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Thursday, May 23, 2024

UFF-UF holds virtual teach-in to discuss academic freedom, future of higher education

State education reform legislation poses difficulties for professors, students and locals

The University of Florida's Century tower, as viewed from Newell Drive on Thursday, July 22, 2021. The tower commemorates UF students who fought and died in World War I and World War II -- the tower also commemorates the 100th anniversary of UF's founding in 1853.
The University of Florida's Century tower, as viewed from Newell Drive on Thursday, July 22, 2021. The tower commemorates UF students who fought and died in World War I and World War II -- the tower also commemorates the 100th anniversary of UF's founding in 1853.

The click of a Zoom link brought over 30 people together April 17 for a discussion of academic freedom through the lens of UF professors, students and Gainesville community members. 

In honor of the National Day of Action for Higher Education for the Public Good, the United Faculty of Florida-UF spearheaded a virtual teach-in addressing recent state legislation targeting universities and the future of higher education. The meeting was co-hosted by UF history professor Paul Ortiz and Steve Kirn, a retired member of the UF College of Business, who introduced speakers from the university and beyond. 

“Our students, staff and faculty have really been on the front lines of holding the line in support of academic freedom,” Ortiz said in the meeting. 

Signed into law in 2023, Florida House Bill 999 sought to drastically change state education, prohibiting the allocation of state or federal grant money toward diversity, equity and inclusion programs. UF fired 13 full-time DEI employees and eliminated 15 administrative appointments for faculty March 1, enacting the closure of the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer and affiliated DEI contracts. 

Sharon Austin, a UF political science professor and UFF-UF member, said she experienced microaggressions and discrimination as a Black woman enrolled in a college without DEI programs in the 1980s. 

“It was a hostile environment,” she said in the meeting. 

Students could lose pride in their universities much like she did in hers, Austin said. 

In light of the recent threat to multiple RTS routes through campus and farther into the Gainesville area, Zefnia Durham stressed the importance of public transportation for students. As a bus driver, he served as president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1579 and represented the SOS campaign seeking to protect RTS. 

Compromising bus routes limits those who can’t afford on-campus living, he said. 

“If you don’t have access to get to the education, what good is the education for you?” Durham said in the meeting. 

UFF-UF President and Engineering Professor Meera Sitharam provided an overview of the “outbreak” of state legislation targeting K-12 and higher education since 2020, including the “Stop WOKE” act and “Don’t Say Gay” bill among others threatening unions and international cooperation. 

“We got this poisonous combination of mindlessness, apathy and authoritarianism,” Sitharam said in the meeting. 

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She is currently undergoing post-tenure review as mandated by the 2023 Senate Bill 266. 

Anna Peterson, a UFF-UF member and religion professor, learned the “Stop WOKE” act prohibited the discussion of critical race theory two weeks before the next semester began in Summer 2022. She added it to her curriculum shortly after but feared students would report her, Peterson said. 

“I was a little concerned. It was kind of a trust fall,” she said in the meeting. 

International faculty, especially those of Chinese descent, were impacted greatly by the passage of Senate Bill 846 in 2023 that prohibited UF’s collaboration with any “foreign country of concern,” including China and Iran among others, said Zhong-Ren Peng, International Center for Adaptation Planning and Design director and UFF-UF member. 

“We are not able to recruit top graduate assistants from those certain countries of concern,” Peng said in the meeting. “That really affects our research.”

In a time where threats to education have become common, sharing information and experiences with one another is critical to spreading awareness, said Rafael Ramirez Solorzano, UFF-UF member and Latin American studies professor. 

He explained his experience teaching at UF as a queer person of color, which he described as having a target on his back. He said the university has seen a “BIPOC faculty flight.”

“Students come to me, specifically students of color, saying, ‘I don’t have anyone to work with,’” he said in the meeting.  

In light of the Israel-Hamas war, Meir Schochet, a UF junior and Jewish Voice for Peace vice president, said his organization has witnessed student organizations fight threats of disbandment, including Students for Justice in Palestine. 

“We must continue to be loud and refuse to comply with demands to silence our free thoughts and speech,” he said in the meeting. 

UF Sunrise Movement President Sofia Aviles was accompanied by Campbell Al-Khafaji, president of Climate Action Gator, along with members of both organizations to discuss the UF Green New Deal, an initiative to fight climate change, a term that has also faced backlash from the Florida legislature. 

The teach-in was concluded with additional resources provided by Adolfho Romero, Samuel Proctor Oral History Program project coordinator, and a final statement from Kirn, the event’s co-host.

“We must come together,” he said in the meeting. 

Contact Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp at Follow her on X @rylan_digirapp.

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Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp

Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp is a second-year journalism and environmental science major covering enterprise politics. She previously worked as a metro news assistant. Outside of the newsroom, you can usually find her haunting local music venues.

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