Gov. DeSantis’ defunds higher ed diversity programs; faculty saddened

Gov. DeSantis signed legislation banning state and federal funds from diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs at public Florida universities.

Kenna Bane, Contributing Writer

After Gov. Ron DeSantis officially signed his anticipated agenda to defund diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs at higher education institutions on May 15, FAU faculty have expressed their concerns.

The bill (SB 266), sponsored by Republican Sen. Erin Grall, from Vero Beach, prohibits state or federal funds from being used on programs and activities that promote or engage in political or social activism. Florida colleges and universities can no longer spend state or federal money on programs or activities associated with DEI.

In July, there will now be new requirements for all general education courses and a committee appointed by the state education board and the Board of Governors to review such courses.

According to the bill summary, courses will now have to meet criteria of ceasing “theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege [that] are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities.” 

Many students and faculty at FAU view the removal of DEI topics as turning a blind eye to the reality of history and human rights that have been fought for through generations, hindering students’ education.

History professor Douglas Kanter said the history faculty at FAU are awaiting guidance on how SB 266 will impact their courses. 

“I anticipate teaching my courses in much the same manner as before. I believe that my students and I will continue to discuss inequality—in its myriad political, social, economic, and legal forms—as we have done in the past, while also talking about other issues of historical importance,” Kanter said.

History professor Eric Hanne feels that DEI-related topics will still be addressed in some fashion.

“They are integral to the history of humanity since the very beginning […] Were these topics to be removed from courses, the courses themselves would be lessened as would the education the students receive,” he said.

Not only could history education be impacted, communication studies including literature topics could be impacted as well.  

Blake Cardona, a first-year communication studies major, explained that during their Study of Rhetoric class, the professor addressed whether SB 266 will affect the course. 

“The class taught rhetorics through literary works of racism and the professor commented how they probably wouldn’t be able to teach like that again,” Cardona said. 

Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), believes that DeSantis’ recent moves toward rejecting progressive ideals are due to its popularity, stating that criticizing unpopular ideas is common and using the government to silence minorities has never caused politicians to lose votes.

He predicts that the reaction to this bill by Florida’s university and college leaders will be similar to the Stop WOKE Act, legislation that was signed into law by DeSantis in 2022 prohibiting educational instruction on racial relations and diversity that may imply an individual’s privilege or oppression due to race, color, national origin, or sex. 

Steinbaugh described that during the implementation of the Stop WOKE Act, higher education leaders in Florida abandoned their faculty members’ First Amendment rights rather than defending academic freedom.

Florida seems to be where the First Amendment goes to die,” Steinbaugh said.

Although other states have adopted legislation for educational content, it has had a primary focus on K-12 education. Steinbaugh believes this is because they recognize higher education is different from K-12.

He worries that the restrictions on the First Amendment won’t end with race, sex, and other issues. He believes the same power that has limited educational discussion on DEI topics will be used to censor further ideologies in the future that can’t yet be predicted. 

Universities are supposed to be about the exchange of different ideas, not the state’s mouthpiece,” said Steinbaugh.

Steinbaugh says that the state’s message is as clear as the law’s language is vague: views that are unpopular with lawmakers should not be discussed. 

“It is difficult to understate the chilling effect that will be caused when official committees of political appointees review courses for ideological conformity,” he explained.

Moments before signing SB 266, DeSantis expressed disdain during his speech for courses such as critical race theory and other DEI-influenced courses and majors. 

“If you want to do things like gender ideology, go to Berkeley, go to some of these other places, that’s fine,” DeSantis said.

Hanne holds admiration for the strength of character his students have been showing in the face of these new restrictive policies.

“I have been proud of the resilience of my students who are here to gain an education and build their skills in so many areas. They have refused to give in to despair, knowing that the faculty respect them and trust them; the faculty do much to build the trust of the students as the process of educating is such a sacred one, built on mutual Respect, Rational Thought, and Responsibility,” he wrote.

BIPOC LGBTQIA+ Individuals Seeking Safe Spaces (BLISSS), a nonprofit student organization at FAU, is holding a letter-writing campaign to denounce SB 266 and HB 999. The letters will be presented at the next FAU Board of Trustees meeting on June 13. The deadline to submit letters is June 10. 

Jesse Bellevue, the public relations officer for BLISSS, feels that the signing of SB 266 will now allow the education system to rewrite history, leaving behind the systemic sexism, racism, and oppression that the United States has endured.

Kaila Palmer, president of the Black Student Union, said that her organization is determining the effect of the bill on student organizations on campus. 

“With SB 266 being signed, students in multicultural organizations and groups such as BLISSS, NOW, and the Center of IDEAs may be negatively impacted over time,” Palmer said. 

FAU’s Board of Trustees referred to a statement released May 15 from Ray Rodrigues, chancellor of the state’s university system.

“Florida’s #1 ranked higher education system must be accountable as good stewards of the significant investment by Governor DeSantis and the Florida Legislature, as well as protect the best interests of our students,” Rodrigues said in the statement. “Re-orienting our distinguished universities to missions that treat people as individuals, that reward merit and achievement, and center on recruiting excellent faculty while creating the talent pipeline necessary to fuel Florida’s future is critical to our upward trajectory.”

Hanne emphasizes the importance of community in circumstances such as these.

“What is going on now is not​ unprecedented. We know where situations like this can lead. We know that when we work together in a relationship of respect, trust, and community that we will all benefit,” said Hanne.

Kenna Bane is a contributing writer for the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected].