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DeSantis requests diversity and equity info from Florida colleges and universities

Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the crowd before publicly signing HB7, "individual freedom," also dubbed the "stop WOKE" act during a news conference in Hialeah Gardens on Friday, April 22, 2022.
Miami Herald
via WLRN
Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the crowd before publicly signing HB7, "individual freedom," also dubbed the "stop WOKE" act during a news conference in Hialeah Gardens on Friday, April 22, 2022.

The president of the United Faculty of Florida says the request is an attempt at further silencing viewpoints with which he doesn’t agree.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is asking to see all the programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory in the state’s public higher education system. He also wants to know if those programs are being funded with state money, and how much.

 The request comes days after the governor promised to keep cracking down on “woke" ideology. His ask is being met with fear, outrage and skepticism from many in the state college and university system.

Taryn Fenske, the governor’s communication director, recently defined woke as "a slang term for activism … progressive activism.”

The word came into use by African Americans in the 1930s as a warning to stay alert to racial discrimination and violence. Today, it’s used so broadly that it has lost that historical meaning, "and that's regrettable," says Tallahassee Community College history professor Andrea Oliver. She specified in this interview that she is not speaking on behalf of the college.

The same goes for critical race theory or CRT. It's an academic framework dating to the 1970s that centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that those institutions maintain the dominance of white people. It has been used in law schools and graduate programs to examine the effect of race in law.

Those opposed to critical race theory say it divides society and call it an attempt to rewrite American history and make white people believe they are inherently racist.

Oliver notes the acronym has become a catch-all phrase “to describe those parts of our history that some people would rather us not talk about or they feel that telling students about some of the unsavory parts of America’s past, we’re criticizing this country, or that it’s unpatriotic.”

CRT, in political terms, has become almost synonymous with “woke.” In his second inaugural address, DeSantis promised to continue his crackdown on “woke” ideology.

“We seek normalcy, not philosophical lunacy. We will not allow reality, facts and truth to become optional. We will never surrender to the woke mob, Florida is where woke goes to die,” he proclaimed to a crowd of cheering supporters.

Lumped into that ideology are efforts surrounding DEI, an acronym for diversity, equity and inclusion.

On Dec, 28, Chris Spencer, director of DeSantis’ Office of Policy and Budget, sent a memo to Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. and state university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues, who oversee the college and university systems.

“As the Executive Office of the Governor prepares policy and budget proposals ahead of the 2023 Legislative Session, it is important that we have a full understanding of the operational expenses of state institutions,” Spencer wrote in the memo.

The memo said colleges and universities are required to “provide a comprehensive list of all staff, programs and campus activities related to diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory.”

In addition, they are directed to detail “costs associated with the administration of each program or activity,” including a description of the activities, paid positions and how much of the money is provided by the state.

Diaz and Rodrigues are required to collect and submit the schools’ responses by Jan. 13.

DeSantis has repeatedly clashed with Democratic lawmakers and unions representing professors and teachers over his education initiatives.

State lawmakers targeted DEI and CRT last year in a law called the “Stop WOKE Act” which the governor promoted. The law placed limits on how issues of race and history can be taught in public schools. It banned private employers from mandating employee trainings that compel people to believe members of another race, color, nationality or sex are inherently racist or sexist.
Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, believes the governor’s request to identify CRT and DEI programs is an attempt at further silencing viewpoints he doesn’t agree with.
 “While students are required to learn lots of different ideas … that doesn’t mean they have to agree or make those ideas a part of their core identity,” Gothard said in response to beliefs that colleges and universities are indoctrinating students.

In November, a federal judge blocked the Stop WOKE Act from going into effect, calling it “positively dystopian.” Gothard worries if the Legislature decides to defund DEI efforts in public schools and higher ed, it could lead to a clash with the federal government.

“A lot of these programs related to DEI in particular are vital to the function of a university. If you’re looking at an administrative office that handles DEI issues, they also handle the American Disability Act accommodations, they handle EEOC (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) complaints of gender discrimination. There are federal dollars and federal requirements tied up in all of this," he said.

The battle over DEI, CRT and other such buzzwords is the culmination of factors like years of social and racial justice movements, and economic changes that have depressed largely white, rural communities. Demographic and cultural value shifts have also led to clashes between generations and perspectives on society as a whole. All of these have bred resentment, and politicians have exploited these fault lines. Oliver, the TCC history professor, wonders whether Florida’s higher education system can weather the onslaught.

“Challenges to the liberal arts disciplines…aren’t new,” she said. “The sources of the challenges, though, have changed. This will negatively impact the state’s ability to attract and retain talented scholars in these disciplines.”

And that, she says, would be a loss for Florida’s students.

Ryan Dailey contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.