Florida State University campus. Credit: Diane Rado.
Censorship and threats to academic freedom in Florida’s higher education system continue to disturb faculty and civil rights lawyers, following the latest move by the DeSantis administration to require public colleges and universities to collect data on how much money is spent on so-called “critical race theory” and “diversity, equity and inclusion” initiatives.
Professors have called the requirement problematic or worse, as thousands of students and faculty members return to classrooms for spring semester this week. The deadline on collecting the information is Jan. 13.
At issue is what can be discussed in classrooms and workplaces and which topics are prohibited — part of legislation, HB 7, approved last year. It also involved a state budget-related measure that risks funding for state universities if they are found in violation of the legislation.
Organizations such as the ACLU of Florida challenged the law in court, and a preliminary injunction on parts of HB 7 — formally titled “Individual Freedoms” but also known as the “Stop Woke Act” — was issued back in August, meaning that the state cannot enforce parts of the law, particularly regarding employment.
Katie Blankenship, deputy legal director at the ACLU of Florida, said that a Dec. 28, 2022 state memo outlining the data collection effort could conflict with the injunction issued in August.
“When you send a memo like this, and start requiring collecting this data, this information and referencing HB 7 in the memo… And with the repercussions of violating HB 7 are budgetary concerns, you know that this looks exactly like enforcement of HB 7,” she told the Florida Phoenix.
Blankenship and the ACLU of Florida fear that the memo is another attempt to restrict speech among university and college campuses.
“It is a continuation of the same sort of blatant suppression of free speech that we’ve seen from this governor and this legislation, this administration, since last year, even before,” Blankenship said. “So we’re not surprised, but we are deeply disturbed…We think this furthers the effect of chilling for college professors.”
‘Sort of baffled’
That said, university officials who responded to the Phoenix say they will collect the information.
Dennis Schnittker, assistant vice president for university communications at Florida State University, simply said that the university “will comply.”
Candice Grause, vice president for communications for Tallahassee Community College, said that TCC will be responding to the memo by the Jan. 13 deadline and that they were “relying on guidance from FDOE to dictate what we include,” meaning the Florida Department of Education.
As to Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida (UFF), “We’re…sort of baffled by the way the memorandum is put together. How do you even determine if a class or a faculty member or program is a DEI or CRT initiative, right?”
Critical race theory was originally coined decades ago as an academic term to “interrogate the role to race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship,” according to the American Bar Association.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, often shortened to DEI, can refer to a wide array of efforts in those categories and arenas — such as higher education and the workplace — related to race, ethnicity, nationality, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, ability/neurodiversity, age or socioeconomic status.
The memo from the governor’s office requested that the Florida Department of Education and the Board of Governors, state agencies that oversee Florida’s higher education system, survey colleges and universities “regarding the expenditure of state resources on programs and initiatives related to diversity, equity and inclusion, and critical race theory within our state colleges and universities.”
The memo also had an attachment for an Excel spreadsheet, according to the governor’s press secretary, Bryan Griffin.
The spreadsheet simply had the following headers: “Institution,” “Program or Activity,” “Brief Description of Program or Activity,” “Number of FTE (Full-Time Equivalent),” “Position Title(s),” “Total Funding,” and “State Funded Portion.”
‘It’s going to be subjective’
Bob Holladay, who has been an adjunct professor at Tallahassee Community College but is not currently teaching, is concerned, among other things, that calculating funds related to critical race theory and other diversity initiatives might be difficult for colleges and universities to report to the state.
“It’s going to be subjective, I think, from institution to institution,” Holladay said. “I think they’re going to have a very hard time finding a statewide objective standard for what is critical race theory and what is not.”
Holladay told the Phoenix that it does not “bother him” that the DeSantis administration “wants to know how state money is being spent or public monies are being spent,” but to an extent.
“I do think he sort of has a fiduciary duty, or at least somebody in state government, to know how money is being spent, but I think it becomes problematic if people start getting punished, if professors and teachers start being punished because they teach controversial subjects,” Holladay said.
And Gothard, with UFF, also told the Phoenix that collaborative conversations between faculty and administrators about how program money gets spent are commonplace, but he still has concerns about how the information on the memo would be used.
Gothard, who teaches literature and composition to undergraduates at Florida Atlantic University, used his own lectures as an example.
“If I’m teaching an Interpretation of Poetry class, and we read a Black poem, is that suddenly a DEI or CRT class under the way that governor DeSantis would define it?” Gothard said.
“Or if I require my students to know what CRT is — because obviously it comes up in the news all the time now. It’s a major part of our political landscape, and as an educator I want my students to know what other people are talking about, what they mean.”
Clarification: Bob Holladay was listed as an adjunct professor at Tallahassee Community College in a Jan. 9, 2023 Florida Phoenix story. But at the time, he was not currently teaching at TCC.
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