DeSantis’ anti-DEI education bill has ‘chilling’ effect in Florida

Faculty and staff at Florida public colleges and universities say they are grappling with the fallout from a “chilling effect” stemming from a sweeping higher education law that defunds diversity programs and restricts race and gender-based courses.

“It’s a scary time for education,” said Eduardo Padrón, president emeritus of Miami Dade College, who led the institution for nearly 25 years. MDC enrolls more black students than any other college in the US, including the majority of Latino students.

“All the progress we’ve made to be more inclusive in Florida is disappearing,” said Padrón, who received the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts to expand higher education and make it more accessible.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, this month signed into law a bill that bars public colleges and universities from using state or federal funds for programs that “advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion.” It also bans basic general education courses that “distort” historical events or teach “identity politics”.

“What do they mean by identity politics? How would that affect a wide range of courses?” said Nicole Morse, member and president of the union organizing the United Faculty of Florida chapter at Florida Atlantic University. Morse said universities were now wondering whether courses focusing on women, for example, or the history of specific cultural groups or communities, could still be taught under the new law.

Morse said the law is “so vaguely written” that it allows institutions to interpret it in wildly different ways – resulting in contradictory actions that “create a climate of confusion, anxiety and fear”.

Not only is Florida home to the nation’s third-largest Latino population, but its public colleges and universities are the top institutions that enroll and graduate Latino students in the state, according to Excelencia in Education, one of the nation’s leading education think tanks. country focused on Latino colleges. conclusion.

The law applies to the state’s 40 public colleges and universities. About a third of those (13) are Hispanic-oriented institutions — where Hispanic students make up at least 25 percent of full-time equivalent undergraduate enrollments — and 12 other Florida colleges and universities could soon meet that standard, according to with Santiago.

“There is concern about the chilling effect, particularly for institutions that are trying to diversify, because they hesitate to do anything without clear direction,” said Deborah Santiago, executive director and co-founder of Excelencia in Education.

Paul Ortiz, a professor of history at the University of Florida and a member of the United Faculty of Florida, recalled during a virtual educational conference this month the “panic” felt in colleges and universities when an earlier version of the bill was introduced in the state home in February. .

Thinking “gender studies was over,” university administrators began brainstorming contingency plans to transfer courses and faculty to other departments. Ortiz said the union stepped in and told managers they couldn’t change the terms and conditions of their employment based on their collective bargaining agreement.

That was the beginning of administrators rushing to comply with the law in anticipation, according to Morse. “They don’t want to be on the wrong side of the law because it comes with such significant threats to performance finance,” she said.

But the wording of the final version of the law still offers little guidance to administrators seeking to preserve existing programs while complying with the law.

“People are interpreting the bill based on the governor’s public statements,” Morse said.

A press release from DeSantis’ office said the new law “takes several steps to prevent agreed upon ideologies from continuing to co-opt our state universities and colleges”, and DeSantis said diversity, equity and inclusion “are coming to an end in the state of Florida .

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether it had plans to provide additional guidance or clarification on the new law.

Those most affected by the ban on diversity, equity and inclusion programs are university and college officials tasked with administering those programs, Ortiz said.

An affected professional employee at Florida International University, whose name is being withheld due to concerns about potential repercussions from the new law, said many in the state are fearful that their “jobs will be taken away.”

“The feeling of being a member of the team now is a shame or like ‘we’re going to hide you,'” said the employee, who is awaiting a response from university leadership on her position, which provides broad support on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

While the program the employee works for is covered by student fees, program employees’ salaries are covered by state funds that will disappear once the law takes effect.

“If there isn’t a professional team assigned to implement these programs, I don’t know who would,” the official said. “I’m upset that these things can disappear for students, especially in the Florida climate.”

The law also directs the Board of Governors, who are mostly members appointed by DeSantis, to include in their institutions’ periodic reviews a guideline on university programs “based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in institutions.” of the United States and were created to maintain social, political and economic inequalities”.

“The state of Florida has made it clear that it wants to eliminate our ability to analyze and understand the roots of oppression and the possibility of renewal and building of social movements,” said Ortiz, author of “Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida From Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920″ and co-editor of “Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South”.

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