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DeSantis asks for information on DEI, CRT programs at Florida's public colleges and universities

One of the classroom buildings that surrounds FSU's Doak Campbell Stadium
Patrick Sternad
WFSU Public Media
One of the classroom buildings that surrounds FSU's Doak Campbell Stadium

Governor Ron DeSantis is asking to see all the programs related to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion - and Critical Race Theory - in the state’s public higher education system. He also wants to know if those programs are being funded with state money, and how much.

 The request comes days after the governor promised to keep cracking down on so-called “woke ideology.” His ask is being met with fear, outrage and skepticism across both the college and university system.

Taryn Fenske, the governor’s communication director, recently defined woke as "a slang term for activism…progressive activism.” The word came into use by African Americans in the 1930s as a warning to stay alert to racial discrimination and violence. Today, it’s used so broadly that it has lost that historical meaning, says Tallahassee Community College History Professor Andrea Oliver. She specified in this interview that she is not speaking on behalf of TCC.

“And that’s regrettable,” she said of the way the language is being mischaracterized.

The same goes for critical race theory or "CRT." It’s an academic framework used in law schools and graduate programs to examine the impact of race in law. Today, Oliver notes it has become a catch-all phrase “to describe those parts of our history that some people would rather us not talk about or they feel that telling students about some of the unsavory parts of America’s past, we’re criticizing this country, or that it’s unpatriotic.”

CRT, in political terms, has become almost synonymous with “woke.” In his second inaugural address, DeSantis promised to continue his crackdown on “woke” ideology.

“We seek normalcy, not philosophical lunacy, we will not allow reality, facts, and truth to become optional. We will never surrender to the woke mob, Florida is where woke goes to die,” he proclaimed to a crowd of cheering supporters.

Lumped into that ideology are efforts surrounding DEI - Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. State lawmakers targeted DEI and CRT last year in a law called the “STOP WOKE ACT” which the governor promoted. The law placed limits on how issues of race and history can be taught in public schools. It banned private employers from mandating employee trainings that compel people to believe members of another race, color, nationality or sex are inherently racist or sexist.

Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, believes the governor’s request to identify CRT and DEI programs is an attempt at further silencing viewpoints he doesn’t agree with.

 “While students are required to learn lots of different ideas…that doesn’t mean they have to agree or make those ideas a part of their core identity,” said Gothard in response to beliefs that colleges and universities are indoctrinating students.

In November, a federal judge blocked the “STOP WOKE” Act from going into effect, calling it “positively dystopian.” Gothard worries if the Florida Legislature decides to defund DEI efforts in public schools and higher ed, it could lead to a clash with the federal government.

“A lot of these programs related to DEI in particular, are vital to the function of a university. If you’re looking at an administrative office that handles DEI issues, they also handle the American Disability Act accommodations, they handle EEOC complaints of gender discrimination. There are federal dollars and federal requirements tied up in all of this," he said.

The battle over DEI, CRT and other such buzzwords is the culmination of factors like years of social and racial justice movements, and economic changes that have depressed largely white, rural communities. Demographic and cultural value shifts have also led to clashes between generations, and perspectives on society as a whole. All of these have bred resentment and politicians have exploited these fault lines. Oliver, the TCC history professor, wonders whether Florida’s higher education system can weather the onslaught.

“Challenges to the liberal arts disciplines…aren’t new,” she said. “The sources of the challenges, though, have changed. This will negatively impact the state’s ability to attract and retain talented scholars in these disciplines.”

And that, she says, would be a loss for Florida’s students.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

Find complete bio, contact info, and more stories here.