UF unions and Gainesville community leaders — barred by thin walls and closed doors — clashed with officials over in-person classes Friday. The Board of Trustees approved new housing rate increases and were presented with the final version of a furlough policy.
Trustees at Emerson Alumni Hall listened to 16 students, professors and Gainesville residents speak against in-person classes in the Spring during the second day of their meeting. Despite that, the board carried on with its agenda, approving new dorm rental rates and hearing the final version of the furlough policy, which allows UF to require employees take unpaid leave.
The Board approved an increase of the on-campus student housing rental rate by 4.5% over the next five fiscal years, beginning in Fall 2021. That would increase the current average rate from $657 a month to $819 a month by 2026.
Jodi Gentry, UF’s vice president of human resources, also presented the final version of the furlough policy to the board.
The ability to implement furloughs, which would have employees take unpaid leave, was approved by the board during its September meeting. At that meeting, Hosseini asked Gentry to present the final version of the plan during the December meeting.
She said it will exempt graduate students and, if imposed, only be for a period of six months. However, the plan will force employees to pay the employee portion of their health insurance premiums.
Gentry stressed to the board that UF currently has no plans to furlough any employees, but compared it to preparing for a hurricane.
“We don’t know when the storm will hit or the severity of the storm,” she said, “but what we all know is that, if you wait until a hurricane occurs, it’s too late to plan.”
Masked trustees seemed focused as each speaker pleaded for UF to delay the move toward in-person classes. After 45 minutes of comments, the trustees reaffirmed UF’s commitment to face-to-face learning in the Spring.
The protestors included members from the United Faculty of Florida-UF, the faculty union; Graduate Assistants United-UF, the graduate assistant union; the Gainesville chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America; and the Gainesville City Commission.
In their demands, some recognized that the board was unlikely to change its mind.
Ashley Nguyen, the membership coordinator for UFF-UF, said UF’s administration has ignored the urges of students, faculty and staff to prioritize their lives.
“Not a single one of us can seem to make you guys listen to what we have to say,” Nguyen said. “All of our pleas seem to have fallen on deaf ears.”
Outside the conference room, protestors chanted “Solidarity Forever,” a popular union song, holding signs that read “Audacious and unfair,” referring to the return to in-person classes.
The protestors were not allowed in the main conference hall due to physical capacity limits and instead were assigned an overflow room.
The actions of the board affects everyone in Gainesville, Graduate Assistants United-UF member Fi Stewart-Taylor said.
Stewart-Taylor is teaching a face-to-face writing for engineers class in the Spring and worries about returning to campus.
“Graduate assistants are not the only workers at the university who can't afford to get sick,” she said, “but we have been bargaining and bargaining and bargaining to keep our health insurance.”
Once the commenters finished, Board Chairman Mori Hosseini asked UF administrators to respond to some of their claims.
“I understand the anxiety, I understand the fear, but most of us face the fear every day,” Dr. David Nelson, UF’s senior vice president for health affairs, said during the meeting.
Hosseini took his blue mask off and said from his seat that the board was fully committed to UF’s plans for the Spring and shot down the idea that the administration didn’t care for its community. He also condemned the protestors shouting outside the room, calling it disrespectful, before praising UF President Kent Fuchs’ decisions.
“We absolutely support this president and his leadership of this university in opening its doors in the Spring,” he said.
Fuchs sidestepped any direct comments by the protestors, though said from his seat — with his mask off, separated from other members only by small plastic dividers — he was thankful they got to speak and sympathized with their concerns over the Spring.
“It’s going to be a challenging Spring semester,” Fuchs said.
The public comments extended the meeting by 20 minutes, leaving the board to quickly approve all of its agenda items unanimously before Hosseini adjourned the board meeting shortly before 4 p.m.
UFF-UF president Paul Ortiz, who also spoke at the meeting said he did not expect the Board of Trustees to experience an “epiphany” and still expects Spring classes to happen. He said the protest was a way of keeping attention on the problems that come with a return to in-person classes.
“I can control my work environment,” he said, ”but I can’t control my work environment if I'm teaching in a small seminar room and I have a number of students who partied at Midtown the previous night.”
Jacob Giner, a 19-year old UF anthropology sophomore, attended the protest as a member of the Gainesville chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, a group whose goal is to fight for the immediate needs of workers and students.
“It was important that we showed up on their turf and told them what was wrong and what they need to do,” he said.