Florida’s Academic Freedom Fiasco: DeSantis Cancels Diversity Programs

In a controversial move, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has endorsed legislation set to defund diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs at public colleges across the state. The law also equips the state with the power to dismantle programs, majors, and minors that educate students about identity politics or critical race theory.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida has labeled this development as a targeted attack on the right to learn about systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege in higher education. According to the ACLU, the legislation will prohibit public colleges from allocating funds to activities, speakers, events, and clubs that foster diversity and inclusion.

This law’s ambiguous language poses a threat to historically Black sororities and fraternities, veterans’ services, and student religious groups. Leah Watson, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, warns that this legislation undermines progress toward racial justice by eroding support for students of color and wiping away their heritage from campuses and classrooms. She anticipates that the law will exacerbate racial bias.

Governor DeSantis affixed his signature to the contentious bills—SB 266 and HB 931—at the New College of Florida. He had previously revamped the board of trustees of this liberal arts school, criticizing its leadership for overemphasizing DEI, critical race theory, and “gender ideology.” Following this restructuring, the trustees have denied tenure to several professors and voted to dismantle DEI programs at the school.

Jerry Edwards, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Florida, highlights the irony of the location where the bills were signed. In his view, the transformation of New College under DeSantis’s influence is a cautionary tale rather than a success story.

The enactment of SB 266 and HB 931 has alarmed advocates of academic freedom. It signals DeSantis’s intent to amplify Florida’s already right-leaning stance on primary education. Educators have been sounding the alarm over DeSantis’s assault on academic freedom for some time now.

The DeSantis administration has recently passed a “Don’t Say Gay” law, limiting discussions on gender and sexuality in K-3 classrooms, and is attempting to extend this ban to include grade 12. Additionally, the administration has rejected an Advanced Placement (AP) Black studies course and banned “critical race theory,” drawing severe criticism from racial justice and education advocates who call these moves “proto-fascism.”

State Senator Shevrin Jones slammed these actions as part of a national agenda to whitewash history, questioning the motives behind avoiding potential discomfort for white children learning about true Black history.

Moreover, DeSantis’s education policies have led the Florida Department of Education to reject a significant portion of social studies textbooks submitted for classroom use. The department has also deleted references to the police murder of George Floyd and the Movement for Black Lives from textbooks and revised sections that referenced the Holocaust.

Charles McLaurin, senior counsel at the Legal Defense Fund, voiced concern over the implications of DeSantis signing SB 266 into law. He emphasized that DEI initiatives enhance college campuses, making them more productive, welcoming, and equitable. By targeting these initiatives, McLaurin argues, DeSantis and the Florida Legislature are doing a gross disservice to students and educators of color, obstructing their access to education.