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Some on Florida campuses are pushing back against extreme anti-DEI laws

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BOCA RATON, Fla. – It doesn’t take much searching to discover the consequences of Florida’s latest law aimed at erasing DEI, or diversity, equity and inclusion, from public campuses.

Case in point: The staff offices of Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Inclusion, Diversity Education and Advocacy in Boca Raton stand empty, desks abandoned and LGBTQ+ flags, posters and pamphlets left behind.

Elsewhere on a campus surrounded by palm trees, the Women and Gender Equity Resource Center is still located, but a laminated paper on the door offers a new identity: “Women’s Resource and Community Connection Division of Student Affairs.”

In Florida, which along with Texas has the most extreme anti-DEI laws in the country, virtually all DEI staff have been fired or reassigned and offices have been closed — but that’s not the only story. There is also increasing resistance to the laws.

More: The University of Texas confirms that nearly 60 employees have been laid off, most in former DEI positions

Students have come up with solutions such as camouflaging FAU’s annual homecoming drag show as “Owl Manor,” nodding to the school mascot. Mary Rasura, a senior, launched an LGBTQ+ newspaper, “Out FAU,” saying, “It just seemed like a good idea. You know, we’re still a community. As if we are still here.”

And while some wary faculty members have rescheduled their lectures, others have boldly not. Prof. Robert Cassanello of the University of Central Florida in Orlando – one of the nation’s largest college campuses with 70,000 students – warned in red ink on the syllabus for his graduate seminar on the Civil Rights Movement (as for all the courses he teaches) that he “ expose you to content that does not comply with and will violate anti-DEI laws.”

Cassanello feels compelled to object. “My area of ​​research is Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement,” he said. When they’re told not to talk about institutional, structural racism, she says, “What would be the point of me teaching?” You know? I might as well go home.”

Pressure to dismantle DEI programs in higher education has increased: The Chronicle of Higher Education’s DEI tracker identifies 85 anti-DEI bills introduced in 28 states since last year, 13 of which have become law.

And while conservative activists like Christopher F. Rufo say DEI efforts are an affront to the color-blind meritocracy, Brendan Cantwell, a professor at Michigan State University who studies politics and policy in higher education, argues there is nothing ideological about it the way DEI offices operate. Their efforts are “highly bureaucratic and institutional,” he said.

Cantwell said DEI is showing up in tasks such as advising students or ensuring databases accommodate gender identities and comply with federal regulations — efforts that have emerged over the past decade as a direct response to campuses becoming increasingly racially diverse and in other ways. DEI’s efforts also include veterans, first-generation college students, international students, members of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and people of different faiths. The goal was to implement policies and practices that make all students feel accepted.

But now anti-DEI laws extend beyond targeting such positions and seek to gain control over what can be taught in college courses.

“We are fighting over whether political parties that control state government and Congress can control higher education,” Cantwell said. This is not about regulating funding or financial aid, but about “what people learn” and “how colleges and universities can serve their students and staff.”

That was evident in January when the Board of Governors of Florida’s state university system, in approving regulations for the new anti-DEI law, also removed sociology from the list of courses that meet general education requirements. (On the social platform X, Education Commissioner Manny Diaz said criticized sociology as ‘woke ideology.’)

For Prof. Michael Armato, director of sociology at UCF, the elimination of general education credits for his field was troubling enough; introductory sociology enrolls 700 to 800 students per semester. But more disturbing, he said, “was the absolute silence on behalf of our administrators” who failed to defend the field or challenge the state’s “interference” in the campus curriculum.

“What’s next?” he said, noting that fields such as literature, anthropology and psychology also grapple with issues of race, gender and sexuality. “There’s a kind of fear hanging over us,” Armato said, expressing concerns about “what we can teach, what we can advise students about.” As a result, his department now allows faculty assigned to teach potentially popular topics like race and ethnicity. “It’s their neck on the line,” he said.

Yet he does not retreat. He is preparing to teach a master’s degree that will address critical race theory. “I refuse to bow to attempts to keep me from being taught what the accepted and documented evidence is in my field,” he said. Last semester he taught a course ‘Beyond the Binary’. Still, Armato wonders, “Is this going to happen to me?”

Certainly, it’s easy to spot concerns on campuses. At UCF, the student government relies on staff members to provide annual diversity training. The employee in charge said he wasn’t sure this could happen – “we’re waiting for guidance” – and then ignored all follow-up emails. Across the state, more than a dozen campus leaders, including administrators, faculty representatives, staffers and student leaders who were contacted, declined to be interviewed about DEI or even answer questions via email. Some apologized, as one did after initially agreeing to an interview, saying, “This is a very sensitive topic for state employees.” Some sources only spoke about the background.

In teaching, Cassanello has latitude that others do not have because he has a permanent position. “If I were a teacher and I saw what was happening in Tallahassee,” he said, “I would say, ‘Maybe I’m not teaching that concept.’”

Marissa Bellenger, one of Cassanello’s students, was alerted by a visiting professor teaching a class on American history for which she was a teaching assistant. “He said, ‘You know, be careful when students ask you questions to rile you up, to get you to say something that will get you in trouble,'” she said, speaking outside in a shaded area on campus . “I mean, if he’s worried about you, that says a lot.”

Bellenger, from Tampa, is studying for her Ph.D. at UCF, and has considered leaving the state but would like to return to teach on campus.

“But then you think: what is there to learn?” she said. “You know, I’m going to censor myself.”

Such calculations shape Grace Castelin’s plans. Castelin, a senior and president of the UCF chapter of the NAACP, sees professors avoid certain discussions; they offer comments like, “Oh guys, you know, so legally I can’t really say much about this,” she said, or, as another did, add a disclaimer about “not trying to impose beliefs on you guys. “

“It’s frustrating. It’s like we’re not getting the full content of the course,” Castelin said. She plans to leave the state to attend graduate school in public policy. “I’ve applied to seven schools .None of them are in Florida,” she said. “If I stay here, I won’t learn the content I need to know without it being censored.”

It’s these kinds of concerns that led Michael H. Gavin, the president of Delta College in Michigan, a two-year institution, to start Education for All a year ago. The group brings together 175 higher education leaders, many of them community college presidents, to monitor attacks on DEI and coordinate support through an online discussion list and regular meetings.

Gavin, who wrote a book on white nationalism and politics in higher education, said it is critical that leaders in states not facing anti-DEI laws stand up for those who cannot.

“Let us not be misled by the idea that we should somehow be silent about things that are good in our domain,” such as limiting curriculum topics and banning books, he said.

He added that anti-DEI attacks are especially harmful to students at community colleges, many of whom come from marginalized groups, “because the rhetoric is about their identity.”

But even if DEI office homepages are redirected or display error messages, services may still exist. For example, the University of North Florida in Jacksonville dissolved all DEI-related offices, but OneJax, which had led UNF’s Interfaith Center for 11 years, became an independent nonprofit. Elizabeth Andersen, the executive director, said the group has hired the same leader who “continues to serve youth in an interfaith capacity on campus.”

Andersen finds the anti-DEI landscape absurd. “The idea that diversity, equality and inclusivity have been co-opted as bad words is bizarre to me,” she said.

A sense of outrage is fueling Carlos Guillermo Smith, a policy advisor for Equality Florida and a former state representative who is now running for Senate. Smith, a UCF graduate, helped lead a major protest on campus last spring. Smith is campaigning to support abortion rights, affordable housing and college affordability — and to hold the DeSantis administration “accountable.”

Despite the crackdown in Florida, Smith said he sees no choice but to speak out and push back. “Resistance, public pressure and lawsuits are the only ways” to “counter the far-right agenda of censorship and control,” he said. I am committed to that fight for as long as it takes.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Reportan independent nonprofit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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