Boycott USF demands justice, uplift of marginalized students
Kalan K. Birnie, Mardy Harding, Julian E.J. Sorapuru
Colleges around the country are grappling with the effects of an online semester amid a global pandemic and reckonings of racial injustice. From class action lawsuits to protests to COVID-19 clusters, administrators, faculty, and students alike are dealing with new challenges and making their voices heard. From this, a new student movement emerged: Boycott USF. The group is pushing for “economic justice” and reforms within the University to promote equity and transparency.
In July, Boycott USF, led by juniors Alicia Gómez and Trời Trần, sought to oppose the University’s 4.4% tuition increase approved by the Board of Trustees in January by encouraging students to withhold their tuition payments, which were due Aug. 1. Additionally, they organized mutual aid through Venmo donations, and, according to Gómez, redistributed about $6,000 to 29 USF students in need of financial support to pay for housing, educational resources, or food. Drawing inspiration and support from other student-led organizations, including the Black Student Union (BSU), Boycott USF drew up a list of demands for University-wide changes to the administration in July.
The demands called for other forms of justice within the community in addition to canceling the tuition increase, including the defunding of the Department of Public Safety (DPS) in order to redistribute funds to Black students and students of color, increased transparency from the administration regarding finances, an investigation into the Title IX office, and systemic reform of the treatment of students of color.
Boycott USF has prioritized forming solidarity with other students and organizations, particularly those who are part of or represent marginalized communities. The organization’s first action was creating a change.org petition, “Boycott USF Tuition: Affordable & Accessible Education Now,” which demanded that the 4.4% tuition increase be rescinded.
The petition, which has collected 1,496 at the time of publication, claims, “The continuous tuition increase has significantly impacted USF’s community of low-income students, Black students and students of color, undocumented students, disabled students, etc.”
“I think it’s not right to charge full tuition in a pandemic, and this education on Zoom is not worth what we’re paying for,” Gómez said.
Seeing other issues affecting marginalized groups at USF, Boycott USF expanded their horizons. “We’re fighting also for survivor justice and racial justice on campus,” she added.
Boycott USF’s primary outlet has been Instagram (@boycottusf), where they have promoted their movement and shared student testimonials of mistreatment from the University, the majority of which are anonymous, to more than 800 followers. Some of the testimonials on their page include accounts of financial insecurity, racial discrimination, and sexual assault at USF.
Boycott USF also partnered with USF Day of Action, an in-person protest of around 40 demonstrators on USF’s campus on Aug. 16. In addition to the attendees, about 100 people watched the demonstration’s livestream on Instagram. Junior politics major Gabriella Klemer de Lassé, an organizer of the Day of Action, said, “We were really proud to see that students were actually responding and interested because those who were engaged were really engaged, very actively.”
Among the protestors were members of BSU, which has worked closely with Boycott USF since the group’s beginnings. The involvement of BSU, which was the first student organization to offer solidarity, was crucial in uplifting marginalized students’ voices, Trần said.
BSU President Brianna Johnson gave a speech at the demonstration. “We came to [USF] to be students, but instead, we are fighting the same battles that we expect a degree to free us from,” she said, addressing what she described as systemic mistreatment of students.
The University’s response
On July 31, the University released a response to the list of demands from Boycott USF. The response affirmed the demands for faculty benefits and investigation of the Title IX office and noted the school’s support of multiple concerns, including the condemnation of hate speech.
However, USF declined to reduce tuition for the 2020-21 academic year or to redirect funding from DPS. Gómez and Trần, among other students, viewed this response as insufficient. In addition, Gómez said she believed some of the University’s responses were untrue and inaccurate.
Kellie Samson, head of media relations at USF, said in an email, “USF administration is responding to the Boycott USF organizers and have invited them to meet personally to discuss their concerns and questions.”
In a text message, Johnson expressed disappointment, but a lack of surprise at the University’s actions.
“I’m disappointed that a University (and it’s members) who pride themselves on changing the world from here and social justice were not willing to lose anything and use their privilege for the betterment of the experiences of marginalized groups at USF,” Johnson said.
Perceived problems with ASUSF Senate
Boycott USF also directed critique at the structure of student representation at the University, saying that ASUSF Senate, which governs undergraduate students, is insufficient because of its affiliation with USF.
Gómez said that because the members of ASUSF Senate are paid through the University, they have limitations. “If you’re trying to challenge, dismantle, abolish, or transform the systems, you can’t really do that by lying in bed with the oppressor,” she said.
ASUSF Senate is a Chartered Student Organization (CSO), meaning that any Senate executive’s pay (like that of any member of a CSO, including the Foghorn) is funded by the student activity fee, which every undergraduate student pays.
“I think the [ASUSF] President has the opportunity to be the integral piece of change for students,” Gómez said.
When asked to comment about their ability to adequately represent student voices, ASUSF Senate denied the suggestion that they are unable to oppose decisions made by the University.
“In order to work with the administration we need to maintain a good working relationship with them,” ASUSF Senate said in a statement. They pointed out that as students, they are also affected by administrative decisions. “However, we are having difficult conversations with [the administration] on a daily basis and are constantly pushing for the demands of the student body to be heard.”
Senate also said they agree with a number of demands from Boycott USF, including increased transparency within the University, greater student representation on the Board of Trustees, and structural change to the Title IX office.
Gómez, Trần, and Klemer de Lassé said that the start of this academic year does not mark the end of the activism which began this summer. While the University did not lower tuition, the group feels proud of the progress it’s made towards uplifting marginalized voices in the USF community, and added that there is more to come.
“We’re not stopping anytime soon,” Gómez said. “We want to continue fighting for the justice that we all deserve.”