USF halts search for diversity chief amid uncertainty over DeSantis’ plans

“There are too many unknowns to proceed,” USF president Rhea Law said in a letter to the university community.
USF president Rhea Law announced the search for USF's top diversity officer was being paused amid uncertainty of upcoming legislation.
USF president Rhea Law announced the search for USF's top diversity officer was being paused amid uncertainty of upcoming legislation. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Feb. 7|Updated Feb. 9

Last July, University of South Florida president Rhea Law launched a national search for the university’s top diversity officer, building on the school’s new strategic plan.

But in a message Tuesday to the USF community, Law said the search has been suspended, citing uncertainty over whether Florida will continue to fund diversity, equity and inclusion departments at state colleges and universities. Those offices are typically headed by a school’s chief diversity officer.

The decision follows Gov. Ron DeSantis’ announcement last week that he will push legislation to prohibit state schools from supporting diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Without funding, he said, they would “wither on the vine.”

In late December, his budget office requested all expenses and programs related to diversity initiatives and critical race theory. Among Florida’s 12 public universities, USF had the highest total spending in those categories, though not all of it involved state funds. An expanded request from House Speaker Paul Renner due Monday has asked for further information, including all texts, social media messages and other communications from university employees involved with diversity, equity and inclusion work.

Diversity, equity and inclusion is one of five goals in USF’s strategic plan, approved in January 2022 by the state Board of Governors. In July, Law wrote that the university held “steadfast commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” adding: “These guiding values and commitments define who we are as an institution and shape our bold path forward as the nation’s fastest-rising university.”

In recent days, however, DeSantis has harshly criticized such programs as divisive.

Had USF’s new diversity leader been in place before now, one of that person’s duties would have been to notify top university leaders of events such as the governor’s public statements. According to the job description, the diversity officer must “demonstrate knowledge of and appreciation for the political environment” affecting diversity, equity and inclusion and make sure the president and other top leaders are informed of matters that “may be beneficial or disadvantage” the school’s diversity efforts.

In addition to pausing the search for a diversity officer, Law on Tuesday said the interim vice president in USF’s diversity, equity and inclusion office would return to her previous role in the College of Public Health. It was not immediately clear how the office would operate without its top leadership.

In her letter, Law said “there are too many unknowns to proceed with our current search.”

While the media has reported the governor’s remarks, she wrote, “we do not know the details of what the actual legislation will contain.”

Law added: “The University of South Florida is committed to fostering an inclusive community of empathy, collaboration, learning and discovery on our campuses and providing access and opportunity for individuals of all backgrounds. We remain steadfast in our support for academic excellence, civil discourse and the exchange of ideas.”

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Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.