Court strikes language in Reitz renaming referendum


Published: Friday, September 21, 2012 at 6:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 21, 2012 at 6:09 p.m.

University of Florida students will vote this fall on renaming the J. Wayne Reitz Union, but won’t see a description of the civil rights history during Reitz’s presidency on the ballot.

The UF Supreme Court of the Student Body ruled Friday that a non-binding referendum on renaming the union would appear on the October student government ballot.

The referendum proposes changing the name from honoring Reitz, the late UF president, to honoring Virgil Hawkins, whose lengthy legal battle ended segregation at UF.

But the court struck language describing Hawkins’ history and Reitz’s civil rights record from the ballot. The original language cited as reasons for the change Reitz’s delay in integrating UF and his collaboration in the purging of gay students and professors from the university.

After the court initially approved the language about Reitz, UF law student Ariana Alfonso made a late bid for its removal. Alfonso, representing student government at Friday’s hearing, said it was “misleading, overly simplified” language that would push students to vote for the change.

“I, for one, would be very open to any discussion on naming our student union after a man like Virgil Hawkins,” she said. “I would be less comfortable publicly condemning a past president like Reitz without irrefutable, clear and convincing evidence.”

Student senator Ford Dwyer had collected more than the 500 signatures necessary to place the referendum on the ballot. He said that Reitz stonewalled integration and “ruined people’s lives” in working with the so-called Johns Committee.

“I wanted this to be something that united the student body and I was naive,” Dwyer said. “I didn’t think that this would strike the nerves that it did.”

Reitz was UF president from 1955 to 1967. The Johns Committee investigated gay employees and students in the late 1950s and early ’60s at UF, leading to them being fired or expelled. Hawkins was denied admission to the UF law school based on his race in 1949, leading to a legal battle that ended with UF’s integration in 1958.

The effort to change the union’s name comes as the university is about to embark on a $69 million expansion and renovation of the facility.

The court, which is student government’s judicial branch, grappled with whether to strike the referendum entirely or keep some parts. As a compromise, it settled on keeping only one sentence that asks simply whether the union should be renamed after Hawkins.

Alfonso, daughter of former UF board of trustees chairman Carlos Alfonso, said she supported the compromise. Dwyer said he thought the change was meant to make the referendum harder to pass.

“It will be a lot more difficult of a task and that’s unfortunate,” he said.

Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com. Visit www.thecampussun.com for more stories on the University of Florida.

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