When the student union at the University of Florida was built in 1967, students requested that it be named in honor of outgoing university president J. Wayne Reitz. Today, students are fighting over whether that name should stand.
As UF president, Reitz participated in a purge of gay faculty and students that involved the firing and expulsion of dozens of people. During his administration, the university also failed to integrate until placed under court order, and then only haltingly, and in 1967 a popular professor was denied tenure because of his political views.
Student activists at UF want the union building renamed for Virgil Hawkins, a local black scholar who fought a ten-year battle to integrate the UF school of law in the 1940s and 50s, but the attempt has run into resistance from the campus student government.
Student of color and LGBT groups on campus have held several demonstrations around the issue, with tensions rising after a popular law professor’s car was vandalized with the word “faggot” in mid-September.
Activists collected five hundred signatures in recent months in favor of a non-binding campus referendum on the name change, but student government officials have attempted to block it twice — first by claiming that the signatures were improperly obtained, and then, when that challenge was rejected, by objecting to the wording of the referendum question. Critics of the student government say the body is being improperly influenced by the Reitz family, who remain major donors to the university.
In a late September ruling the student government court stripped the contested language from the question, but allowed the referendum to be placed before the students, with the referendum expected later this month.