It’s been a dizzying month for higher ed in the Sunshine State.
Since the New Year, ahead of the Florida legislature’s next session, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Republican allies have ramped up efforts to eradicate “woke” ideology from public colleges.
The recent avalanche of activity began in late December, when DeSantis’s office requested that state colleges and universities list their spending on programs related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and critical race theory. Florida’s Republican House Speaker, Paul Renner, later asked the same campuses to turn over a mountain of additional DEI-related information.
DeSantis’s office also requested that state universities report data on transgender students, and he appointed six new trustees to the New College of Florida’s board because, according to his press secretary, the small liberal-arts institution has put “trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning.”
State leaders are not finished: They will examine ways to “more broadly curb” campus DEI programs, the lieutenant governor said last week. She also suggested that leaders would review general-education courses in the state, and she proposed to “further empower” university presidents to control faculty hiring.
But the extent of information — including employee names, salaries, and internal communications — that Florida’s politicians are seeking on DEI work does seem novel. “That’s a different level of state intrusion into institutional independence,” said Barrett J. Taylor, an associate professor of counseling and higher education at the University of North Texas who wrote Wrecked: Deinstitutionalization and Partial Defenses in State Higher Education Policy.
The common conservative complaint that colleges are infused with “woke” culture has advanced from talking point to policy — and not just in Florida. In Texas, a lawmaker has proposed a measure that would ban public colleges from funding DEI offices, and allow private citizens to sue over potential violations. In Oklahoma, the state superintendent ordered the state regents for higher education to “provide a full outline and review of every dollar that has been spent over the last 10 years on diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Tulsa World reported. Other states might follow suit.
“What I find most troubling is that DeSantis is putting out a blueprint for other governors and state legislatures,” said Kristen A. Renn, a professor at Michigan State University who researches lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender college-student issues. “He’s doing these things in ways that anybody else can pick this up and do it.”
Complaints about social justice in academe go back decades. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the phrase “political correctness,” which is akin to “woke,” became widespread, said Andrew Hartman, a professor of history at Illinois State University who wrote A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars. In October 1990, The New York Times published an article with the headline “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct.” It noted that conservatives and classical liberals described “a growing intolerance, a closing of debate, a pressure to conform to a radical program” around certain subjects, including race and gender.
But the difference between then and now is that in the 1990s, conservatives used public persuasion, not legislation, to bring awareness to what they saw as problems, Hartman said. The current effort in Florida to curb certain university activities by passing laws and issuing requests for DEI-related information, said Hartman, is “ultimately, or at least potentially, extremely threatening to academic freedom in ways that nothing during the ‘80s and ‘90s was.”
What I find most troubling is that DeSantis is putting out a blueprint for other governors and state legislatures.
That’s not how Florida’s Republican leaders see it. In their telling, these interventions are practical reforms on a higher-education system that, while top in the rankings, has also strayed from its duties, at taxpayers’ expense.
Renner, Florida’s Speaker of the House, said that lawmakers need to establish “proper guardrails” to ensure institutions do not promote an “aggressively ideological agenda under the guise of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” News Service of Florida reported. He issued a sweeping request to public colleges for information related to DEI programs, including: employees’ names and their salaries; all documents created by the DEI office related to faculty hiring, compensation, promotion, and tenure; and all communications, including texts and social-media messages, to or from a DEI faculty committee “regarding curriculum content or development.”
The New College of Florida also needs reorienting due to its purported emphasis on “trendy” ideology, according to the governor. Bryan Griffin, DeSantis’s press secretary, said in an email that the New College’s “low student enrollment and other financial stresses have emerged from its skewed focus and impractical course offerings.” The new trustees are committed to “refocusing” the institution, he said.
DeSantis’s office did not make anyone available for an interview to discuss the governor’s larger vision for Florida higher education. Instead, Griffin referenced reforms and linked to speeches to explain the governor’s goals.
The governor has cast himself as a white knight in the fight against educational “indoctrination,” one in favor of seizing control of the classroom and out-of-touch elites, and restoring it to parents and students. Last year, for example, as he signed a bill allowing tenured professors to undergo a comprehensive review every five years, DeSantis said that tenure has created an “intellectual orthodoxy” and that faculty members need to be held accountable. The year before, the governor signed a law that permits students to record lectures for the purpose of filing a complaint. In recent interviews, Florida instructors referred to the law frequently, saying it has created an “atmosphere of surveillance” in the classroom that makes it harder for them to discuss controversial ideas.
In an email to The Chronicle, Griffin quoted from DeSantis’s recent inaugural address: “We must ensure that our institutions of higher learning are focused on academic excellence and the pursuit of truth, not the imposition of trendy ideology.”
Or, put more bluntly by DeSantis in that same speech: Florida is “where woke goes to die.”
So far, the practical consequences are not as far-reaching as the governor’s rhetoric suggests. And at least one Florida higher-ed leader has said not every DEI program will go on the chopping block.
The chancellor of the Florida university system told WLRN that some of the programs listed for the state “target populations that are important to everyone.” When asked who will determine which programs continue, the chancellor said that “remains to be seen,” adding that he “can’t imagine any scenario” where legislation would eliminate efforts for first-generation or nontraditional students, students with special needs, or military veterans.
Still, faculty and staff members report a distracting atmosphere of fear, and worries that their projects — which they see as critical to improving the work and lives of their colleagues and students — will be shut down. At least one college has voluntarily shuttered some diversity-related faculty training, for the time being.
Renn, the Michigan State professor, sees DeSantis’s office’s request for information from state universities on individuals who sought gender-affirming health care as a clear threat, meant to make the case for defunding that health care or at least “seed public outrage.” She’s worried about the effect of that news on transgender students’ mental health and well-being.
Jennifer Sandoval, an associate professor of communications who serves on two diversity committees, estimates she’s spent four to six hours over the past two weeks responding to different requests for information. “It’s been quite a frenzied environment,” she said. (She is a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits that’s been brought against House Bill 7, the “Stop WOKE” Act, which DeSantis championed. The law, as it applies to higher education, is currently under injunction.)
Sandoval teaches Gender Issues in Communication, one of eight courses that the University of Central Florida listed as being related to diversity, equity, inclusion, or critical race theory. She said the university has also gathered information for the state on her role as assistant director of inclusive culture for the School of Communication and Media, including her title and salary.
“I feel frustrated by it,” she said. “I think anytime somebody starts requesting specific names of individuals, that is going to cause a lot of discomfort and a sense of fear and uncertainty.”
She fears the committees she sits on will be disbanded, that the work they do to better the environment for work and learning will end. Or maybe they’ll still be allowed to meet, but the hours will no longer count toward “service” in people’s job evaluations. She’s afraid talented researchers won’t want to come to work in public colleges in Florida. Indeed, other faculty members have reported tough questionsfrom job candidates in their departments.
“We’ll lose important scholars, research, and funding from this region,” Sandoval said, “and that will impact a lot of things, but most importantly, our students and community.”
For scholars without tenure, their fears can be even more personal. The lists of “diversity-related” programs that the colleges and universities submitted to DeSantis’s office were short, considering many of the institutions’ vast sizes. That left one scholar, whose program was listed and who asked for anonymity because of a lack of job security, feeling exposed: “One thing that’s important about this story is the institutions’ attempt to protect themselves by sacrificing a couple of faculty and offices.”
“It really feels like I’ve been thrown under the bus.”
The program lists are public records under Florida law. While they don’t give names, they often provide enough detail for readers to identify the employees involved. Since the lists’ publication, the anonymous scholar has received numerous messages — mostly supportive but still unsettling because they demonstrate that “everyone knows it’s me.” Bad actors, intent on doxxing and harassing, could just as easily target the scholar.
Valencia College, in Orlando, decided to cancel eight faculty-development courses scheduled for this spring. The college included the courses in response to the request from DeSantis’s office. None of the courses are required, nor do they “espouse, promote, advance, inculcate, or compel individuals to believe any concepts prohibited by HB 7,” the college wrote.
Still, Valencia’s president, Kathleen Plinske, emailed the 64 faculty and staff members who signed up for the courses to explain why they’d been scrapped. Plinske said that she wanted to ensure the courses are in compliance with HB 7 given “the amount of attention currently focused on our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts.” She acknowledged that the news was “disappointing.”
One thing that’s important about this story is the institutions’ attempt to protect themselves by sacrificing a couple of faculty and offices.
Several employees The Chroniclecontacted noted that their programs had seen no cuts or changes. Even if they never do, some worry that their future is in jeopardy. At Pensacola State College, administrators listed the African American Student Association as one of five related positions or programs. The AASA’s faculty adviser, Tonie E. Anderson-Steele, credits the club for helping to give Black students a critical voice and sense of self-efficacy. The club visits the state capital every year so that members can tell lawmakers what it’s like to try to make it through college. And Anderson-Steele tries to empower the students through history. Your ancestors were not slaves, she tells them. They were leaders and self-sufficient, and they were enslaved. “I see what happens when they’re enlightened,” she said.
Anderson-Steele must retire at the end of next year and is unsure if anyone will succeed her. “It is uncomfortable to continue under the circumstances — and the circumstances is limited funding, and you know the rest,” she said. “Society has changed so much that it is sometimes uncomfortable to proceed engaging with African American students for their benefit.”
“We will continue the African American Student Association,” C. Edward Meadows, Pensacola State’s president, wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “I am sure there will be faculty and staff who will volunteer to serve as advisor for the student organization.”
It can feel like there are few checks on Florida Republicans’ ambitions for public higher ed in their state. Several faculty members, however, suggested their institutions’ leaders could have done more. Instead of listing a limited number of programs, the untenured scholar who felt sacrificed wished the university had responded more capaciously and stood up for its principles: “Be transparent and honest about our values and why we care about teaching all relevant theories, including critical race theory, and why we care about ensuring our campus is an inclusive environment.” In the scholar’s view, a more-thorough accounting of diversity-related programs might have prevented Renner, the Republican Speaker of the House, from submitting his more-extensive request.
Nicholas R. Seabrook, chair of political science at the University of North Florida, made a similar argument for standing stronger as institutions. In an interview earlier in the month, in the wake of the first request for DEI information from DeSantis’s office, Seabrook said that the institutions in the state university system needed to present a united front and resist the request. “Otherwise these kinds of attacks are only likely to escalate, moving forward,” he said. He had done his part: Asked to provide a list of related courses in his department, he had written there were none that fit the “Stop WOKE” definition of unacceptable curriculum material, such as material that teaches that “members of one race, color, national origin, or sex are morally superior.”
There has been no vocal, systemwide defense of academic freedom. Quite the opposite. Earlier this month, the presidents of the 28 state and community colleges posted a letter that appeared to promise compliance. The colleges would not “fund or support” any practice or program “that compels belief in critical race theory or related concepts such as intersectionality,” the presidents wrote.
They were promptly praised by Florida’s education department for endorsing DeSantis’s vision.