change their minds regarding in-person classes.
“We’re just gonna continue raising our voices and doing what we should be doing as a university community,” Ortiz said. “My main disappointment with President Fuchs right now is I don’t see any dialogue.”
When reached for comment Sunday, UF spokesperson Steve Orlando referred to Fuchs’ Oct. 9 video promoting in-person courses next semester.
Other UF administration members, including Dean of Students Heather White and Assistant Dean Kris Klann, attended to observe the protest but declined to comment.
Brantlee Spakes-Richter, a UF plant pathology associate professor, attended the protest holding a sign that had written on it, “There is no top 5 without your teachers!” She has worked at UF for 10 years and said she is outraged at the way the administration has made its decisions.
Richter said the first article of the UF constitution describes a shared governance system, which means faculty and administrators are entitled to voice their opinions when it comes to making policy decisions. UF did not follow such procedure to decide on announcing in-person classes for the Spring, she said.
UF allowed for faculty comments at Glover’s town hall last month, but hasn’t publicly addressed their concerns since Fuchs’ Oct. 9 video.
“There was no seat at the table, there was no option for us to participate in charting the path forward for UF,” Richter said, “and I find that abhorrent.”
That lack of conversation — and commitment to in-person courses — is what’s caused the divide.
“We gotta be honest with what this face-to-face policy will do,” said Ara Hagopian, a 24-year-old UF graduate student, who dressed as the Grim Reaper. “It will cost lives.”