Students take action for Affirmative Action
Adrian Chandler
Students Organizing for Justice and Action
November/December 2003

Although minority enrollment may be on the rise in both the State University System and at the University of Florida, the gap between the percentage of white and minority students enrolled continues to widen. Minority enrollment at the University of Florida in particular has suffered in the wake of the abolition of race-conscious admissions. Students Organizing for Justice and Action (SOJA) hopes to address this disparity by educating their peers and advocating for the return of affirmative action policies in the state of Florida. SOJA is a coalition of student organizations dedicated to the dismantlement of One Florida and the reinstitution of racial consideration in college admissions.

This past summer, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld affirmative action programs in the case of Grutter v. Bollinger, ruling that affirmative action programs are neither a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's right to equal protection, nor the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Furthermore, the Supreme Court ruled that diversity is a "compelling interest" in education because it encourages academic freedom through the expression of varied viewpoints. Encouraged by the Grutter decision handed down by the Supreme Court, the NAACP Youth and College Branches and the United States Student Association, the country's oldest and largest national student organization, planned National Take Affirmative Action Day. Students around the country were encouraged to conduct activities including speak-outs, town hall meetings, and teach-ins.

The University of Florida was just one of many institutions of higher learning at which students demanded that college administrators and public officials improve and expand affirmative action programs for the sake of increasing diversity in higher education. In observance of National Take Affirmative Action Day, SOJA organized a march and rally on campus.

On Thursday, October 30, 2003, approximately 100 students gathered at the Plaza of Americas to rally in support of programs focused on the active recruitment and retention of women and minorities in higher education. A multi-cultural group of students united in a show of solidarity to hear student leaders of several organizations, including the Asian Student Union, the Gator NAACP, and the Black Student Union, voice their concerns about the increasing lack of diversity at UF. In addition to student leaders, University faculty also participated. Political science professor Sharon Austin and Levin law professor Kenneth Nunn addressed the audience, both crediting their own successes to affirmative action programs.

Later that evening, SOJA hosted a forum in which local civil rights activists, Joel Buchanan and Charles Chestnut, III spoke of the need for equal opportunity in education. In 1964, Buchanan made local history by becoming the first African-American male to be admitted into all-white Gainesville High School. Buchanan was also a student at the University of Florida during the late 1960s, when the number of African-Americans enrolled at UF hovered at a paltry fifty. Speaking of the challenges he encountered as one of few blacks, Buchanan recounted a story of how one University professor racially derided him on a regular basis. Unwilling to let such obstacles deter him, Buchanan persevered in the face of racism and was later able to forge a relationship with the professor built on mutual respect. Buchanan recalled how in subsequent years, the professor admitted that the racial interaction had made him a better educator and person, a testament to how diversity not only has a positive impact on minorities but whites as well.

National Take Affirmative Action Day is just one of many events Students Organizing for Justice and Action intends to conduct. In observance of Asian and Asian-American Awareness Month, SOJA will be holding a forum concerning the perceptions of affirmative action within the Asian community on November 12, 2003.

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