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UNF students confront President Moez Limayem during statewide walkout

Dozens of students voiced fears of losing DEI programming and student clubs to UNF president Moez Limayem Thursday.
Claire Heddles
Jacksonville Today
Dozens of students voiced fears of losing DEI programming and student clubs to UNF president Moez Limayem on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023.

Students at the University of North Florida participated in statewide walkouts in protest of Gov. Ron DeSantis' higher education policies and confronted President Moez Limayem about his compliance with the state's agenda.

At the governor’s request, UNF and other colleges recently submitted lists of their diversity, equity and inclusion programs and courses, as well as data about the number of students seeking care for gender dysphoria.

Holding signs like “Keep surveillance out of education,” students marched across campus Thursday to a town hall that Limayem was holding Thursday.

The walkout was the second protest this week at UNF, after students rallied Tuesday with a list of demands for Limayem, including maintaining "all preexisting commitments to inclusivity, equity, diversity and justice."

"I could lose classes that I'm currently taking to further my knowledge about the history of this country," senior Alivia Kalin said to Limayem during Thursday's town hall. "Will you protect us? Will you defend us?"

The president said any programming changes are still pending, with no new law specifically addressing DEI programs.

"If it is hypothetical. If it is legal to protect every single thing we do in the DEI, we will do it. You have my commitment — if it is legal to do so. If it's not legal, we cannot. We're not going to break the law," Limayem told the students Thursday.

DeSantis announced during a news conference last month that he plans to eliminate spending on DEI spending, intending for these programs to “wither on the vine.”

Jacksonville historian and activist Rodney Hurst speaking to UNF students following a statewide, student walkout over Gov. DeSantis' higher education policies.
Claire Heddles
Jacksonville Today
Jacksonville historian and activist Rodney Hurst speaks to UNF students after a statewide student walkout over Gov. DeSantis' higher education policies.

A federal judge blocked last year's "Stop Woke Act" — which limited how instructors can teach about race and racism — from taking effect in higher education. But a new bill filed in the Florida Legislature this week proposes "removing from its programs any major or minor in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems."

Limayem told students he would find alternative funding for all existing DEI programs if state funding is cut, as long as the state doesn't bar it.

There also was heated debate during the town hall over longtime campus preachers targeting LGBTQ+ students. Students requested that Limayem release an official statement similar to the one former president David Szymanski issued in 2020 in support of anti-racist education, amid widespread racial justice protests.

Limayem promised the students he would issue some kind of statement to the student body by the end of next week and would hold future town halls.

After the walkout and town hall, Jacksonville civil rights leader Rodney Hurst joined student activists at the campus library for a read-in and Black history lesson — telling students, there is power in a vocal few. 

"It's important, not only for me to be here with you, but to support you and to tell you the Civil Rights Movement didn't start with many," Hurst told students. "There was no cast of thousands out there sitting in, picketing, marching. There were a few."

Claire joined WJCT as a reporter in August 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. During her time in East Tennessee, her coverage of the COVID pandemic earned a Public Media Journalists’ Association award for investigative reporting. You can reach Claire at (904) 250-0926 or on Twitter @ClaireHeddles.