Faced With Tuition Hikes, Students Resist Austerity in Florida

John Carl Baker

A march in Orlando protesting Florida Governor Rick Scott's budget cuts.

Governor Rick Scott has now officially signed Florida’s austerity-ridden 2012 – 2013 budget. It cuts $300 million from higher education, $340 million from Medicaid, eliminates 4,355 public jobs, and offers $750 million in tax cuts for businesses. Yet dissenting Floridians are showing signs of resistance. In particular, students are publicly voicing their opposition to the cuts, and many are taking their grievances directly to university officials widely seen as insufficiently critical of — or even collusive with — the state government’s austerity program.

At the University of Florida, whose president has been furiously lobbying the governor to sign a bill allowing tuition hikes beyond the current limit of 15% per year, the Gainesville chapter of Students for a Democratic Society has been actively protesting the coming increases. Frustrated by the school administration’s unwillingness to propose anything other than higher tuition in response to state cutbacks, SDS organized a campus protest on March 29th. The Gainesville Sun reported:

A group of about 30 students demonstrated at Turlington Plaza before a smaller group marched to UF’s administration building, calling on Scott to veto the tuition bill. Sophomore economics and history major Conor Monroe, a protest organizer, said UF should chop from the top” by cutting administration rather than using tuition to balance its budget.

The demonstration’s anti-administrative slant was timely, considering its coincidence with a Board of Trustees retreat in which some UF governing officials appeared to back not only tuition hikes, but also cuts to faculty resources. There was also talk of the inevitability of student debt and the necessity of an intimate relationship between businesses and the increasingly privatized academy.

And on Monday, at least 100 UF students gathered in support of the Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) department, which is slated to be merged” with another division due to budget cuts. Proposed by Cammy Abernathy, Dean of the College of Engineering, the merger plan includes cuts to research funding, the elimination of teaching assistants and graduate staff, and the reorientation of half of CISE’s faculty toward instruction rather than research. Students and faculty contend the move is little more than a precursor to the de facto eradication of the department. The protest continued on Tuesday, with 100 students participating in a sit-in outside Abernathy’s office.

Save CISE” is arguably the first organized student response to the university’s recently stated goal of cutting $38.2 million (or 5%) from the total budget. Like the tuition increases decried by Gainesville SDS, officials claim that the cuts are an unfortunate but inarguable necessity given the slashing of state funds (a 30% depletion since 2006). Faced with the double-bind of punitive tuition increases and newly announced departmental reductions—including faculty layoffs—student demonstrations are likely to intensify throughout the spring.

Gainesville is locally regarded as a relative hotbed of student activism, but anti-cut protests are also occurring in some unlikely places. In an attempt to close a $25 million budget gap, Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton recently announced that it was cancelling about a third of its summer courses. Currently, all graduate classes with less than 11 students and all undergraduate classes with fewer than 24 students are scheduled for cancellation. (FAU’s Port St. Lucie and SeaTech campuses have had all their summer courses cancelled.) In response, students and faculty members held a lively demonstration outside the administration building last Thursday, chanting, Cut our classes, cut our future!” and What does FAU stand for? Find Another University!” At least one protester held a sign linking the cancellations to Rick Scott’s questionable support for higher education: Rick Scott loves public education,” the sign reads, yeah, whatever.” In a video of the protest posted by the Broward Sun Sentinel, students can be seen marching into the Office of the Provost (who, as FAU’s University Press pointed out, wasn’t actually there) before being promptly thrown out by police.

But the true test of whether or not these spurts of student activism will congeal into a statewide anti-austerity movement may be the upcoming Republican National Convention in Tampa. City officials are planning for 15,000 demonstrators, many of whom will be part of the newly formed Coalition to March on the RNC, which is currently preparing for a 5,000 person march on the convention’s opening day. Endorsed not only by student groups like SDS, but also local labor unions, immigrants rights advocates, and anti-war organizations, the Coalition hopes to take advantage of the national media’s convergence on Tampa to promote an alternative to the austerity regime. In their Call to March on the RNC,” they write:

On Monday, August 27, 2012, the attention of the entire world will be focused on Tampa, Florida. The Republican National Convention brings together some of the worst politicians that this country has to offer. We’re calling on all those ready to fight back against the attacks launched by the Republican Party and their corporate masters to take to the streets and demand a better future for our families, our communities and our children.

For residents of Florida, a state in which the Republican Party has controlled the governorship and both houses of the legislature for thirteen consecutive years, the call is no doubt a compelling one. If student groups can sustain a dual focus beyond the convention — joining in with collective discontent with state politicians (including Tampa’s security-happy mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat), while keeping up the pressure on tuition-hiking university administrators — they might just create a substantive Floridian opposition, one with a distinctly left-wing tenor. 

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John Carl Baker is a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Studies at George Mason University. He has previously covered Florida’s austerity measures for Jacobin.
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