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Central Florida Future - News
Issue: 01/12/04

Protest pins blame on Hitt
By Andres Healy

Standing barefoot on the grass of the free-speech lawn, Patrick Rostock, a 19-year-old history major, wanted to give the campus administrators a piece of his mind.

"We're protesting the wasteful spending of our administration," he said. "While classes are being cut, Hitt is receiving $295,000 a year."

Rostock wasn't alone. Upset about recent budget cuts for student functions, a group of students organized a rally at noon on Nov. 24, to exhort UCF's administration to re-examine the way it has been spending money.

Organizers distributed fliers on campus the week before the rally and mass e-mailed every UCF student the day prior to the rally, stating the administration was irresponsibly allocating money and had lost focus of the university's primary purpose of educating students.

More than 100 students and even a few teachers attended the rally, and organizers passed a megaphone to anyone who wanted to speak. Most expressed concerns about the money being spent on sports, the cutting of student functions and the loss of classes. Many attacked UCF President John Hitt personally for what ralliers termed "the screwing of students."

"They fired [football coach Mike] Kruczek a year into his new contract, throwing away $849,000. They made the horrible move of switching conferences to possibly help football, which cost us $2.6 million," Rostock said. "Soccer, basketball and volleyball were all at or near the tops of their division. Now they're going to suffer."

Rostock added, "While all this money is being spent, they are cutting classes and other things that students actually need, like the Writing Center," which has trimmed its hours due to budget cuts. "When it comes to priorities, the school must meet the needs of students and faculty before all else. If it comes down to sports or students, the school should drop sports, not classes."

"It's ridiculous," Daniel Holbert, 19, said. "We are in a budget crunch, and we are spending so much money on sports."

Anastasia Bojanowski echoed that sentiment. She is an adjunct who teaches composition and also works full-time in the Writing Center. "[The administration] told me that I can't teach here in the spring because the school is offering fewer classes," she said. "On top of that, higher-level professors are being mandated to teach composition and other introductory classes. Some English majors won't be able to graduate because their classes won't be offered. It's disgusting."

Chris Stark, an 18-year-old freshman, read the e-mail that reached him last Sunday night and decided to attend the rally. He said he couldn't believe it when he read that Hitt had received a $93,000 raise this past year.

Rostock agreed. "[Hitt's raise] is hard to justify considering he also gets a free house and car," he said. "We pay for his insurance and give him a travel allowance for him and his wife. The university even pays for his country club membership, meaning we pay for his golf. Basically, all he has to buy is food, and $295,000 is a lot of money to buy food."

Yet, according to one social sciences teacher, students shouldn't be surprised. The teacher, who refused to give his name because he feared he'd lose his job, said that everyone is paying the price for Hitt's arrogance and attitude. "Hitt isn't a leader," he continued. "He's a bully. Hitt and the administration are padding their pockets with raises when real leaders would suffer along with everyone else.

"The captain is filling his lifeboat with caviar and champagne while the rest of the ship sinks," he explained.

Meg Robinson is a freshman and part of the honors program. In a soft voice, she told rally members, "I'm working two jobs making minimum wage to pay for my education. During our little honors program banquets, when our parents are here, Hitt tells us that we are the cream of the crop. He makes it seem like students' education is the number one priority, yet I can't get classes. Does that make sense?"

Many of the demonstrators accused the school of treating them like numbers and dollar signs, not as students. "We don't want any more cancerous growth without a budget to back it up," said Jonathan Leto, 21. "Growth without money equals problems."

The math major helped organize the event and added, "UCF treats us like commodities, not citizens or students. This school is a vending machine. We put money in and out comes a degree."

"The university needs to realize it's not a corporation or a for-profit entity. I think that's lost on some people," Rostock said.

During the rally, one student called Hitt's office and broadcasted his conversation over the megaphone. He gave the receptionist a lengthy message for UCF's president and then told the person to have Hitt return his call. Rather than leave his name, the student gave his PID, because he said that Hitt wouldn't care to know his name. Student M1075279 added, "My mom gave me a name. I'd like to be able to go by that name."

Rally organizers passed around a petition that read, "I am a student, not a number, and challenge that the administration of this university seek all measures necessary to ensure that I am receiving the highest quality education possible." They plan to keep circulating them until they get 500 signatures, Leto said.

Even those students who just came to listen felt strongly about the subject.

"My professor ended class early to let us come to the rally," Lisa Di Vito, a 19-year-old sophomore, said. "It's something that needs to be done. UCF's priorities are messed up. Something like 60 percent of students take six years to graduate, which is ridiculous." The latest figures from the UCF Office of Institutional Research actually show that 50 percent of recent grads needed six years to complete their degree; 29 percent of the most recent graduating class got out in four years.

Some students, like Keith Bartholomew and Dylan Battard, only found out about the rally as they were walking past, but they supported the activists. "Students have to take their concerns and frustrations to the streets if they want things changed," Battard said. "This brings the issue to the streets."

Bartholomew added, "We need more students to stand up for themselves. Even if the rally doesn't immediately fix anything, it gets the message out."

According to Leto, that's the point. "If students allow themselves to be pushed around like cattle, the administration will take advantage of that," he said. "We need to raise a stink to get our point across."

However, some onlookers weren't convinced the rally would accomplish anything. "It's great that students are out here doing this," Michelle Werner said. "But how will their message reach administration? There are none [administrators] out here."

Cindy Benson, a political science professor, felt the rally was a positive sign. "I've been here for 23 years and during that time, people have never paid attention to what was going on," she said. "Rallies like these show that we are finally changing from a commuter school into a real school."

She added, "Students have been getting the short shrift for a long time. Things are getting more and more expensive, and the university is making it impossible to graduate. Students are forced to stay here longer and longer, and I don't know how they can afford it. You have to be rich to afford to graduate from this school."

After nearly an hour on the lawn, the rally made an unplanned move to the gates of Hitt's on-campus residence off Central Florida Blvd. UCF police on motorcycles, bicycles and on foot stood in front of the property and warned the 30 rally members who had marched to the gate not to approach.

Matt DeVlieger, who led the march, encouraged demonstrators to empty their pockets of loose change and place it in front of Hitt's driveway. "We know he wants all of our money, so let's just give it to him," DeVlieger said. "Hitt is only interested in corporate checks and not education. Unfortunately for us, we are students, not consumers."

DeVlieger added, "That's our house; we pay for it. How come we aren't allowed to go there?"

The rally ended with demonstrators calling for Hitt's resignation.

UCF Police Cpl. Robert Coch was one of the handful of officers who watched over the rally on the free-speech lawn. He said officers were just there to make sure it remained peaceful; student demonstrations rarely pose any problems, he added. "They're protesting something that no other student is going to oppose, [so] we don't expect any problems."

Tom Evelyn of University Relations said UCF set up the free-speech zone specifically so students could demonstrate about whatever they feel strongly about. "We want students to be able to have open debates," he said. "These types of events go on all the time, although this one is a lot more organized and developed than most others."

He added, "The university wouldn't interfere in any way unless there was a safety issue involved - or it interfered with the learning process."

Some demonstrators scoffed at the notion of a free-speech zone. "I guess we don't have the constitutionally protected right to free speech outside of the sidewalk [surrounding the lawn]," Rostock said.

Jonathan Leto - jonathan at leto dot net

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