Will Sanchez and Elise Gregg | PantherNOW Staff
The last Board of Trustees meeting of the semester was met with the continuing efforts by students and faculty at FIU against legislation that would put restrictions on academic freedom.
On Thursday, April 27, organizers from Free FIU gathered at the general board meeting at 11 a.m., demanding answers from the board members on their stance on HB999 and SB256, bills that limit curriculum, in-class discussion and job security for faculty members.
Throughout the entire meeting, despite students and faculty demanding a statement of non-compliance on the bills HB999 and SB256, not a single board member even mentioned the bills by name.
The Free FIU gathering follows their April 13 walkout, where hundreds of Panthers congregated on the GC lawns and the steps of Primera Casa to demonstrate their opposition to the slew of bills.
The meeting started with speeches from two students and two faculty members, all of whom spoke out against the legislation threatening higher education, asking the BOT to act in the interest of faculty and students.
Pride Student Union president and SGA senator Kaily La Chapelle spoke first, beginning with the need for diversity, equity and inclusion resources in universities.
“‘The Pride Student Union is the first place I can be myself. The Pride Union made me feel at home. This Bureau saved my life,’” LaChapelle said, quoting feedback from students about PSU. “You are not watching our campus, you’re not listening to your students or faculty as you think about implementing these laws at our campus.”
“You’re not going to ban us whether you put these policies through, you’re not going to ban diversity, equity, and inclusion, you’re not going to let defunding stop advocacy on our campus.”
Former Young Democratic Socialists of America president Jacob-Alexander Chavarria also spoke, quoting chairman Dean Colson’s earlier remarks saying that if the board of governors’ priorities shifted, the BOT would react.
“We are the people who make this university run and we demand no firings, no fear,” said Chavarria, who found Colson’s remarks insufficient. “A vibrant student movement will be growing to make sure you will do this.”
In an interview with PantherNOW, YDSA member Lily Dixon said their goal is to keep going over the summer.
“We’re probably going to host political education events on Zoom over the summer, and really keep this momentum going so that the school knows we stand for students.”
Associate professor in educational policy studies Kierston Edwards and psychology professor Stacy Fraser also spoke.
“We want to ensure that you continue your commitment to our diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives,” said Edwards. “They have been essential to supporting student success, specifically these initiatives are vital to our graduation rates.”
Edwards went on to list only some of the departments that will receive cuts to funding if the Board of Trustees decided to uphold these bills, such as PSU, Black Student Union, Women’s Center, the Office of Social Justice and Inclusion and African and African Diaspora Studies – among many others.
Fraser, would quote Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren plurality opinion regarding the 1957 decision of Sweezy V. New Hampshire – a case revolving around academic freedom.
“Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study, to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding. Otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.”
Chair Dean Colson responded after the speeches, assuring students and faculty that they were heard.
“At FIU we respect everyone’s ability to exercise their right to express their opinions,” said Colson. “We are actively listening.”
However, the sentiment was not fully felt by students as the board powered through the rest of the general meeting as more and more students began to stand from the audience holding signs against HB999, SB256 and the Board of Trustees..
As the trustees wrapped up, organizers began to chant in unison “Which Side Are You On?” a famous union chant meant to rally workers in the face of opposition and strike breakers.
“We’ve heard this way too many times – ‘I hear you, I see you,’ – can we at least get a simple answer to this question?” YDSA president Oscar Alvarez asked FIU President Kenneth Jessell as he exited the ballrooms. “All these students here; you can’t really ignore this.”
In an interview with PantherNOW, Chavarria said they weren’t surprised.
“I think it was exactly the response that we could have expected from the Board of Trustees. They are an undemocratic institution,” said Chavarria. “They don’t have any direct responsibility to the students, and we need to force them to have that responsibility.”
“Their silence says very much on how much they relate to students.”
Free FIU is a broad coalition made of undergrad students from the university’s Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter, grad students from Grad Wages and Rights, and FIU faculty.
Along with HB999, Free FIU has also taken a stance against SB256, which will affect all public sector unions, such as unionized FIU faculty members.
SB256 would decertify unions that don’t have a density of at least 60%, while also making the dues payment process more difficult for dues paying members.
HB999 would allow for the defunding of Diversity Equity and Inclusion programs on campus, restrict classroom discussions and curriculum that mentions race, gender or sexuality, and allow for the board to revoke tenure opportunities for professors whose curriculum is considered “woke.”
“We believe if faculty doesn’t have freedom, we don’t have freedom,” Dixon said. “Our motto for today is no firings, no fear.”