The legislation has provoked fierce opposition from academics and First Amendment advocates, who see in the bills a flagrant attempt by the state government to encroach on academic freedom. The bills have also spawned an at-times tense and emotional debate among lawmakers about whether the measures reflect a broader effort to silence discussions about racism in the United States.
Often abbreviated as “DEI,” the programs have been embraced on many college campuses as essential to supporting increasingly diverse student populations and providing opportunities for historically marginalized groups. But DeSantis (R), a likely presidential candidate, has joined in a broad-based conservative attack on DEI, blasting the programs as “woke” and racially divisive.
This week, two bills that would prevent colleges from funding DEI programs cleared committees in Florida’s House and Senate, putting them on a path to floor votes and a probable beeline for the governor’s desk.
The bills also would forbid colleges to offer general education courses that “distort significant historical events,” teach “identity politics,” or are “based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, or privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, or economic inequities.”
During a Senate committee hearing Thursday, state Sen. Shevrin (Shev) Jones (D), said the state ought not dictate “what we should and should not teach when it comes to history.” Jones, who is Black, said the “crux” of the legislation “is racist at its core.”
“I didn’t say Senator Grall was racist,” said Jones, referring to Erin Grall, the Republican sponsor of the bill, who is White. “I said these policies that we’re looking at right now, they are dangerous.”
Grall, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, said in the hearing that she hoped the legislation would model how to have conversations “about topics that are dividing our country.” She said that DEI programs, “under the guise of social justice or critical theory, seek to increase the representation of some groups through discrimination against members of other groups.”
But the lawmakers’ efforts are causing alarm among legal experts. Joe Cohn, a First Amendment lawyer, said the legislation is “wildly unconstitutional.”
“Any time the government says this idea isn’t appropriate for the classroom and bans an idea from the classroom, they’re violating the First Amendment,” said Cohn, the legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonprofit organization that defends speech rights on college campuses.
The language in the House and Senate bills is largely similar. Both bills require general education courses — those that are part of a required curriculum for all college students — to comply with what is called the Stop WOKE Act that DeSantis signed into law last year. A federal judge has blocked the state’s enforcement of portions of the act that would restrict what college professors can teach.
“We already have an injunction in place against the Stop WOKE Act,” Cohn said, “and they are kidding themselves if they think they’re going to get any different outcome with this language” in the current bills.
Both bills forbid the use of state or federal funds for DEI advocacy, but the legislation carves out exceptions for programs needed to comply with federal law.
The bills have raised concerns about whether some student groups, including Black fraternities and sororities, could be shut down because of advocating for diversity. State Rep. Robert (Alex) Andrade (R), the sponsor of the House bill, has said they will not. In response to these concerns, both bills now say that student fees can be used to support student-led organizations, regardless of whether they engage in DEI advocacy.
DeSantis spokesman Jeremy T. Redfern said in a statement Friday it was “encouraging to see the legislature taking up this important topic and joining the conversation that the governor began with his legislative proposals for higher education reform in Florida.”
“The governor is committed to ensuring that the DEI and CRT bureaucracies are cut off and wither on the vine,” Redfern said, referring also to critical race theory, an academic framework that examines systemic racism.
Florida is among 19 states in which bills targeting DEI programs have been introduced in recent months, according to a tracking project run by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Several states, either through legislation or university policy, also are moving against diversity statements, which critics say amount to loyalty oaths for professors to pledge support of DEI efforts. The bills in Florida would forbid any such “pledge” or “oath.”
Colleges with DEI programs find themselves on the defensive. Much like CRT, DEI has become a catchall abbreviation in conservative circles — shorthand for what they decry as liberalism run amok. Paulette Granberry Russell, the president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, said DEI has become so demonized that she no longer uses it to describe diversity, equity and inclusion.
People often reduce discussions about DEI to race, but these programs are designed to ensure that everyone on a college campus feels that they belong and that they will be treated fairly, Russell said. That might mean ensuring that a student with a physical disability has access to facilities, Russell said, or it might mean meeting the dietary needs of a religious student. These students should not be told they will just have to “sink or swim,” Russell said. “Higher education has evolved so far beyond that.”
As governor, DeSantis has vowed to remake the state’s education systems, a pledge he reiterated as he began a second term. In January, DeSantis appointed multiple conservative trustees to the board of New College of Florida, a small, public liberal arts college in Sarasota. The governor publicly railed against DEI, and shortly thereafter, the trustees moved to eliminate the DEI office at New College. The board installed Richard Corcoran, DeSantis’s former education commissioner and a former Republican speaker of the state House, as interim president; he promptly ousted the college’s top diversity officer.
At New College and elsewhere, faculty members say they are seeing a steady erosion of their power, including in the bills being considered in the state legislature. Professors are concerned, for example, about a provision in the bills that explicitly states that college presidents can ignore faculty members’ advice about which professors to hire. This provision has unsettled proponents of shared governance, who see faculty as playing a vital role in higher education.
Andrade said in a committee meeting this week that professors have “confirmation bias” and cannot be trusted to hire the best people in their own disciplines. “If they are given too much leeway, they’re just going to hire people that agree with them,” Andrade said.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Andrade said nothing in his bill would prevent universities from forming faculty hiring committees to vet and interview candidates. But he said the legislation underscores that final authority for hiring resides with university presidents.
Randy Fine, a Republican state representative, said in a committee meeting this week that the changes afoot in Florida are about one thing: power. “It’s basically about who’s in charge,” he said. “That’s what this debate is about.” He wondered whether “unelected faculty, who no one voted for” should run universities.
Fine did not expand on what powers, if any, faculty ought to have.
Some other provisions in the legislation that faculty had feared have been removed or toned down. The original text of both bills, for example, had said faculty could be brought up for post-tenure review at any time “with cause.” Under the current versions, the reviews would be required every five years. The scaling back of provisions is welcome but nonetheless is cold comfort for Andrew Gothard, the president of the United Faculty of Florida, a union representing professors and other groups.