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Monday, June 24, 2024

Protesters greet Sasse on first day, unveil demands for his presidency

Group of 100 waited for Sasse inside Tigert Hall

Nearing her second hour at Tigert Hall, a protester sitting on the floor in front of the President’s Office leaned her phone speaker onto the mouth of a bullhorn and began to play “The Man” by Taylor Swift. A few minutes later, another began rattling off the digits of pi from memory to a cheering crowd.

These were two ways a group of nearly 100 protesters passed the time as they camped out on the second floor of Tigert for an hour and a half, waiting to deliver a list of demands to President Ben Sasse on his first day as UF’s 13th president. 

The collection of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and alumni, as well as other members of the campus community, were also protesting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ higher education policies, said Bryn Taylor, a 27-year-old UF graduate assistant and co-organizer of the protest.

DeSantis released a set of higher education proposals Jan. 31 that included defunding diversity, equity and inclusion about a month after he demanded an audit of DEI activities in Florida universities. 

“We are trying to let him know that we have some expectations for his presidency that we would like to see go through,” she said.

The protest began outside at 2 p.m., where speakers on the Tigert steps led chants and addressed the crowd gathered in front. Some protesters held signs reading “keep Sasse out of our swamp!” and “Sasse Fuching sucks” — a reference to former UF President Kent Fuchs.

Among the demands were for Sasse to promise not to eliminate tenure — a decision he made while president of Midland University — and for the university to refuse to comply with state demands for lists or audits. In his Oct. 10 forum, Sasse reaffirmed his commitment to defending tenure at UF.

“I will be a zealous defender of tenure,” Sasse said at the time. “Tenure is an incredibly important tool inside a large research university like this.”

Protesters traveled to Gainesville from across the county and state. 

Alex Opraud, a 21-year-old student at New College of Florida, drove up from Sarasota to speak at the protest. He was in contact with organizers at UF beforehand, he said. 

Since DeSantis appointed six conservative members to its Board of Trustees, the feeling at New College has been dire and intense, he said. New College was in solidarity with UF in rejecting government influence, he said.

“It sucks that we have to be in this business, or we need to rise to the occasion, but we are rising to the occasion,” he said. “I'm genuinely proud of the other students.”

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After entering Tigert about an hour into the demonstration, protesters demanded all 100 of them be allowed to enter the office and hand their demands to Sasse or an assistant personally, after declining the chance to send a group of three or four into the room.

UF representatives initially said they’d look for an appropriate representative of the president to speak with the group, but later clarified no one would be available to collect the demands. 

The group also chose not to give the list of demands to a UF spokesperson or a University Police Department officer, both of whom offered to forward it along.

While waiting in the hallway, 19-year-old UF philosophy freshman Joann Almonte propped her bag of Publix groceries — including a bag of spinach and two boxes of whole grain Cheerios — in front of her. 

Almonte hadn’t planned on joining the protest until she passed by on the way back from the grocery store, she said, but she had attended the protest in November when the UF Board of Trustees approved Sasse.

“I didn't even think about probably returning to put my groceries away because, at that point, everybody was starting to walk inside,” she said. “And I was like, ‘I don't want to miss this. I want to be here.’”

For some, this wasn’t their first UF protest. 

Randi Cameon, a 75-year-old Gainesville resident, said she’s lived to protest the Johns Committee, a 1960s Florida anti-LGBTQ administrative group, and apartheid in South Africa. She thinks DeSantis hand-picked Sasse for UF president, she said.

“I'm mad as hell,” she said. “This is supposed to be an institution of higher learning, and instead it's just suppression.”

Soniy Alamdari, a 19-year-old UF criminology and political science sophomore, stumbled upon the protest on the way out of her class in Anderson Hall. 

Although she wasn’t aware of the gathering beforehand, she broadly agreed with what she had heard so far. Sasse’s approval came amid protests from the student body, she said. 

“It's kind of disgraceful that he got selected, even though both students and staff had said that they disapproved of him,” she said.

As the protest fizzled out, those who were left still hadn’t handed in their demands. Instead, they taped flyers listing them to the walls and windows of the building. Signs and cardboard cutout masks of Sasse’s face filled the hallways of Tigert, and they left as one group.

Contact Alissa at agary@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @AlissaGary1.

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Alissa Gary

Alissa is a sophomore journalism major and University Editor at The Alligator. She has previously covered student government, university administration and K-12 education. In her free time, she enjoys showing photos of her cats to strangers.


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