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House takes aim at 'DEI' in higher education

By Ryan Dailey

News Service of Florida

March 13, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — A controversial bill that would carry out Gov. Ron DeSantis’ push to eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in state colleges and universities began moving forward Monday in the Florida House — while students came out in force to oppose it.

Hours before the Republican-dominated Postsecondary Education & Workforce Subcommittee voted 12-5 to approve the measure (HB 999), DeSantis and top higher-education officials touted the House bill and a similar Senate measure during a media event.

“These bills effectively eliminate DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) and other types of discriminatory programs and activities. But it also prohibits soliciting pledges of DEI or CRT (critical race theory) or any political viewpoint that’s a condition of hiring, promotion or admissions,” DeSantis said, flanked by the leaders of the state’s college and university systems.

DeSantis has long sought to prevent critical race theory in Florida classrooms. In January, he ratcheted up his focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, in part by directing higher-education officials to detail expenditures, programs and staff related to such initiatives.

DeSantis, who is widely considered to be a contender for president in 2024, has used his fight against critical race theory — which is based on the premise that racism is embedded in American institutions — as a linchpin of his education agenda.

The House bill would require the state university system’s Board of Governors to “periodically review the mission” of each university, a process that would involve an examination of academic programs. The board would direct universities to “remove from its programs any major or minor that is based on or otherwise utilizes pedagogical methodology associated with critical theory” — a concept that the bill attempts to flesh out.

Critical theory encompasses various concepts, according to the bill, including critical race theory, critical race studies, critical ethnic studies, radical feminist theory, radical gender theory, queer theory, critical social justice and intersectionality.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, questioned the constitutionality of the bill’s prohibitions on teaching certain topics.

“Members, we can have debates about DEI all we want. I welcome those debates. But to insert the state in curriculum, that is a problem. Not only is it a problem when it comes to the First Amendment rights of professors to teach, but also the First Amendment rights of students to listen,” Eskamani said.

The measure also seeks to prevent state colleges and universities from spending any state or federal funds on programs or campus activities that advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion, promote or espouse “political or social activism” or give preferential treatment to people based on factors such as race or sex.

Florida’s 12 universities collectively reported spending more than $34.5 million on programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion. 

The schools also reported 279 paid positions tied to the initiatives.

Numerous students were among the roughly 150 people who signed up to testify Monday about the bill, with the vast majority of people opposing the measure. Subcommittee Chairwoman Lauren Melo, R-Naples, gave each speaker 30 seconds to address the panel.

Maxx Fenning, a student at the University of Florida and president of LGBTQ-advocacy group PRISM FL, criticized the part of the bill that would eliminate instruction on various topics.

“Whether you agree with these ideas or not, they are a component of understanding the wide array of views and opinions on issues that affect our daily lives,” Fenning said.

The effort to nix diversity, equity and inclusion programs already has begun at New College of Florida. DeSantis in January appointed a slate of six conservative allies to the university’s Board of Trustees. The board subsequently decided to shutter the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence at the small liberal-arts school.

State university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues, who joined DeSantis at Monday’s media event, endorsed the governor’s fight against diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Rodrigues said such initiatives, in practice, are “exclusionary, not inclusive.”

“Instead of being unifying, we see it as being divisive, an attempt to cancel and censor those who don’t agree. It’s become a means to advocate a political ideology of the left,” Rodrigues said.

The Senate Education Postsecondary Committee is slated Wednesday to take up the Senate version of the bill (SB 266).

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