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Lawmakers target campus 'DEI' efforts

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

By Jim Saunders

News Service of Florida

May 3, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — As Gov. Ron DeSantis and his allies target “woke” ideology, the Florida House on Wednesday gave final approval to a bill that includes preventing colleges and universities from spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

The bill (SB 266), which now will go to DeSantis, touched off a fierce debate about Florida’s higher-education system and campus speech.

“Diversity, equity and inclusion, like so many other terms adopted by the woke left, is being used as a club to silence things, to say that if you don’t agree with them, you are somehow racist or homophobic or whatever other word that you want to use to criticize people,” Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, said. “The fact of the matter is these terms have been hijacked by those who want to use them to bully and use them to shut down debate, to actually do the opposite of what these words are supposed to do.”

But bill critics said diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are important and that the legislation will drive away top faculty members and students.

“This attack on higher education is hurting Florida’s brand,” House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said. “We have a very good higher-education system with lower costs than many other states. But these radical changes risk throwing our colleges and universities into chaos.”

The Republican-controlled House voted 81-34 along party lines to pass the bill, which the Senate approved 27-12 last week.

DeSantis has made “woke” ideology a frequent target in education and other issues, such as in the investment of government money. As an example, he overhauled the New College of Florida Board of Trustees this year, with his appointees moving quickly to scuttle diversity, equity and inclusion — often known by the shorthand “DEI” — initiatives.

The bill that passed Wednesday includes a series of higher-education changes. For instance, it would require the State Board of Education and state university system’s Board of Governors to appoint faculty committees that would review general-education core courses. Those reviews could lead to the “removal, alignment, realignment, or addition” of courses based on various criteria in the bill.

“General education core courses may not distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics … or is based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities,” the bill says.

But the debate Wednesday focused on diversity, equity and inclusion.

The bill, in part, would prevent spending money “to promote, support, or maintain any programs or campus activities that … (advocate) for diversity, equity, and inclusion, or promote or engage in political or social activism, as defined by rules of the State Board of Education and regulations of the (state university system’s) Board of Governors.”

Rep. Ashley Gantt, D-Miami, disputed that diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives have hurt the higher-education system, saying Florida universities have risen in national rankings in recent years. She and other Democrats pointed to harm to schools and students if the initiatives are blocked.

“Whenever people shield their children from the truth, a generation of ignorance is born,” Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, said.

But House bill sponsor Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, said the initiatives hurt schools and students.

“DEI’s intellectual fragility makes campuses less safe, less intelligent and less free for the students who should be learning to think for themselves,” Andrade said.

— News Service staff writer Ryan Dailey contributed to this report.

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