Florida Universities on Defensive as State Attacks Diversity Initiatives

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tags: Florida, higher education, diversity, Ron DeSantis, DEI

When she visited Florida Polytechnic University with a group of girls from her middle school class last month, Sarah imagined herself in college learning how to use the beakers and Bunsen burners she saw while touring the chemistry lab.

As a sixth grader, Sarah was at the age when studies show girls first start to fall behind in fields of science and technology — a trend that continues into college and the workforce. The day her class spent on campus commemorating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science by building catapults out of plastic spoons was supposed to encourage the students to break the trend.

That mission earned the annual event a spot on a blacklist of university and college programs that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis describes as “discriminatory” efforts, which, he joked, have the same educational value as a degree in “Zombie Studies.”

The roster of “initiatives related to diversity, equity and inclusion, and critical race theory” — also referred to as DEI and CRT — was compiled by public colleges and universities in January, under orders from DeSantis’ office. The sweeping directive, which provided no instructions for interpreting what constitutes DEI or CRT, yielded a grab bag of hundreds of student organizations, mentorship programs, community outreach initiatives, offices dedicated to federal compliance and a seemingly random assortment of classes — including “American History to 1877,” “Topics in Buddhism,” and “Classical Perspectives on Dance.”

As Tallahassee lawmakers consider legislation to ban DEI- and CRT-related programming, not everything caught up in DeSantis’ initial dragnet is certain to be cut. But the information-gathering efforts provide a blueprint for how a legislative agenda billed as a campaign against wasteful spending and liberal bias has ballooned into one that potentially targets any campus activity or course acknowledging diversity, race or gender.

“I think it’s interesting that they talk about academic freedom and no more indoctrination in schools, but at the same time they’re restricting what students can choose to do,” said Pristine Thai, a freshman at the University of Florida who is a member of several Asian-American student organizations.

DeSantis has targeted a collection of programs and classes that account for a tiny fraction of university budgets, a Miami Herald analysis found. And many of DeSantis’ proposed reforms to eliminate diversity programs are likely to prove difficult to implement, as faculty unions promise lawsuits and schools simply rename diversity offices, change course descriptions and shuffle around employees who run programs mandated by state and federal law.

Even before passing any new laws during the current legislative session, Florida Republicans have managed to push changes via targeted information requests — the first from DeSantis seeking information on DEI and CRT programs and a second from Florida House Speaker Paul Renner requesting a list of names and details of all individuals involved with DEI offices — that have educators backpedaling.

In more than a dozen interviews with the Herald, faculty and staff described a quiet calculus happening behind the scenes on campuses as educators navigate an increasingly hostile work environment resulting from vague and ever-evolving directives coming from Tallahassee.

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As DeSantis takes the national stage, Marvin Dunn, a professor emeritus at Florida International University, said some of the most vulnerable people on campus, like Black and LGBTQ faculty and students, have become pawns in a political game.

“That’s the modus operandi,” Dunn said of the governor. “Go for a weak target and make them into a big threat and then go in and slay the monster.”

Read entire article at Miami Herald