UCF students rally in Orlando against conservative crackdown on Florida universities

‘If (the proposed rule) is adopted, we’re not going to let it be adopted quietly,’ said one student organizer.

click to enlarge Students rally outside of a state university system meeting at UCF in protest of new regulations targeting activism on campuses. Nov. 9, 2023. - photo by McKenna Schueler
photo by McKenna Schueler
Students rally outside of a state university system meeting at UCF in protest of new regulations targeting activism on campuses. Nov. 9, 2023.
Florida students and faculty rallied outside a board meeting Thursday at the University of Central Florida to protest proposed regulations they liken to censorship and attacks on academic freedom on university campuses.

A coalition of student groups, including the College Democrats, the NAACP, the Young Democratic Socialists of America and the Cleo Institute, shared a call to action ahead of the state Board of Governors meeting to show up and speak out against the proposed rules, which support the implementation of a controversial law (SB 266) approved by Florida’s Republican-dominated state legislature and DeSantis in May.

The bill was a priority of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s vying for the Republican nomination for U.S. president. One of the proposed rules, first circulated last month, forbids universities from using any state or federal funds for programs or campus activities that advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), or promote “political or social activism,” unless otherwise required for compliance with state or federal law.

Emma Aagaard, a senior at UCF who organizes with the Cleo Institute, said the proposed rule would “essentially strip” their ability to organize there and to use campus resources.

“The definitions for political or social activism are so vague, and the implications of the bill are so vague, that we don't even really know how serious this is going to be if it’s actually implemented the way that it's worded right now,” Aagaard told Orlando Weekly.

State higher education officials heard public comment on this and other regulations Thursday, and it’s expected to come before the board for final approval in January. Public comment on the regulation will be accepted over the next 14 days.

“I think the point [of the rule] is that they don't want change,” said Aagaard, who’s studying environmental science. “Because part of the definition of political or social activism is any activity that incites a government change.”

click to enlarge Emma Aagaard, a student at UCF, rallies in protest of new regulations proposed for university campuses. - photo by McKenna Schueler
photo by McKenna Schueler
Emma Aagaard, a student at UCF, rallies in protest of new regulations proposed for university campuses.

Political and social activism is broadly defined, under the regulation, as “any activity organized with a purpose of effecting or preventing change to a government policy, action, or function, or any activity intended to achieve a desired result related to social issues, where the university endorses or promotes a position in communications, advertisements, programs, or campus activities.”

The term “social issues” is also vaguely defined. Under the regulation, this would extend to “topics that polarize or divide society among political, ideological, moral, or religious beliefs.”

General counsel for the University of South Florida told the Tampa Bay Times when the rule was first unveiled, “I can’t think of anything that doesn’t.”

Grace Castelin, a political science major and co-chair of UCF’s NAACP chapter, sees it as the latest example of suppression by the state. “The government is really trying to stop a generation that is passionate about equality and equity and social justice,” said Castelin.

“We’re just here to be a force against that, and to protect diversity, equity, inclusion also being upheld at the universities,” she said, adding that diversity is a pillar of UCF. (Driving onto campus, Orlando Weekly trailed behind a giant UCF bus with rainbow colors, displaying the words “Proud to Be a Knight” on its side.)

click to enlarge Grace Castelin, a student at UCF, rallies against new regulations proposed for university campuses. - photo by McKenna Schueler
photo by McKenna Schueler
Grace Castelin, a student at UCF, rallies against new regulations proposed for university campuses.

Separate rules, targeting diversity and equity initiatives and the use of bathrooms and changing rooms by transgender people on campus, were also teed up for discussion at the meeting. Under the bathroom rule, enacted by the board Thursday, faculty and staff could face termination for using restrooms that don't align with their sex assigned at birth.

Students, faculty and other members of the public (including Democratic state representative Anna Eskamani and former state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith)  were surprised to learn just ahead of the meeting that public comment was to be limited to just 15 minutes.

A line of speakers including students, faculty union staff and equal rights advocates lined the hallway outside of the board’s meeting room, which was completely packed with suits.

Comment was limited to one minute per speaker. Student Liam Gundy, with the Young Democratic Socialists of America, described the proposed regulations as “draconian.” Logan Rubenstein, a political science student, said the implementation of SB 266, as proposed, “will be detrimental to a healthy democracy.”

Gina Duncan, Equality Florida's Director of Transgender Equality, accused the board of executing a “culture war” against minority populations. “Your agenda of discrimination is inhumane and harmful,” she told board members.

“This is wrong and we will resist,” she promised. “From the Suwannee to the Keys, Floridians will be free,” she shared. Public comment shortly followed discussion of the state’s recent crackdown on Students for Justice in Palestine chapters on university campuses. State officials confirmed Thursday neither of the two university chapters had been shut down, despite a recent claim from DeSantis to the contrary.

Only about half of those lined up for public comment Thursday were permitted to speak.

The rest were directed to email the board their comments, an insulting dismissal that prompted a brief round of chants by advocates with Equality Florida and students outside the boardroom.

“Let us speak!” at least half a dozen people chanted, fists pumping the air. Two individuals held up black and red signs that read, “Make Orwell Fiction Again.”

click to enlarge UCF students rally in Orlando against conservative crackdown on Florida universities (9)
photo by McKenna Schueler

But with zero concession from the slightly alarmed university staff — “All I can ask is that you please let us finish the meeting today,” one staffer said, gently — the crowd moved outside, joining other students and faculty gathered.

Dr. Leandra Preston, a professor in the Women and Gender Studies department at UCF, is worried that laws restricting what educators can teach in Florida’s education system will leave students ill-equipped to exist and excel in the real world once they leave.

Hundreds of thousands of students cycle through the university system. Florida's K-12 education system has also faced new regulations from the state, concerning issues ranging from what books are allowed in classrooms and libraries to a ban on discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity.

As the single parent of an elementary school student and professor of 20 years, Preston’s fearful of what comes next for herself and faculty in her department, who are untenured. Her union, the United Faculty of Florida, has been “really our only layer of protection,” Preston said. And the state’s taken aim at her union, too.

“It’s really scary now because I’ve never been at this much risk,” she shared. “I'm willing to stay in this department without tenure to do the work I'm doing. But then my protections are less, and when it comes to something like this, like how much risk can I take, as a single parent, trying to keep a job at the end of the day?”

A recent survey by faculty groups found that new higher education laws are pushing faculty to leave Florida.  There's evidence of students leaving, too. For instance, enrollment at Sarasota's New College of Florida, a liberal arts school subjected to a high-profile  conservative overhaul by DeSantis last year, has declined dramatically. Dozens of New College students this school year accepted a transfer deal from a liberal arts school in Massachusetts to escape, after DeSantis appointed a group of right-wing ideologues to New College's board of trustees.

Students rallying outside of the UCF Alumni Center paired their chants and speeches with a verse of "Solidarity Forever," a customary trade union anthem, in honor of union faculty who joined them in protest.

While Preston has concerns about her department, she concedes it’s not just Women & Gender Studies at risk either, which conservatives tend to lump into their critiques of “wokeness” on campus. The university system’s board of governors on Thursday also moved forward with a proposal to scrap Sociology as a core social sciences course. The class involves lessons on gender, sex and sexuality, and race and ethnicity, according to a 2022 syllabus from the University of Florida.

That proposal is also tied to Senate Bill 266, which is facing several legal challenges. It builds on a law approved by lawmakers in 2022, titled the Individual Freedom Act, or "Stop WOKE" Act.

That law, similarly championed by DeSantis, forbids the teaching of concepts that cause “guilt, anguish or other psychological distress” related to race, color, national origin or sex because of actions “committed in the past.” Court challenges, however, have kept the law from being fully enforced. Florida university students have rallied against that law, too.

Faculty members told Orlando Weekly they wonder about other programs that could be affected by the proposed rule to restrict funds for DEI initiatives, such as a scholarship program for young girls who are interested in science and engineering.

“If it is adopted, we're not going to let it be adopted quietly,” said Aagaard, the student organizer with the Cleo Institute. “We are still going to make it known what the implications of this bill are and what is actually happening in Florida so that they can't just sweep it under the rug.”

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About The Author

McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, with a focus on state and local government, workers' rights, and housing issues. Previously worked for WMNF Radio in Tampa. You can find her bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, In These Times, Strikewave, and Facing South among other publications.
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