Francie Diep and Emma Pettit
January 30, 2023
It’s been a dizzying month for higher ed in the Sunshine State.
Since the New Year, ahead of the Florida legislature’s next session, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Republican allies have ramped up efforts to eradicate “woke” ideology from public colleges.
The recent avalanche of activity began in late December, when DeSantis’s office requested that state colleges and universities list their spending on programs related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and critical race theory. Florida’s Republican House Speaker, Paul Renner, later asked the same campuses to turn over a mountain of additional DEI-related information.
DeSantis’s office also requested that state universities report data on transgender students, and he appointed six new trustees to the New College of Florida’s board because, according to his press secretary, the small liberal-arts institution has put “trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning.”
State leaders are not finished: They will examine ways to “more broadly curb” campus DEI programs, the lieutenant governor said last week. She also suggested that leaders would review general-education courses in the state, and she proposed to “further empower” university presidents to control faculty hiring.
In some ways, what’s happening in Florida isn’t new. For the past two years, state Republicans have passed measures that seek to challenge the way public campuses operate, including what’s known as the “Stop WOKE” Act that restricts how professors teach about race. Since at least the Red Scare of the 1950s, the campus has been a battleground for American culture wars. Conservatives, in particular, have long been suspicious, and asking public colleges how they spend their money is a well-worn tactic to underscore lawmakers’ control, said April C. Kelly, who studies politics in higher education at Elizabethtown College, in Pennsylvania.
But the extent of information — including employee names, salaries, and internal communications — that Florida’s politicians are seeking on DEI work does seem novel. “That’s a different level of state intrusion into institutional independence,” said Barrett J. Taylor, an associate professor of counseling and higher education at the University of North Texas who wrote Wrecked: Deinstitutionalization and Partial Defenses in State Higher Education Policy.