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Senate backs blocking 'DEI' spending

Photo by Philippe Bout

By Ryan Dailey

News Service of Florida

April 28, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — Amid a debate about academic freedom in higher education, the Florida Senate on Friday passed a bill that could lead to changes in general-education courses and prevent colleges and universities from spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

The Republican-dominated Senate voted 27-12 along near-party lines to pass the bill (SB 266) despite arguments by Democrats that it could hurt the reputation of Florida’s higher-education system. Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, joined Democrats in voting against the proposal.

Much of the debate centered on the bill’s potential impact on curriculum. The measure 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 violate a state law that restricts the way certain race-based concepts can be taught, the bill says.

Such courses also could not be “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.”

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said the bill is an effort to “legislate our culture.” She argued that the bill and other recent moves by the Legislature will cause universities to hemorrhage faculty and students.

“I think all of that just puts sort of an authoritarian feel to our really well-respected, very highly ranked public universities,” Polsky said, noting that she has a son who attends one of the schools. “So it’s very concerning to me to see the direction that we’re taking.”

But bill sponsor Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, said the legislation would not shut down discussions.

“There’s nothing in this bill that prohibits facts from being talked about. There’s nothing in this bill that prohibits theories from being discussed,” Grall said.

The bill also seeks to bar colleges and universities from spending state or federal funds to “promote, support, or maintain any programs or campus activities” that advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion. Also prohibited would be expenditures that “promote or engage in political or social activism” as defined by the State Board of Education and the Board of Governors.

That part of the measure would, at least in part, carry out an effort by Gov. Ron DeSantis to eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, initiatives in the higher-education system.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, pushed back against prohibiting such expenditures.

“We worked hard in this state to create an atmosphere of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Rouson said.

But Grall suggested the bill targets a “certain type” of DEI initiatives.

“The bill refers to entities that advocate for a certain type of diversity, equity and inclusion to institutionalize a particular worldview and use it to suppress anyone with a dissenting opinion,” Grall said.

Grall also said theories that would be targeted in the proposed general-course requirements “are theories that in fact divide us.”

“So, the policy decision here is about saying we are not going to have students enter our universities and teach them, from the beginning of their higher-educational experience, how to divide themselves from other parts and other people in our society and community,” Grall said.

Other proposed changes in the bill include giving university presidents ultimate hiring authority at their schools. A similar House bill (HB 999) is ready for consideration by the full House.

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