Militant Journalism

FSU students and faculty fight billionaires for control of university

Liberation News  recently spoke with four leading figures in Florida State University’s movement to protect higher education from corporate control. Members of Progress Coalition, Lakey Love, Jerry Funt, Ralph Wilson and Lissa Reed have organized months of protest, including #TakeOutTheThrash, Rally to Stop the Corporatization of Education, and the Anti-Thrasher Walk-out on November 6.

Lakey Love is a second year Ph.D. student in English Literature, as well as the PR Chair of Graduate Assistants United, FSU’s GA union. Lissa Reed is a senior undergraduate Music Theory major. Jerry Funt, also a senior, studies Economics and Philosophy. Ralph Benton Wilson IV is a Ph.D. student in the Mathematics department and a founding member of Progress Coalition.

Liberation: What is going on at Florida State University and why are students and faculty rising up?

Lissa Reed: Recent events have uncovered very unsettling corruption within FSU’s administration. We have uncovered a contract between FSU and the Charles G. Koch Foundation which promises more than $1 million to FSU’s economics department in exchange for veto power over department faculty hiring, their own selection of the department head, creation of their own course, and an “Economics Club” which is actually only dedicated to their capitalist free-market views.

Our administration’s corrupt nature was perhaps even more obviously exposed in the recent selection of John Thrasher as president. Students and
faculty were very outspoken from the beginning of the search process that the main thing we wanted in a president was academic experience. There was a strong voice from within the university against hiring a politician without academic credentials to lead one of the top research universities in the country. Student and faculty voices were repeatedly silenced by the corporate and political interests that held a super-majority on the search committee and Board of Trustees, and over time it became more and more clear that Thrasher’s fix had been in since the beginning.

Liberation: What is Progress Coalition and what are its goals?

Lissa Reed: Progress Coalition is an education-, action-, and advocacy-based student rights group that aims to empower and engage students. We work year-round to defend higher education against attacks from the state, ensure that universities are appropriately representing the student body, and hold officials accountable. We acknowledge and embrace the necessity of building student power against policies or entities which seek changes that disenfranchise students or undermine the well-being of the public education system. We offer solidarity to other progressive groups and issues.

Liberation: Who is John Thrasher?

Ralph Wilson: Thrasher was a State Senator from Florida. He was a prolific ALEC legislator, so much so that he was named ALEC’s Legislator of
the Year in 1998. He is also a twice-convicted ethics violator. Until recently, he was co-chair for the re-election campaign of Governor Rick Scott. He stepped down from that role when he was selected as Florida State University’s next President.

Lakey Love: Clearly corporate interests used political appointments to choose Thrasher. The fact that Thrasher is three time Koch funded and put in place by a highly Koch funded search process lead by Alan Bense (the Koch funded Chair of the Board of Directors of a Koch funded institution and Governor Rick Scott who is Koch funded and an ALEC supporter) certainly leaves us little room to argue anything less than KOCH put Thrasher into office and KOCH will get what it wants with that appointment.

Liberation: Tell us more about the Presidential Search Advisory Committee (PSAC).

Ralph Wilson: The PSAC was created by Allan Bense, who is the Rick Scott appointed chair of FSU’s Board of Trustees. Bense is also the chair of the
James Madison Institute, a Koch funded ALEC affiliated think tank. Bense is the former Speaker of the Florida House, and co-owns a company with Charles L. Hilton, a long time Koch affiliate and board member of Citizens for a Sound Economy, which was the Koch think tank where the Tea Party originated from. The PSAC contains many friends of the Governor or Thrasher, ALEC legislators, Koch funded legislators, spouses of powerful GOP and ALEC lobbyists, as well as an employee of Bense. Many members, including the Chair of the PSAC (Ed Burr) have donated to John Thrasher’s political campaign. Among the specific interests most represented on the PSAC’s 17 corporate members, education privatization and for-profit-prisons are the most represented. (See FSU Progress Coalition’s blog post for a full breakdown). Some fun facts about PSAC members include fraud, cocaine trafficking, domestic violence, climate change denial, and anti-(teacher’s) union activities.

Liberation: Tell us the timeline of events and how students and faculty have been
resisting.

Jerry Funt: President Eric Barron stepped down in February and Senator Thrasher’s name popped up for the first time less than a week later. There
was consistent and unanimous opposition against him from the start, which intensified when we heard that the PSAC would vote whether or not to forward Senator Thrasher as a primary candidate for a “yes or no” vote on May 21st, before a deadline for applications had been set and before
Senator Thrasher had even submitted an application of his own. At the PSAC meeting, we heard hours upon hours of public comments against Senator
Thrasher as a primary candidate. Every single student, faculty member, and dean on the PSAC voted against Senator Thrasher, but they were overwhelmed by the political/corporate supermajority and Senator Thrasher was moved forward.

We’ve consistently flooded public comments with opposition to the appointment, held multiple rallies, passed multiple resolutions through our student and faculty governments, educated and mobilized a large amount of the student body, gained national allies, and changed the dialogue surrounding the search as a whole. We’re now working towards a larger push against this corrupt process, and the system that bred it as a whole.

Liberation: Who have been your major allies in this struggle and campaign?

Jerry Funt: We’ve had a lot of allies in this struggle, which has been very heartwarming. We’ve had allies including FSU’s faculty and graduate assistant union, student groups such as Tallahassee SDS and Dream Defenders, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of University Professors, Forecast the Facts, the community at large, and many more. I think our local allies have been most directly involved in everything that has happened but this effort requires as much support as possible, so I think everyone was instrumental.

Liberation:What’s the deal with Cavallero and student government? Why isn’t his SGA administration helping you?

Jerry Funt: Stefano Cavallaro is our student body president. Due to his role as the student body president, Stefano is also the only student on FSU’s Board of Trustees. In addition, he’s the only student on the Board of Governors, which oversees the entire state university system for the state of Florida.
He was never voted into office; he ran unopposed. He has repeatedly acted in complete contrast to student wishes since he was put in to office, eventually voting in support of forwarding Senator John Thrasher as president. We are now working on a recall election to remove him from office and end his unrepresentative leadership, which the student body is seemingly very supportive of.

Liberation: What is ultimately at stake? Why are you fighting the Koch Brothers and Thrasher?

Lissa Reed: Our university is an amazing network of students, faculty, staff, and community members invested in pursuit of knowledge and critical
thought. Recent events have made it clear that those who control our university (mainly the Board of Trustees and presidents past, current, and future) do not hold the interests of the university’s students and educators—who I would argue are the university—in high regard. Putting a non-academic politician in our president’s office who has had a large part in reducing state funding to FSU over the past 20 years appears to me to have absolutely no benefit to students. To me, fighting against this decision is fighting against the corporate takeover of public education that is trending across the USA.

Liberation: What is going on with our schools and higher education specifically? How do you frame this attack on education inside the bigger picture?

Lakey Love: At a national level we see a mass movement of corporatization of education starting in the 1980s with a shift in capital towards neoliberal capital. At FSU this means that we literally have corporations, like Koch, purchasing rights to faculty hire, graduate assistant hire and curriculum. It means high wages for administration and extremely low wages for contingent labor instructors. Since contingent labor makes up 70% of the instructional staff it is clear that there is a massive imbalance, not only in power, but in the distribution of wealth. In higher education, primitive accumulation begins with massive student debt and more and more schools are treated as multi-million dollar corporations rather than institutions where students can learn how to make their lives and the collective lives of their communities better.

Liberation: What’s this got to do with capitalism and the public sphere?

Lakey Love: The U.S. has only ever supported a public/private binary. Communal landholdings for instance were abolished in the genocidal practices against of the Indigenous peoples in the U.S. As neoliberal capital gains control the extremes in wealth (with the majority of the wealth in the hands of 1% of the population) match the extremes in our access to public wealth and services. Corporatization of education is the final straw really. Once you have the youth and the educational apparatus you can invest in the ideological shaping of the up and coming generations. Once you have the superstructure and the infrastructure under control the only thing left is the base – which is never under control really – and right now the base is full of traditionally Marxist base powers in the from of students and contingent labor workers. When the collective power of students and contingent labor unite – then we will topple the corporatization of education at FSU and around the country.

Liberation: What is the importance of protecting the public university? What does real, democratic education mean to you?

Jerry Funt: The university, and the university system in a general sense, is the breeding ground of progress. It’s where we learn what we know about
the world around us, it’s where we expand our knowledge through research and investigation, it’s where we shape the leaders of the next generation
and expand their worldviews. It’s where actual policy begins, it’s where actual change begins. The university must carry on its mission of advancing
our shared knowledge for the betterment of society as a whole, which can only be done if it is free from political or corporate influence, serving only to seek objective truths.

Liberation: What is the connection between education and democracy?

Ralph Wilson: The connection between education and democracy is deep and inextricable. Education is how citizens learn about the state of their
society, how it is changing, and how it is changed. If the culture within an education system defaults to the ideology of the ruling class, then a culture of self-reinforcing power is established at the root of our society that only benefits those already in power.

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