(The Hill) — Colleges are attempting to find ways to save their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives as Republican-led states advance efforts to shut down the programs.
Multiple red states have introduced or passed legislation targeting certain aspects of DEI in universities, from mandatory diversity statements to entire offices, causing confusion and fear for faculty and staff.
Texas lawmakers Sunday approved a final version of Republicans’ sweeping anti-DEI measure, sending it to the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who is expected to sign it, making Texas the second state to declare full-on war against the programs. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed similar legislation earlier this month.
That move left Florida colleges scrambling.
“I know that, for coursework and for some of the things, they’re just changing the names of committees as opposed to, you know, doing away with them altogether,” said Allan Barsky, professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Sandler School of Social Work.
In Florida’s legislation, public universities are not allowed to use funding on DEI initiatives, aside from programs or activities that are needed to comply with federal laws.
“If you look at the way this has actually been implemented across the country, DEI is better viewed as standing for discrimination, exclusion and indoctrination, and that has no place in our public institutions,” DeSantis, who Wednesday made his 2024 White House bid official, said at the legislation’s signing.
“This bill says the whole experiment with DEI is coming to an end in the state of Florida. We are eliminating the DEI programs,” he added.
Florida professors in general education courses are also not allowed to “distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics … or is based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities.”
The law goes into effect July 1, and universities are quickly working to decipher what it specifically means for them as experts warn that its broadness could encompass a variety of essential programs for students. It is difficult for schools to pin down exactly which areas they need to address in compliance with the law, and some are holding off on rash decisions before knowing how the state will enforce them.
“One of the things that diversity committees look at are access issues for students, and so we’ve got students with diverse abilities and disabilities,” Barsky said, pointing out efforts made in his school such as replacing desks that were not wheelchair accessible.
“It’s really broad with our DEI committee for our college and for our school. It looks like curriculum issues: So is our curriculum accessible and representative for everybody?” he added.
Chris Curran, director of the Education Policy Research Center at the University of Florida, said regarding his school’s DEI program, “I do think a lot of a lot of the work probably continues because it probably is not exactly what is meant to be targeted by this legislation.”
When reached for comment on the issue, the University of Florida said it “had nothing to add.”
More than a dozen public Florida colleges and universities didn’t respond to The Hill’s request for comment.
Republicans have long argued that the initiatives are discriminatory and run counter to free speech.
“DEI officials push unconstitutional speech codes, unlawful bias recording systems and segregated programming. Mandatory DEI statements and training also tend to violate the First Amendment,” said Adam Kissel, visiting fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy. “So DEI officers are the most responsible culprits for the culture of division and self-censorship on campus, which is the opposite of their purported mission.”
DEI proponents counter that these laws have a fundamental misunderstanding of the goal of the programs.
Tiffany Richards, a former University of Florida employee who said she left the school and the state last year due to attacks on DEI, said there are “a lot of white cishet men that are like, ‘DEI is all about making me out to be the bad guy.’ And that’s not the approach. It’s like, ‘Let’s look at the ways that systems of oppression expectations of identity have limited you as well.’”
North Dakota passed a law this year prohibiting mandatory signed diversity statements and mandatory diversity training in public universities.
A spokesperson for the University of North Dakota said lawyers for the school are still going over the legal elements of the measure to create guidance for the campus on the issue, but that “UND encouraged the legislature to protect academic freedom and freedom of speech, and these elements are, in fact, included in the law.”
Around 35 states and introduced anti-DEI legislation, most of them this year, according to a tracker by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
“I testified in favor of two bills in Ohio and Texas, and my understanding is that both have a reasonably high likelihood of success,” Kissel said.
The Texas measure, which cleared the Legislature over the weekend, bans the creation of DEI offices and the hiring of staffers to conduct DEI work, insists that hiring must be “color-blind and sex-neutral” and forbids the requirement of any DEI training.
Texas State University said it would not comment on pending legislation, and Texas Woman’s University also declined to comment when reached by The Hill.
“Our lawmakers fundamentally misunderstand the role of DEI in reconciling a longstanding history of systemic exclusion in Texas’s institutions of higher learning,” representatives from the group Texans Students for DEI said in a statement to The Texas Tribune.
“The implementation of DEI offices and practices may be banned from college campuses, but the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion can never be removed from us, the people,” they added.
Kissel conceded that some anti-DEI bills “do go too far” in certain areas and can wind up restricting free speech, but that it “often can be narrowed or amended in such a way that the First Amendment problems are resolved.”
Supporters of the anti-DEI laws also say they will save universities money which they can then spend on more important academic measures, though totals can be difficult to calculate due to staff and program overlap.
The University of Florida’s DEI initiatives cost around $5 million, or only 0.14 percent of the school’s annual budget, the Independent Florida Alligator reported.
And defenders of the programs are not giving up.
“I believe what colleges and universities need to start doing, especially the presidents, is releasing official statements regarding the state of affairs of diversity, equity and inclusion, along with what they are going to be doing,” said Jordan Beasley, a junior at Syracuse University and president of the National Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Collegiate Council.
“They need to show their students that regardless of what these draconian laws say, that they are going to keep their commitments that they have made, that they have continued to work on,” he added.