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DeSantis team aims to 'curb' DEI at universities. But a top official says some programs have value

Former Republican State Sen. Ray Rodrigues was tapped by Gov. Ron DeSantis to become the Chancellor of Florida's State University System. He was officially appointed in September 2022.
Phil Sears
Former Republican State Sen. Ray Rodrigues was tapped by Gov. Ron DeSantis to become the Chancellor of Florida's State University System. He was officially appointed in September 2022.

State officials want to “curb” activities related to diversity, equity and inclusion at public colleges and universities. That was the message from Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez to the board overseeing the state’s higher ed institutions this week.

But the top official overseeing Florida's university system says some of the programs called into question do have value.

Florida’s public universities recently had to report to Gov. Ron Desantis’ office any DEI-related efforts on campus and what the initiatives cost. According to public records, the programs account for a fraction of the universities’ overall budgets but total in the millions statewide.

Initiatives listed by the universities include courses on “Race and Cultural Inclusion in Social Work” and “Anthropology of Race & Ethnicity," as well as programs to recruit and retain students and faculty from underrepresented backgrounds and diversity training for mental health providers.

Speaking to the Florida Board of Governors this week, Nuñez claimed that a “woke culture” is “infiltrating” state universities and must be addressed.

In his own comments to the board Ray Rodrigues, the chancellor overseeing the state’s universities, raised concerns about “critical race theory” or CRT — a term that conservative activists use broadly to describe race-related conversations they don’t agree with.

But he told WLRN that some of the DEI programs have value.

“There are programs in there that target populations that are important to everyone,” he said, following the meeting. “So I just wanted to make sure that we communicate that and let our universities know that we hear them. Because that's what they've communicated to us.”

Nuñez had praised the state’s college presidents for releasing a statement recently pledging to eliminate initiatives on their campuses that “promote any ideology”. Speaking to the Board of Governors, she hinted that more action will come during the upcoming legislative session.

Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez speaking in Little Havana earlier this summer.
Wilfredo Lee
Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez.

“Our state colleges provided a statement in which they claimed to be stopping this bent on indoctrinating issues as it relates to DEI,” she said. “I believe that they’re looking at ways to curb those initiatives and I think we’ll look at ways to more broadly curb those initiatives as well.”

Even before state officials’ recent review of DEI spending, some professors at Florida universities have already begun modifying their teaching practices or dropping courses entirely, because of a new state law restricting how the history of racism and discrimination can be addressed in the classroom.

Asked who will decide which of the DEI initiatives should continue, Rodrigues said “that remains to be seen”.

“I can't imagine any scenario where we would see legislation that would come out that would be so broad that it would eliminate the efforts that we're making for first-generation college students … for non-traditional students … for our special needs populations … for our military veterans,” the chancellor added.

Rodrigues declined to give his own definition of what qualifies as CRT. He instead pointed to state law.

“Point of today was just to raise that to make sure everyone knows that within that umbrella [of DEI] are those programs. So we need to work together to ensure that those programs don't get caught up in this,” he said.

Only one member of the public spoke up at Wednesday’s meeting — Professor Amanda Phalin, who chairs the Faculty Senate at the University of Florida. Phalin said DEI initiatives are fundamentally about improving access to higher education for all students.

“That's what D, E and I is to me. It's about access for everyone so that everyone has the potential to achieve the greatest possible limits,” Phalin said. “That everyone can do that regardless of where they're from or how they grew up.”

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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