The students, made up of members of the group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Occupy USF, had four central demands: first and foremost, to freeze the tuition rates for the spring semester; a standing policy that Board of Trustees meetings regarding tuition hikes may only occur when a quorum of two/thirds of the students exist on the campus; a union neutrality clause and card check clause in any negotiation involving food service vendors; and that the university include a clause requiring any contract negotiations with food service vendors on campus to include a commitment for 20 percent locally produced food by 2020.
Last June USF trustees approved a 7 percent tuition hike for undergraduate students and a renovation project at the USF Sun Dome arena. That was on top of an 8 percent tuition hike already approved by the state legislature.
- Dustin Ponder speaks with USF Senior Vice Provost Dwayne Smith
The students were led by the hyper-articulate Dustin Ponder with SDS, who said there was a lot of overhead on the campus and that "we're tired of not even having a say" on those hikes.
Smith responded that tuition hikes were an attempt to offset "fairly drastic cuts" to USF's budget by the Legislature and Governor Rick Scott.
The discussion was remarkable civil, with students and administrators agreeing on their love of the institution and how it was essential that students get a quality education.
"We do want to work with the administration, because we know that the ultimate cause is the state Legislature and the budget," Ponder said, just warming up. "And the same people on the Board of Trustees and the Legislature are the ones who crashed the economy in the first place, their working on trying to privatize education. We need our administration to join with us and be an activist administration. Times like these call for people to step up and actually fight."
Ponder also criticized USF's Student Body President, Matthew Diaz, who voted to support the tuition hikes (Diaz was in Boca Raton as well on the USF Polytechnic issue).
Other students spoke up, such as Grad Assistant Leonah Arroyo, who said she doesn't receive any tuition assistance, while making just $10 an hour working at the campus library only 10 hours a week. "When you say you're working for us, I don't see where I'm getting any assistance." She said she came from a working class family and had put herself through her bachelors degree, but came back to a tuition increase. She acknowledged that it was a complex issue, but said plainly, "We can't afford to eat sometimes."
She criticized money going to football games and other amenities. But administrators said the Athletic Department was mostly self-sufficient and didn't use tuition money to support that program. Other students complained about amenities that they said they didn't need, such as the recently refurbished Marshall Center. But one administrator answered back that that had been done because of other students complaints that such facilities needed capital improvements.
Ultimately administrators challenged the leader of the group, Dustin Ponder, or others, to run for student body office themselves if they were unhappy with their representation.
Administration officials apparently were trying to learn more about Ponder before Wednesday's meeting, asking him several times if he was actually a student on campus. Initially he said yes, but later during the discussion he admitted that he currently was not a student. He said he had previously attended the University of Florida in Gainesville, but would be a student with USF in the spring.
The meeting then concluded somewhat dramatically with the appearance of last year's student body president at USF, Cesar Hernandez, who chastised the students for not taking the great opportunity they had for change more seriously.
Hernandez discussed how the structure of the university works, and said he had access to President Genshaft twice a month and other administration officials on a more immediate basis because of his role as student body president.
"To get active, we have the tools. The student body Senate controls nearly $16 million," he explained, saying it was the students money, with $9 per credit going to that fund. He said only 4,000 out of nearly 48,000 students voted in the student body president election.
He then told them that he had conducted his own 24-hour speech marathon on the campus last spring, in part as a protest against the tuition hikes
The students say they want to meet again at the Patel Center at 3 p.m. next Friday, November 18. Senior Vice Provost Smith said he would be there.