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Why is diversity the hot issue in Florida higher education? 4 things to know.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has set out to dismantle diversity, equity and inclusion programs at state colleges and universities.
 
Enya Silva, second from left, Estevan Santana, Victoria Hinckley and Yuki Shao hold signs as University of South Florida students and faculty members joined a statewide walkout to protest Gov. Ron DeSantis' education policies on Thursday in Tampa. Many protesters were focused on DeSantis' proposals to limit diversity efforts.
Enya Silva, second from left, Estevan Santana, Victoria Hinckley and Yuki Shao hold signs as University of South Florida students and faculty members joined a statewide walkout to protest Gov. Ron DeSantis' education policies on Thursday in Tampa. Many protesters were focused on DeSantis' proposals to limit diversity efforts. [ IVY CEBALLO | AP ]
Published Feb. 28|Updated Feb. 28

Less than three years ago, Florida’s higher education leaders went all in to address racial and ethnic inequalities.

With protesters still marching over the May 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Board of Governors formed a committee to ramp up diversity, equity and inclusion programs at the state’s 12 public universities.

Syd Kitson, the board’s chairperson then, urged schools to take “consistent action” — not let the urgency fade. The system’s chancellor at the time, Marshall Criser, called the effort “critically important.”

In recent weeks, Florida has witnessed a striking reversal as Gov. Ron DeSantis has targeted university diversity programs. He has made their elimination a cornerstone of his plan to overhaul higher education in the legislative session that begins March 7.

The term “DEI” — short for diversity, equity and inclusion — has emerged as a buzzword for a trend in campus culture that conservative commentators say is discriminatory and hostile to dissenting voices.

DeSantis agrees, saying he hopes to make diversity offices “wither on the vine” without state funding. His critics say that rhetoric distorts and obscures the necessary day-to-day work that the offices perform.

As the session draws near, here are four things to know about this intensifying debate:

Diversity officers do the work

“University DEI offices are the nerve center of woke ideology on university campuses,” according to model legislation co-authored by conservative activist and New College of Florida trustee Christopher Rufo. “DEI officers form a kind of revolutionary vanguard on campuses; their livelihood can only be justified by discovering — i.e., manufacturing — new inequities to be remedied.”

Queen Meccasia Zabriskie said she didn’t feel that way when serving as the interim dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at New College of Florida in 2021.

The school’s Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence is mostly concerned with coordinating partnerships with local organizations, managing grant money and performing state-mandated surveys of students and staff.

During her tenure, Zabriskie helped lead a discussion group about campus culture. She organized events for Black History Month, and made sure Muslim students could get a warm meal and a place to eat after sundown during Ramadan.

“It’s a lot of problem-solving. It’s, ‘Who do I need to get in a room to make sure these students feel included on campus?’” Zabriskie said. “It has nothing to do with going around and telling people, ‘You’re a bad person.’”

The most basic function of diversity officers is to ensure the university complies with federal and state laws.

Since 2010, the Board of Governors has required the state’s public universities to log the race, ethnicity and sex of all students and faculty. Schools are required to identify areas for improvement.

The federal Higher Education Act requires colleges and universities that participate in federal student financial aid — such as Pell grants and federal student loans — to report an annual breakdown of the student population by race, gender and ethnicity.

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National board exams in fields like nursing and medicine must be reviewed with diversity, equity and inclusion in mind, said University of South Florida faculty senate chairperson Jenifer Jasinski Schneider. Other professions, including social work and engineering, have similar accreditation rules.

Jenifer Jasinski Schneider
Jenifer Jasinski Schneider [ Courtesy of Jenifer Jasinski Schneider ]

Schneider spoke last week during a special meeting of the USF board of trustees, telling them that a school’s mandate to support diversity, equity and inclusion isn’t limited to a single office or staff.

Faculty members have been increasingly concerned about inaccurate portrayals of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, she said, and she wanted to set the record straight.

“The tenets of DEI are everywhere,” said Schneider, a literacy studies professor. “It’s an umbrella term that is used for initiatives, outreach, resources, grants, community programs that ensure all people have access and opportunity to education and economic prosperity.”

Such initiatives support a wide variety of groups, including veterans, students with disabilities, Pell grant recipients, out-of-state students, international students, first-generation students, religious students, students from different age and racial groups and LGBTQ students.

There’s also a real-world justification for training, Schneider said. Workplaces are increasingly diverse, and students need to be prepared to work with people with different backgrounds and perspectives. Federal research and military grants often require elements of diversity, equity and inclusion, which universities and their students need to be equipped to navigate.

“There’s a real financial component to all this,” she said. “I hope everyone understands.”

Critics are focused on diversity statements. Here’s why.

Diversity statements that ask applicants to state their views, affiliations or activities are what most trouble Aaron Terr, director of public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonprofit that advocates for free speech.

A 2022 study from the American Association of University Professors found that 1 in 5 universities includes diversity, equity and inclusion criteria in tenure decisions and another 2 in 5 are considering it.

The statements can be construed as compelled speech, as some students and staff may be wary of expressing their own views if they go against perceived norms, Terr said. At campuses like the University of California, Berkeley and UC Davis, diversity statements have been used to pre-screen applicants for faculty and administrative positions.

That’s not the norm for student applications, said Marie Bigham, founder and executive director of ACCEPT, a nonprofit that centers on racial justice in college admissions. The diversity statement on student applications is typically no more than a couple of paragraphs and offers applicants a chance to set themselves apart.

“They’re not asking you to perform, and they’re not judging you for how you tell your story,” Bigham said. “Frankly, it’s not the piece (of the application) that drives the decision anyway.”

At the University of South Florida, a training document developed in 2021 offered guidance for job interviews to help increase equity in hiring. Among the examples: asking applicants to explain “your experience and commitments to working with diverse populations and promoting inclusive excellence.”

The prompts were recommended, but not required, as best practices for recruiting more underrepresented faculty.

On Jan. 31, the day DeSantis announced his plans to change higher education, the U.S. Department of Education issued a reminder that such practices are in keeping with federal civil rights laws. Its two-page fact sheet said trainings on diversity and systemic racism, for example, are encouraged and do not “create a hostile environment on the basis of race.”

Universities spend millions on diversity efforts, but totals vary

Critics often complain that staffing diversity, equity and inclusion offices saps resources from publicly funded universities.

“High DEI staffing levels suggest that these programs, like many other administrative initiatives at universities, are bloated relative to academic pursuits,” according to a 2021 report from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

However, the University of Florida and Florida State University employ among the fewest diversity officers relative to their size, according to the report’s own methodology. They were the only two Florida schools included in the report.

In late December, DeSantis’ budget office told state colleges and universities to detail their expenses and programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion. The responses showed the 12 public universities together spent about $34.5 million, of which about $20.7 million came from state funds.

That spending varied widely among schools and covered a variety of uses — including staff and faculty salaries, student groups and school activities. Spending per student ranged between $9 at Florida Polytechnic and nearly $500 at Florida A&M, a historically Black university.

USF had the highest diversity, equity and inclusion budget, spending nearly $8.7 million in total — about $175 per student. However, two-thirds of that money came from outside the state, including a $4.1 million federally funded Upward Bound program assisting Hillsborough students from low-income households.

What happens next

A January tweet outlined DeSantis’ four requirements “to ensure higher education is rooted in the values of liberty and the western tradition” at Florida’s public colleges and universities. Lawmakers are taking note.

One of those priorities — outlawing diversity statements — has already made it into legislation. A recent bill sponsored by Rep. Spencer Roach and Sen. Keith Perry would prohibit public colleges and universities from asking would-be students or faculty to complete a “political loyalty test” related to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Three other DeSantis priorities are reflected in a bill filed last week by state Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola. The measure would bar schools from spending money on activities previously deemed to be ideological indoctrination, push degrees that lead to high-wage jobs and prohibit campus activities or programs that promote diversity, equity and inclusion.

State Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola
State Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola [ Florida House of Representatives ]

It also would require public universities to create a core curriculum that promotes the “philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization.”

It’s unclear whether these bills will be passed into law, but Florida schools aren’t waiting on legislation to make changes.

In recent weeks, USF removed a section on anti-racism from its website, along with associated links and training slides. And on Feb. 7, the school suspended its monthslong search for a top diversity officer, citing uncertainty over whether the state would continue funding the position.

According to university spokesperson Althea Johnson, all prospects for the position dropped out, some citing the political climate in Florida.

USF President Rhea Law also announced that the interim vice president in the 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.

Ian Hodgson is an education data reporter and Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

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