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Monday, February 06, 2023

Emerson Hall protest draws small turnout ahead of Sasse vote

About 50 protesters gathered outside Emerson Alumni Hall

Sen. Ben Sasse's first official appearance on UF campus Oct. 10 was cut short when more than 300 protesters moved up Emerson Hall’s spiral staircase and flooded the President’s Ballroom, drowning out the senator’s responses. Just over three weeks later, organized outrage has yet to match this impact. 

Around 50 protesters gathered outside Emerson Alumni Hall Tuesday morning to express their disapproval of Sasse’s selection as the sole finalist for the position of UF’s 13th president. The protest began at 9:30 a.m. — 30 minutes before the board’s meeting’s 10 a.m. start time. By 11:25 a.m., moments before Sasse’s interview started, crowds began to disperse. 

Smaller turnout was expected due to the meeting’s morning start, said UF Young Democratic Socialists of America President Aron Ali-McClory. Still, he said, any public attendance at all was a mark of success. 

“What matters is that a contingent of faculty, of students and staff did show up,” McClory said.

Dubbed “Spook Sasse Out of Our Swamp,” the protest was the second step of a two-part plan of action coordinated by a coalition of UF organizations. Thursday at 8 a.m., organizers from UF YDSA, UF College Democrats and Graduate Assistants United gathered outside Student Body President Lauren Lemasters’ office hours and urged her to vote against Sasse’s presidency. 

But Tuesday’s protest remained largely in the Oct. 10 demonstration’s shadow. Compared to Sasse’s first appearance, security outside Emerson Hall had noticeably increased. 

Barricades were placed in the courtyard beside Emerson Hall and along the building, barring anyone from entering. While the barriers allowed access to the courtyard, protesters remained outside the barriers — filling the sidewalk in front of Emerson Hall and alongside West University Avenue as well as spilling onto the road. They continued chanting and walking up and down the street. 

Ava Kaplan, a 20-year-old political science senior, said extra security measures were a main reason for the protest’s low turnout. Due to barriers and the presence of University Police Department officers and state troopers, she said, protesters were sometimes “squished up by the side of the road.” 

“We’re seeing already what Ben Sasse’s presidency is going to be like,” Kaplan said. “It’s one where free speech is oppressed.” 

On Oct. 24, Fuchs circulated a university-wide email announcing students who protested inside Emerson Hall may be punished under the Student Conduct Code — enforcing a decades-old policy regulating student protests. A clear bag policy for those attending the interview was also enforced.  

Dayanna Peek, a 20-year-old UF international studies and public relations junior, attended both Tuesday’s and Oct. 10’s protest. The physical and non-physical barriers implemented in anticipation of Sasse’s interview made it clear the board — and Fuchs — were only concerned about their own agendas, they said. 

“Obviously, Kent Fuchs seems disillusioned,” Peek said. “He doesn't realize what's best for the student body and thinks that what we're doing is just being a nuisance. But, in reality, we're trying to have our voice heard as members of the Gator Nation.”

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As the board listened to public comment from UF students, alumni and faculty in the President’s Ballroom, protesters expressed their discontent through chants outside the building. 

“Get Sasse out of our Swamp,” the crowd shouted while moving toward Emerson Hall’s entrance. 

Nancy Shepard, a UF college of engineering alumni, took time off work to attend the protest. She came decked out in orange and blue and wearing an “I voted” sticker. 

“I loved this university because of its transparency [and] inclusion,” she said. “I just see that eroding in front of me.”

UF is a public university, and therefore, the search process should have been more open, Shepard said. 

“Unfortunately, I'm not sure there will be any major adjustment to the process,” she said. “But I am going to feel better that I was part of the effort to show that it was unacceptable.”

By 11 a.m., attempts to be heard by Sasse and the board evolved into the use of colorful horns and megaphones. One protester held a sign in one hand and played a trumpet with the other. Aiming their shouts toward the door, protesters yelled “We don’t want you!” 

Paul Ortiz, president of UF’s chapter of United Faculty of Florida, addressed protesters about 10 minutes later. 

Sasse is unqualified to run the university and lacks the specific academic credentials to be in charge of a large research university, he said. Ortiz referred to Sasse’s potential UF presidency as a “regime.”

Protesters also expressed concern about Sasse’s opinions on issues like climate action as well as LGBTQ and women's rights. Still, some remained cynical about whether dissent would actually influence the board’s vote. 

Luca Carlson, a 20-year-old UF political science sophomore, said he doesn’t expect the vote’s result to change, but believes making the student body’s opposition known by the board and Sasse is important. 

“My goal is to make our opposition heard and let him know that every day he’s here he’s gonna be the enemy of the people,” Carlson said. 

The protest wrapped up around 11:30 a.m. when organizers told the crowd they anticipated the board’s vote to happen much later in the day. Protesters dispersed in groups, still clutching their signs and yelling final chants. 

By 12:11 p.m., only three protesters remained outside Emerson Hall, including 20-year-old UF political science sophomore Ashley Sanguino and 19-year-old UF political science junior Gian Carlos Rodriguez. 

Sanguino, along with one other protester, later made her way inside the President’s Ballroom, where she sat quietly holding a sign reading “Get Sasse out of our Swamp & Desantis out of the BOT!” Because the meeting was open to the public, anyone was welcome to sit in as long as they didn’t cause a disruption. 

Sanguino was saddened by the protections implemented ahead of Tuesday’s protest, she said. 

“This is not why we came to this university,” she said. “We came to be accepted. Instead, we’re being met with barricades.”

Aidan Bush, Lucy Lannigan, Sophia Bailly, Makiya Seminera and Veronica Nocera contribute to this report.

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