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Protests culminate in community petition

A faculty member is circulating an online petition around the University of Miami community to encourage UM to support efforts to buy back endangered pine rockland property and preserve the university’s reputation. The petition will be presented to UM administration next week during Earth Week.

Timothy Watson, an associate professor in the English Department, drafted the petition in mid-March after a protest in front of the university’s main entrance on Stanford Drive.

“When I saw people standing outside of campus waving ‘Shame on the U’ signs, I thought it really is time that people within the university acknowledge that this is a problem,” Watson said. “That’s why I organized a petition specifically for people affiliated with the university.”

The petition is being signed by UM students, faculty, staff and alumni who feel UM’s reputation has been tarnished by the ongoing controversy.

“Some of the most powerful statements in the comments on the petition have come from alumni,” Watson said. “We have Iron Arrow members. We have people who say they won’t give money to the university anymore. People are very upset.”

The pine rockland habitat is globally jeopardized and houses endangered species like the Miami tiger beetle and the Florida bonneted bat.

In 2014, UM sold 88 acres of this land to RAM Realty Services (RAM) for about $22 million. RAM has plans to develop the land with establishments like a 158,000-square-foot Walmart, a Chili’s restaurant and about 900 apartments, prompting concern from environmentalists and local residents.

Dana Krempels, a senior lecturer in the Department of Biology, signed the petition to prevent destruction of the habitat by the developer.

“I’m a conservationist deep in my heart,” Krempels said. “Pine rocklands are amazingly beautiful and obviously a very rare ecosystem, unlike anything else in the world. To think that, for a quick buck, this developer is going to raze all of the beautiful plants that are still there … it just kills me.”

Watson said that UM unfairly shares blame with RAM for environmental concerns.

“While the university is not itself the developer, it looks to people from outside that the university was in cahoots with the developer,” Watson said.

There are also allegations of mistreatment to the land while it was under university ownership. These allegations include nuclear dumping, as recently reported by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

“I think the University of Miami has the chance to be a green U or the chance to be a brown, fuzzy, radioactive U,” said Daniel Messinger, a psychology professor who signed the petition.

Watson shared similar sentiments.

“I’m very upset to see the university’s reputation taking such a hit for its environmental stewardship,” Watson said. “When you walk onto the main campus in Coral Gables, the first thing you see is beautiful, open, green space.”

Otavio Bueno, chair of the Department of Psychology, signed the petition. Repair of the university’s environmental reputation is important because of UM’s role as a green educator, he said.

“I think the university plays a key role in educating the next generation,” Bueno said. “It’s crucial that it teaches our students to understand, value, care for and preserve the fragile environment in which we all live.”

But Mitchell Smith, a sophomore marketing major who also signed, said the university has been too hypocritical.

“I don’t want to hear anything from the school telling me to be environmentally friendly ever again,” Smith said.

Mayor of Miami-Dade County Carlos Gimenez and Commissioner Dennis Moss recently sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott asking for Amendment 1 funding to buy back the land from RAM and put it under county control. However, RAM stated that the land is not for sale.

The petition asks the university to publicly endorse the actions of Giménez and Moss, among other requests. Watson said he believes there will be a “significantly higher chance” of Scott approving funding if the university gives its support.

Krempels said the number of student signatures will most influence if the university listens.

“We’re all part of the UM team, but the administration cares a lot about what students think,” Krempels said. “I think if students sign, the administration will take it more seriously.”

Zachariah Cosner is a sophomore who has been invested in the controversy since it began. He said that many students remain unaware of the controversy.

“I would say there are individuals on this campus who know about this, but not as many as I would like and not as many as there should be,” Cosner said. “Generally, it was swept under the rug pretty well by the administration.”

But Smith had the opposite experience as Cosner.

“There’s absolutely concern in the student body,” Smith said. “I’ve discussed it so many times with different people and every student I’ve talked to views the situation negatively. Articles about it have been pretty consistently in my Facebook newsfeed for the past six months or so. I would like to help in any way I can to show the school how upset we students are.”

Overall, the petition has received over 280 signatures, left in comments or sent via email. The signatures will be gathered and the online petition will be made into a physical copy, alongside select comments from signers, to be presented to President Donna E. Shalala when she is in the office, if possible.

Watson said he was happy with the turnout from the UM community.

“I’ve been inspired and delighted by the response,” Watson said. “The response has been overwhelming, and so far, I haven’t received a single negative response to this – in fact, quite the opposite. Almost everyone I’ve talked to has been so glad this is happening. It’s about time.”

Projections differ about the success of the petition. Messinger believes UM will act with hiring a new president in mind.

“I’m sure the administration wants to buy back the property and join in that initiative, and I’m sure they will,” Messinger said. “Because I think saddling a new president with a kind of scandalous history… would project the wrong impression for the South Florida community, the national community, and I think it would be a barrier for the new president. So I’m sure they want to do the right thing and resolve this issue in a responsible fashion.”

However, Smith said he doesn’t expect the university to act differently.

“From everything I’ve heard and seen, it’s a done deal,” Smith said. “At worst, it’s a black eye for them… but I just hope the school realizes the general disapproval among students.”

Watson is more hopeful, because he said the petition provides the university with a valuable opportunity.

“I hope the university administration will be receptive to the expression of concern by a significant segment of the UM community,” Watson said. “I don’t imagine this will necessarily be welcome to them, but I hope that they will see that there is a way to work out the problem….They need a way out, and now I think a way out is open that wasn’t open before.”

“I sincerely hope that as a community we can work together to save this important part of the world,” Bueno said.

The petition is available at pinerocklands.wordpress.com/2015/03/19/petition/.

April 8, 2015

Reporters

S Molly Dominick


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