Gov. Ron DeSantis, May 15, 2023. Credit: Governor’s Press Office.
While Gov. Ron DeSantis brags about top college rankings in Florida’s state university system — using specific metrics from U.S. News and World Report — families and college kids should know this: There won’t be a data point about preventing “woke ideologies” in the rankings.
There won’t be other metrics in rankings that would essentially defund diversity, equity and inclusion programs, or restrict how college kids will learn in “general education courses” that are supposed to be a foundation for higher-level courses.
By now, the higher education rankings have become a dichotomy that includes DeSantis signing into law (SB 266) myriad of measures that create a contentious atmosphere in higher education.
The governor signed that bill and two others related to education on Monday, using a backdrop at New College of Florida, a public liberal arts institution in Sarasota that is being overhauled into a conservative bastion.
As to DEI, the diversity, equity and inclusion programs that have been used in the past in universities, DeSantis said at a news conference on Monday:
“In reality what this concept of DEI has been is to attempt to impose orthodoxy on the university. And not even necessarily in the classrooms, but through the administrative apparatus of the university itself, and that manifests itself in a number of different ways. But this has basically been used as a veneer to impose an ideological agenda, and that is wrong. In fact, if you look at the way that this has actually been implemented across the country, DEI is better viewed as standing for discrimination, exclusion and indoctrination, and that has no place in our public institutions.”
And in a press release following the news conference, SB 266 was described as taking “several steps to prevent woke ideologies from continuing to coopt our state universities and state colleges.
“The bill prohibits higher education institutions from spending public dollars on initiatives that promote dangerous political and social activism, such as DEI initiatives.
“This bill prohibits programs, majors, minors, curriculum, and general education core courses that violate Florida law regarding prohibited discrimination or that are based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities. Additionally, this bill will require that our university presidents renew their ownership of and accountability for hiring, promoting, and when necessary, disciplining faculty.”
Democrats oppose the measures.
State Sen. Shevrin Jones, of Miami-Dade, wrote in a statement:
“As Gov. DeSantis prepares to launch his looming presidential campaign, it’s no wonder he’s continuing to throw red meat to his base, all at the cost of representation and participation of millions of Floridians. Indoctrination drives the DeSantis Agenda – not because he is worried educators are indoctrinating students, but because they aren’t indoctrinating them with HIS ideology. This is sadly the latest example of government overreach into Florida classrooms as his administration continues its authoritarian assault on ideas and information …
“By restricting what students can learn, the state is actively suppressing students’ academic and intellectual freedom. This is not only a disservice to our students themselves, but also to Florida as a whole as we look to attract and retain the best and brightest.”
Other lawmakers responded as well:
Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book said, “Once again, it’s freedom for me but not for thee. This new law will hurt our public universities – limiting freedom of thought and hurting the stability of university and college professors. Governor DeSantis is treating freedom of speech as an enemy, and the Legislature allowed his partisan politics to get in the way of initiatives that have progressed us as a nation to allow students from diverse backgrounds and experiences be included in places where historically they have not been accepted.”
Sen. Geraldine Thompson, representing part of Orange County, said: “Florida may realize a brain drain as African-American students and professors make decisions about the type of climate they want to function in. The anti-DEI legislation projects an unwelcoming environment.”
Sen. Rosalind Osgood, representing part of Broward County, said: “We must allow for the teaching of diversity, equity and inclusion, especially at the college and university level if we are to continue to grow as a people. Otherwise we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.”
Sen. Tracie Davis, representing part of Duval County, said: “History cannot be taught without context – the context is what makes these events significant. This bill undercuts education and whitewashes history by disregarding that history is complex and nuanced. To shrink history down to the letters on the page, refuse to acknowledge the existence of racism, sexism and oppression, and the chilling effect this will have on student organizations, particularly for already marginalized groups, is blatantly ignoring the fact that this is government overreach, trying to control how and what an adult learns in higher education.”
The ACLU of Florida also responded to SB 266.
From Jerry Edwards, staff attorney at the ACLU of Florida:
“The signing of this bill into law resumes the threat to education in our state. There is no constitutional merit for the government’s involvement in dictating what speech is and is not allowable on college campuses. This law is an attempt to reestablish the same dangers we see in the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, which has already been blocked in higher education.
“The location of the bill’s signing is also not lost on anyone. In the past year, Gov. DeSantis and the state legislature have spent millions of dollars to distort New College into an institution that undermines academic freedom. The governor also appointed trustees who are more committed to using campuses to stoke the fires of a one-sided, discriminatory culture war than cultivate student excellence. The changes implemented at the behest of the governor at New College are a cautionary tale, not a success story. In the governor’s relentless crusade against free speech in our classrooms, the institutional takeover at New College shows how elevating a single political ideology over the free expression of ideas and concepts harms education. A free state does not censor what people can teach and debate in their institutions of higher education. Education censorship laws are harmful and undemocratic, and they seek to erase the history and lived experiences of Americans of color. This law will help no one.”
From Leah Watson, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Racial Justice Program:
“SB 266 is part of a coordinated attack by partisan politicians on our right to learn about systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege in higher education. The Stop W.O.K.E. Act already censored higher education faculty from instruction that would teach students about the existence and current manifestations of these concepts. Now, this legislation seeks to erase these concepts from campus life more broadly by prohibiting spending on any programs or activities that advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion. It serves only to undermine progress toward racial justice by removing important support for students of color and erasing their heritage from campuses and classrooms. This law will ultimately lead to increased racial bias.”
And, Charles McLaurin, senior counsel at the Legal Defense Fund:
“Governor DeSantis’s signing of SB 266 into law today has deeply troubling implications for the future of higher education in Florida. DEI initiatives and activities make the state’s college campuses more productive, welcoming, and equitable. By targeting them, Gov. DeSantis and the Florida Legislature have put students and educators of color at a stark disservice in accessing education. Educational experiences are intertwined into campus life, and Florida institutions cannot thrive without solid supports that prioritize accuracy, equity, and truth at all levels.”
Phoenix senior reporter Mitch Perry contributed to this report.
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