More than a dozen UF faculty and local Democratic politicians rallied to protect academic freedom at Florida's flagship university and urged students to vote in November's midterm elections Friday morning.
Free UF, a broad coalition of faculty, staff, students and local advocacy groups who banded together to oppose what they describe as a state encroachment on academic freedom, officially organized the event at the Plaza of the Americas.
Steven Kirn, a Free UF organizer and retired UF professor, said that interference from the state government could lessen UF’s reputation, and devalue students’ degrees.
"We've been successful at bringing together people with varying points of view, but with a common cause," said Kirn, "We want to be an institution which is free to pursue learning."
A major research UF should be immune to political pressures, Kirn said.
Politicians like City Commissioner Harvey Ward, a Gainesville mayoral runoff candidate, tried to push through the apathy that young people can have about elections, especially midterms. He feels the Republican-dominated state government won’t address student needs, he said.
"When we don't show up at the ballot box, bad things happen," Ward said
Students needs to show up to the ballot box and cast their vote in November, Ward said, to address the issues that mattered to them, such as abortion rights, LGBTQ rights and affordable housing. He also connected the recent controversies at UF, such as the university not allowing officials to testify in court and the presidential selection process, straight to the state government.
"The more things unravel coming down from Tallahassee, the more we need to be able to support students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida," Ward said.
Danielle Hawk, the Democratic candidate for Florida's 3rd Congressional District, spoke about the importance of UF to the surrounding local community she’s hoping to represent.
"The purpose of higher education is to provide quality education and economic opportunities to the communities where these institutions exist," Hawk said.
Polarizing actions such as the presidential search process or the controversial barring of UF professors from testifying against the state decrease the quality of higher education, Hawk said.
The voice of state Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson, D-Gainesville, — a former educator and the current state representative for 20th District— boomed throughout the Plazas in criticism of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-led state House.
Other speakers gave stump speeches for their respective campaigns, including Dejeon Cain and Casey Willits, both candidates to replace Harvey Ward as the city commissioner of District 3. Adam Hattersley, the Democratic candidate for Florida chief financial officer, also delivered a speech.
As Kirn handed flyers to students with voting information, he said he believes most students didn't show the kind of interest he'd hoped for.
"Eighty percent of them just give you a frown," Kirn said.
The speakers primarily preached to each other and other Free UF organizers. Students at the Plaza largely lounged in the grass, ate Krishna lunch with friends or napped with their earplugs in — only a few at a time listening closely to the rally.
Anatolia Legaspi, a 21-year-old UF graduate pharmacy student, said she'd like to see more transparency from the university in decision-making processes such as the presidential search or the firing of Mark Law as the director of the UF Honors Program.
Regarding academic freedom at UF, Legaspi said it's the kind of issue that will need to be thought about sooner or later.
"I think it's harder for people to consider when they don't feel like it's affecting them now," Legaspi said. "Maybe it's not something that everyone is worried about right now, but I think I could see it becoming a larger issue.”
Christian Casale is a history senior and the university desk editor for The Alligator. In his spare time, he loves writing his bio for the website and watching movies alone in the dark.