Tampa students occupy administration building to defend education rights
Tampa, FL – Students gathered in the Marshall Student Center, on the University of South Florida's (USF) campus, on March 6 protesting budget cuts and tuition hikes. The average USF student's debt is over $22,000 from loans. Meanwhile, the school's Board of Trustees – those who cut the budgets and raise tuition – are made up of representatives of corporations like Tampa Electric Company and Fifth Third Bank. Last year the Board voted to raise tuition by 11%. On top of this, Florida Governor Rick Scott has cut $300 million from the eleven state universities' budgets. Now, the USF administration is threatening to raise tuition yet again.
Students marched into the Marshall Center demanding that the school “Chop from the top.” From there, they dropped a banner from the fourth floor which read “Education is a right, not a privilege.” Inside, the students, most of whom were a part of Students for a Democratic Society, gave speeches.
Susie Shannon, a staff worker and member of AFSCME Local 3342, said “The union's position on education is that it should be free! Students shouldn't have to get two jobs or put debt on their families in order to get an education. We have the voice to do something about it.”
Jared Hoey of Tampa Bay SDS said, “We can't default on student loans. While the banks on Wall Street got billions in bailout money, we didn't get a dime! Where the hell is our bailout?”
From there they marched through campus to the office of USF President Judy Genshaft. The USF president has not taken a firm stance on the budget cuts nor the tuition hikes. SDS demanded that she join the students and fight against the budget cuts brought on by Governor Scott's office in Tallahassee. Across campus the crowd chanted, “No cuts, no fees, education should be free!”
20 students occupied the lobby of the Patel Center, where the president's office is located. With them they brought a list of eight demands to pressure the president with. One of these demands was that, instead of raising tuition and implementing mass layoffs, the administration should chop from the top and cut administrative salaries and reduce bureaucracy.
Once inside, they were immediately confronted by two USF administrators who attempted to argue with the students. Though the students came to see President Genshaft, the administrators were sent down in order to try and prevent that from happening. They claimed the university president was unavailable. Nevertheless, the students remained vigilant and waited for her to come down from the fourth floor. They told the administrators to send the president a message: they were not leaving until she met with them.
At that point a few of the students called the President's office to demand that she meet with them. The secretary over the phone gave them the run-around, not giving them a definite answer on when or if they could meet.
From there, SDS in Tampa organized a call-in action, in which people from around the city, state, and country called the President Genshaft’s office demanding she meet with the students. Impatient with the administration's refusal to meet, the students gathered in front of an elevator waiting for it to open, as it only opened from the inside. Administrators quickly called the police.
The police, who were already on site, blocked all entrances to the elevator and stairs. At one point they shoved students from entering the elevator. Students were demanding that the police move out of the way. There is no law or administration policy barring students and people from the president's office. USF, a public institution, is open to the public. However, university police working directly in the interests of the administration blocked the students from the office. The students were only trying to set up a meeting physically, after all other means over the phone and through the administrators had failed.
Fearing more confrontation, more administrators came out to try and convince the students to leave. With them they brought the student body president, who wanted to meet with the students. The student body president, who sits on the Board of Trustees (USF's governing body), voted in favor of last year's 11% tuition increase. The students met briefly with him in order to pressure him to get them a meeting with the president. The students told him they did not come down to meet with him. From there, he went upstairs to try and arrange a meeting.
The administrators, with the student body president, came down half an hour later announcing that they could not set up a meeting with President Genshaft because none of the secretaries in the President's office had her schedule. On top of that they said that everyone had gone home an hour before. With police and administrators blocking the stairs and elevators, and after three hours of occupying the lobby, the students decided to continue the fight for another day.
It was clear that President Genshaft had refused to meet with the students. Along with other administrators they had barricaded themselves up on the fourth floor using police officers as protection. The students struck fear in the administration and forced them into hiding. SDS has vowed to come back to the president's office and plans to have a meeting within the next few weeks.
More actions and struggle to come!