College students across the state are planning a walkout at noon Thursday to protest Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education policies, including his recent threat to defund campus diversity programs.
Their goal is multifaceted, said Ben Braver, a University of South Florida student who helped organize Stand for Freedom, a student group with representatives from at least seven state university campuses.
Braver also has been coordinating with several organizations, including the Dream Defenders, who have declared a National Day of Action Thursday for college and high school students across the country. They hope to send a message to lawmakers in Tallahassee with marches, speeches and signs.
The statewide protests at universities grew out of Braver’s efforts last month on a smaller scale. He helped organize a rally and petition asking USF officials not to comply with a request from the governor’s budget office that each university turn over detailed data on all gender-affirming health care they had provided since 2018.
After attending an organizing workshop hosted by state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, Braver began reaching out to friends on other campuses to find out how they could band together.
On Thursday, they hope to protest DeSantis’ various attempts to gain tighter control over education — from last year’s Individual Freedom Act, also known as the Stop Woke Act, and the Parental Rights in Education Act, to his recent targeting of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at colleges and universities.
The walkout is planned from noon to 1 p.m., a largely symbolic action accompanied by speeches and teach-ins by professors on topics including history.
The Dream Defenders organization is calling it a Can’t Ban Us day, with a toolkit for local organizers.
“Learning about our past, and each other, brings us closer together and helps us understand the world around us,” the kit says. “That’s what scares Ron DeSantis. He’s afraid that if we learn about freedom fighters in our history, we’ll see that he’s a reflection of the past too. One we can’t and won’t revisit.”
Asked for a response, DeSantis spokesperson Jeremy Redfern referred to the governor’s Jan. 31 news conference announcing a major package of changes in Florida higher education. DeSantis tweeted a flyer listing proposed legislation that “will refocus Florida’s colleges and universities on preparing students to be contributing members of society, and bring more accountability to the higher education system.”
His proposals include prohibitions on activities or programs that “promote divisive concepts,’’ with critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion listed as examples. He also wants to make it easier to review faculty members’ tenure status “at any time,” give school presidents more power over hiring and budget $100 million to recruit and retain highly qualified university faculty.
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Paul Ortiz, a University of Florida history professor who leads the faculty union there, was contacted by former students with Dream Defenders to lead a teach-in on Thursday.
“As a historian, I’m in heaven right now,” he said. “When students are telling me they’re protesting for the right to learn more, this is the moment I’ve waited for my whole life.”
But he also has stark concerns about the direction of state policies.
“This is Black History Month,” Ortiz said. “In 1923, the state of Florida dictated to Black people how they’d understand their history. Here it is a century later and the state of Florida is still trying to dictate to Black people how to understand their own history.”
Braver, a member of College Democrats, said he hopes the protest will refocus the public’s attention.
“The narrative is always about what Ron DeSantis is doing and how good he is at doing it, even if it’s an evil thing,” he said. “And students feel discouraged, like there isn’t that fight-back. I want students to know there are other people involved and that if you join, you can make a difference.”
Kayla Lee, president of the Black Student Association at USF’s St. Petersburg campus, heard about the movement through a professor. She helped spearhead efforts at the small downtown campus, where a walkout, march and speeches are planned.
As a Black student, Lee said, the push to limit diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, known as DEI, “feels like taking away some of the programs that helped me feel like I belong.”
Lee, who also works in the school’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, said she feels “frustrated with how DEI is being portrayed.”
Eskamani, a doctoral student at the University of Central Florida, said DeSantis’ proposals are personal for her. Florida’s university system allowed her father to send her and her twin sister to college at the same time as a single parent, she said. A Bright Futures scholarship and Advanced Placement courses that earned college credit made it affordable.
“Every culture war is a class war,” Eskamani said. “Some people will have access to critical thought and some won’t. We’re going to be left with this state-censored option.”
She pointed to New College, the state-run Sarasota school where the governor recently engineered a conservative takeover by appointing six new members to the board of trustees. “Other universities are watching, thinking that could be us,” Eskamani said.
She said she was heartened by students learning more about how systems of power work, turning their attention more to boards of trustees and the state Board of Governors.
“It’s not just a flash in the pan,” Braver said. “We’re here to stay, we’re organized, and we’re powerful.”
Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.