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Finding the middle in Florida’s polarized fight over the future of public education

 Two students walk down a long staircase. In back of them is a brick, campus building
Alejandro Santiago
WFSU Public Media
Two students walk down a long staircase. In back of them is a brick, campus building

Florida State University has been under scrutiny from some conservatives for programs the school says are years old or no longer exist. FSU was recently featured in a Tucker Carlson show segment highlighting what the analyst described as a racist scholarship program that effectively banned white students from applying.

FSU gets an unwanted spotlight

In a statement, FSU said the Leslie N. Wilson-Delores Auzenne Assistantship scholarship, cited by Carlson, was created in the 1980s by the since-disbanded Florida Board of Reagents (the predecessor to the current Florida Board of Governors which oversees the state’s public higher education system). FSU says the scholarship was meant to encourage underrepresented groups to enter science and technology-based fields. The university also acknowledged the language on its website regarding the scholarship was outdated. That language originally read “Applicants for the scholarship must be minority students (African American, Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander, and Native American.”

“Upon reviewing the program’s description on our website, we found the language was antiquated and inconsistent with current university practices. We have corrected the issue. We have an ongoing process to review our programs to ensure they reflect the values of a state university. As we previously stated, FSU will continue to provide the high-quality educational experience that our students, their parents, and the taxpayers of Florida have come to expect.”

The program’s original language is now the subject of a federal civil rights complaint against FSU on the grounds that the language barring white students from participation, is unconstitutional.

The statement, issued on Feb. 7th, was preceded by another FSU response to a public records request from Chris Rufo, a fellow at the free market think tank, The Manhattan Institute. Rufo is known for leading the push against critical race theory.

He obtained documents through a records request regarding a different FSU program that the university says was voluntary at the time for students, is presently no longer in use, and was part of a former Ph.D. student’s dissertation.

Rufo, in a series of 14 tweets on Feb. 2, highlighted the contents of the “Social Justice Ally Training” which he described as repeating “the critical-race-theory narrative: American oppressors have created a society of "racism, classism, religious oppression, sexism, heterosexism, gender oppression, ableism, [and] xenophobia."

Rufo also followed up with an article posted to City Journal, the public policy digital magazine of the Manhattan Institute, and to Fox News.

In response, the university issued a statement on Feb. 2nd refuting Rufo’s conclusions regarding the documents.

“As we shared with Mr. Rufo when we provided the documents, 146 of those pages came from a voluntary training that FSU discontinued in 2019. Some of the other items Mr. Rufo identified are also obsolete. FSU has been reviewing our programs to ensure they reflect the values of a state university. That is an ongoing process. While we do that work, FSU will continue to provide the high-quality educational experience that our students, their parents, and the taxpayers of Florida have come to expect.”

FSU is the second state institution to come under heavier scrutiny than other public state universities after it reported spending $2.4 million on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion-related programs. Some $2.2 million of that spending was done with state money. The DeSantis administration recently appointed a new board of trustees to New College of Florida which now includes Rufo. The board fired the schools’ president and appointed former state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran as interim. Corcoran was a finalist for FSU’s presidency a few years ago.

DeSantis pushes back on "woke ideology"

During his January inauguration address, DeSantis promised to continue cracking down on “woke ideology” and weed it out of the state’s public education system. His administration then requested all the state’s public colleges and universities disclose their DEI spending along with any programs related to critical race theory: a concept that explores the impact of racism on public policy.

Both DEI and CRT have been in headlines due to blowback from social justice movements around sexual assault and the high-profile police shootings of Black people. Many people believe those movements have gone too far—blaming mostly white people—and white men in particular—for what Rufo has called “blood guilt” over past sins against minorities.

Rufo, in a segment posted on youtube noted as much—highlighting Gov. Ron DeSantis’s overwhelming re-election. The governor won with nearly 60% of voter approval.

Some of DeSantis’ efforts to push back against DEI, and certain teaching around aspects of race, gender and sexuality are making inroads with people like Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor who—in a break with many prominent local Democrats—backed DeSantis’ efforts to block an Advanced Placement African American Studies course, saying he too believed it went too far and calling on the governor to convene a task force to create a different curriculum.

An uncomfortable middle

“By the College Board's omission of fundamental content, the College Board fails the hopes, demands, and expectations of a high-quality curriculum for the study of African American history. Florida's school children deserve to have a high-quality curriculum on African American History. Competent Black History should not be subverted and hijacked by the sub-mediocre propaganda now recommended by the College Board,” Proctor wrote in a Feb. 1 letter to DeSantis.

Meanwhile, Florida State University historian Maxine Jones, the main author of a state-commissioned study on the Rosewood Massacre, noted there should be some lines in the sand on when and how certain aspects of history, and race and culture, are discussed in the classroom. She believes such teaching should be age-appropriate.

“I think for Black children, they don’t get to maintain their innocence as long as children in other races and cultures,” she said. “I don’t think a child in 3rd grade should be learning about lynching.”

Jones says she wanted her grandchildren to be able to enjoy their childhoods without the “burden of race and racial violence,” but also that it’s a subject of wide disagreement among her friends and colleagues about when is the time to reveal the more painful aspects of the historical record to Black children.

Still, Jones says she does not “understand why a student in high school shouldn’t learn about racial violence. I don’t know why they shouldn’t learn about Rosewood,” she said In reference to how even that subject could run afoul of state laws depending on how it’s discussed in a classroom under the state’s new laws. Jones notes such conversations are almost guaranteed to make both make instructors and students uncomfortable, in contradiction to a state law that says people shouldn’t be made to feel guilt or shame on the basis of their race and/or gender.

1A: where anti-woke collides with free speech

Jones made her comments in a recent interview with WFSU regarding her Rosewood work. She also expressed concerns and discomfort with how far the governor is going with his efforts—to the point where many public college and university professors are becoming increasingly unsure of what they can and cannot say in the classroom.

Some of the more direct fights over the future of education in Florida have also made noted conservative scholar Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, uncomfortable. In an episode of Joe Rogan’s popular podcast “The Joe Rogan Experience,” Peterson questioned the point at which some of the governor’s policies attempting to curb critical race theory and put an end to cancel-culture, start veering into the same sort of behavior he’s railed against.

“Where does Critical Race Theory shade into Marxism? Who the hell knows? Where does Marxism shade into Socialism? That’s an even harder question. And where does Socialism shade into being on the side of the working class? Well, that’s fuzzy beyond belief. So once you get to the point the government has to step in and regulate what education systems are doing you’re in deep trouble,” Peterson said to Rogan while also acknowledging that higher education has an ideological imbalance.

Both Proctor and Jones’ comments point to something deeper in the debate—that DeSantis’ education efforts carry far broader, yet much more nuanced and complex support than might otherwise be suggested.

Meanwhile Rufo is pushing forward in his efforts to help DeSantis shift Florida’s higher education system. He and the Manhattan Institute this week published a model legislation that serves as a guidebook for lawmakers in other states interested in following Florida’s model and getting rid of DEI programs in their higher educational systems.

Copyright 2023 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.