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Will Gov. DeSantis win his battle to dismantle DEI programs at state universities?

FILE - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference on Jan. 26, 2023, in Miami. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier, File)
Marta Lavandier/AP
FILE - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference on Jan. 26, 2023, in Miami. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier, File)

Gov. Ron DeSantis blasted diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, programs last month during a roundtable discussion organized by the governor's office in West Palm Beach.

“In Florida, we are not going to back down to the woke mob, and we will expose the scams they are trying to push onto students across the country,” said DeSantis. “Florida students will receive an education, not a political indoctrination.”

Widely viewed as a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, DeSantis has been on a path to dismantle university DEI programs as part of his plan to overhaul publicly funded higher education.

The Republican-majority Florida Legislature has followed the governor's lead by introducing legislation this year to rein in DEI programs at each of the state's 12 public universities.

The House bill H.B. 999 to ban DEI programs is moving forward, but a similar bill in the Senate (SB 266), was recently amended to erase the provisions dealing with diversity, equity and inclusion.

Supporters say DEI programs have been a part of higher education for a long time and are rooted in the 1960s civil rights movement, and have served to increase diversity of thought and enrollment success of underreprresented populations on campus clubs, support groups, recruitment and outreach.

Critics contend that DEI programs undermine merit and equality.

“Instead of being unifying, we see it as being divisive and an attempt to cancel and censor those that don’t agree," said Ray Rodrigues, Chancellor of the State University System of Florida, during the West Palm Beach roundtable event.

"It’s become a means to advocate a political ideology of the left," he said. "And, it has ignored merit and instead sought to provide equal outcomes not based on the merit of the individual or of the work but instead on their physical characteristics which is exclusionary not inclusive.”

More than a dozen states — including Florida and Texas — are considering banning these types of programs. In Florida, legislators and policymakers are questioning if they’re a good use of public resources — and if these programs actually work — or are promoting division among staff, students and departments.

Recently, the New College of Florida abolished its DEI office.

In Palm Beach County, a long-time teacher at Palm Beach Atlantic University, a private Christian school, who included black literature in his English course, says his contract was not renewed when a parent accused him of “indoctrinating” students.

H.B. 999 would prohibit state or federal money granted to public universities from being spent on programs that promote DEI or engage in social or political activism. It would also prohibit programs that show preferential treatment based on race, gender or other identifiers.

State Sen. Shevrin Jones, a South Florida Democrat, told WLRN "Republicans have made [DEI] the new boogeyman or their new buzzword for wokeness. But it’s always been around.”

Before entering politics, Jones taught AP Chemistry and AP Biology and Florida Atlantic University high school in Boca Raton.

“This new notion that these types of programs in colleges and universities are somehow turning children into quote unquote activists is just totally a mischaracterization of what diversity equity and inclusion actually is,” he told WLRN.

Jones said DEI programs, among other benefits, provide a support system for first-generation college students, fund outreach programs, provide workshop training about anti-racism and pay for administrators to facilitate such programs.

In 2021, when Jones was the vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Education, he toured each of Florida’s 12 public universities and found that schools were effective in doing their part to help close the equity gap.

“That’s not wokeness, that’s school support to help with their students who are on their campus to make sure that everyone feels like they belong there,” he said.

Florida public universities self-reported spending nearly $35 million a year on DEI programs. And, approximately, $21 million of that is coming from state funds.

Some conservative Florida lawmakers question whether the money being spent is going to good use. The University of Florida reported spending over $1 million in salaries for four employees at one of its DEI offices — and $780,000 of that was state money.

Christopher Rufo, a Senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, who was recently elected as a trustee for New College of Florida, attended the DeSantis roundtable event entitled, “Education Not Indoctrination.”

“I think what we need to do is take a look at the specifics. Get beyond the Orwellian word games that all sound good in theory but really understand, what do these offices do and is it a good use of public resources.”

Rufo is viewed nationally as the architect of the right-wing outrage against critical race theory, a legal term that has come to represent teaching about the effects of slavery. He actively posts on social media about his vision for the future of New College, often in militaristic terms.

Rufo has referred to new trustees at the public institution as the “landing team,” saying, “We got over the wall,” and talking of an operation to “recapture” the college.

Joe Cohn, from the nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression based in Philadephia, which defends free speech in academia, told WLRN that legislators are right to question the amount of money being spent on DEI initiatives.

“It's been exploding in recent years. There's data that shows that the percentage of money dedicated towards the administrative arm of institutions is exponentially growing, while the resources dedicated to faculty are shrinking vastly,” Cohn said.

Money better spent

DEI is not just one department. DEI programs are embedded in many colleges within Florida’s universities. For example, at the University of Florida, there is a Center for Inclusion and Multicultural Engagement and an Office for Diversity and Health Equity within the College of Medicine.

State Rep. Alex Andrade, a Republican who sponsored H.B. 999, argues that some DEI administrators are sending the wrong message by pushing certain ideologies. And, he feels the money spent on these programs could be put to better use.

Andrade said, “Reallocating it to more beneficial pursuits is something I think the state benefits from.”

DEI programs account for around 1% of annual school budgets. And, not all of the DEI programs offered at Florida public universities use state money — some schools fund these programs themselves — according to documents included in the staff analysis of the bill.

Students voice their opposition to Florida House Bill 999 during a protest at the Kenneth R. Williams Administration Building at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton on Wednesday, March 15, 2023.
Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel
South Florida Sun Sentinel
Students voice their opposition to Florida House Bill 999 during a protest at the Kenneth R. Williams Administration Building at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton on Wednesday, March 15, 2023.

In Boca Raton, Florida Atlantic University has one of the highest minority student populations in the state, About 20% are Black and 27% Hispanic. The university spent $900,000 on DEI initiatives last year, including administrative staff, student success programs, workshops, seminars and social events. The state funded more than $640,000.

But H.B. 999 isn’t only about funding.

The bill would ban coursework that “distorts significant historical events or that use instruction from critical theory.”

Currently, the state pays for courses like Florida Atlantic University’s “Racism and Anti-Racism” and “Gender and Climate Change”.

Cohn, from the nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said the bill would put in jeopardy a number of similar courses.

“There are all kinds of thorny issues with the bill. For example, it prevents certain majors from existing on campus all targeted because they espouse views that the majority in the Florida legislature dislikes,” Cohn said.

The bill goes on to say that it would prohibit “solicitation of pledges or commitments to viewpoints related to DEI, CRT, or any political identity or ideology, as part of any hiring, promotion, admission, disciplinary, or evaluation process.”

Political litmus tests?

That means that political litmus tests — often used to define values and morals — would be prohibited.

Cohn agrees, saying "it’s inappropriate for institutions to be imposing any political litmus tests in either direction on any issues.”

Professor Christopher Robe teaches film at FAU’s School of Communications and Multimedia. He said, “There's a confusion of like talking about subjects and indoctrinating subjects. And that's two very different things, right?”

As Vice President of the school’s United Faculty of Florida chapter, he told WLRN that UFF does not support this kind of legislation.

I teach Birth of a Nation, a pro KKK film. I am certainly not advocating the KKK in my class. But it's important to come up with the historical reality, the importance of that film and addressing its impact on Hollywood and future filmmaking. It's kind of juvenile. This notion that simply bringing it up means you're inherently supporting it.”

Jay Goodman, a sophomore studying music composition at Florida Atlantic University, helped draft a resolution sending a message about what the students think: they oppose the bill.

“It goes against the very purpose of college which is to educate and to find new perspectives that you didn’t think of before. It’s intellectual censorship and the government has no place doing that,” Goodman told WLRN.

Copyright 2023 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

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