USF graduate assistants plan Tampa rally against DeSantis’ attacks on academic freedoms

HB 999 and SB 256 are the focuses of the rally.

click to enlarge A protestor holds a sign at a recent rally for academic freedoms at USF. - Dave Decker
Dave Decker
A protestor holds a sign at a recent rally for academic freedoms at USF.

Tomorrow, a labor union will demonstrate its discontent with recent legislation that aims to both limit what teachers and students can discuss in the classroom and increase Governor Ron DeSantis’ control over education in Florida.

USF-GAU, which represents graduate students at University of South Florida, plans to host the rally on Tuesday, March 7 at 12:30 pm in front of the Marshall Student Center on USF’s Tampa campus.

“We represent around 2,000 graduate students at USF who will see their academic freedom constrained and working conditions worsened by these arbitrary and deeply politicized proposals coming out of Tallahassee,” a press release from GAU said.

Last month, DeSantis introduced HB 999, which seeks to further dictate what schools can and cannot teach. The bill could ban multiple majors like Women and Gender Studies and fields which discuss race issues and intersectionality. It also aims to give DeSantis more control over the hiring process at USF and other universities via governing boards that he appoints.

History teachers would be limited in how they can discuss racial issues and the bill would restrict the teaching of anything “theoretical” in a non-elective course.

The GAU says this move “would banish not only the theory of evolution and Einstein’s theory of relativity but even the theory of gravity from being taught” in such courses.
“This is only scratching the surface of these harmful changes. Not only do they limit our academic freedom, but they will harm the academic standing of USF and all public universities in the state of Florida,” the press release added.

GAU argues that the move would make Florida’s public universities—as well as the degrees of all undergraduate and graduate students—less competitive.

“Universities only thrive when an array of viewpoints are presented and students and scholars alike have the liberty to enquire critically and freely into topics of their interest,” GAU wrote.

The rally will also address union busting coming down from the state level.

GAU member Kate Hull told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay that proposed Senate Bill 256 is a direct attack on the sustainability of unions in Florida.

“The bill says that unions would need to have 60% membership in order to be recognized, and also that we wouldn't be able to have our union dues deducted from our paychecks, which is really causing a lot of extra hassle and it's also really inequitable,” Hull said. “It’s just a deterrent for people to join the union.”

Hull said that their union has seen an uptick in membership in recent months, but they’re still not at 60% membership. So if the bill were to pass, the contract that the union members worked so hard for would be unenforceable.

Graduate assistants are notoriously underpaid for the work they do, and USF is no exception. Hull said that PhD level graduate assistants make a little over $20,000 a year, and master’s degree level students make even less for teaching.

“So that’s definitely not a liveable wage right now, especially with the cost of living going up,” Hull said. She added that a lot of people take second jobs and some stay with their parents to make ends meet.

Recently, GAU won a 10% pay increase, but if Senate Bill 256 passes, it will be unenforceable.

She said that if the bill were to pass, both the educators and the university would suffer.

“We would see a lot of student’s pay revert back to what it had been,” Hull said. “We'd see a lot of students struggle and probably would see some drop out.”