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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Florida House audits communications of UF diversity, equity and inclusion staffers

Search follows DeSantis’ denouncement of DEI

FILE - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks after being sworn in to begin his second term during an inauguration ceremony outside the Old Capitol on Jan. 3, 2023, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)
FILE - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks after being sworn in to begin his second term during an inauguration ceremony outside the Old Capitol on Jan. 3, 2023, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

When Deah Lieurance found out her emails would be searched by the Florida House of Representatives for any communication about diversity, equity and inclusion, she felt mildly paranoid.

“You immediately feel exposed and vulnerable,” she said. “We have protocols and ways that we communicate with our email knowing that at any moment, it could be public. But when it actually happens, it just feels a little different.”

Her department head told Lieurance, a UF agronomist and former chair of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ DEI Committee, her emails would be searched to fulfill a Florida House request for information on diversity, equity and inclusion in public universities. 

The Florida House requested a list of DEI employees, their salaries and all communications between them — which includes relevant emails, text messages and social media messages.

While she was aware her emails were subject to public request, she said she felt vulnerable as a non-tenured junior faculty member. The request’s broad wording was also cause for concern, Lieurance said.

“There's a lot of space to fill with your imagination,” she said. “What could they possibly be looking for?”

About a month after the House’s request, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a proposal to defund what he called “DEI bureaucracies” at Florida universities during a press conference on higher education Jan. 31. 

“These bureaucracies are hostile to academic freedom,” DeSantis said. “They constitute a drain on resources and end up contributing to higher costs.”

The House’s demand for communications followed DeSantis’ December memo requesting a full spending report of DEI initiatives at Florida universities.

UF reported $5.3 million in total DEI spending — 0.14% of the 2022-23 projected budget — $3.4 million of which is state funded. 

The Florida Congress may begin writing DEI legislation during committee meetings next week, which will into the regular legislative session in March, said Florida Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville. Because UF is partially taxpayer-funded, the state has an obligation to ensure the university is properly allocating funds, he added.

DEI initiatives can be unfair and non-merit based, Perry said, comparing them to affirmative action. In reference to critical race theory, an academic framework that analyzes American history through the lens of racism, he said theories shouldn’t be taught as historical facts, which may be the case at public universities.

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“Inclusion, by definition, means exclusion of deserving people,” he said. “There better be a good reason why you're excluding deserving people.”

Outside institutions may propose potential legislation to the Florida legislature, Perry said. 

In January, the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, published a set of DEI higher education reforms similar to those proposed by DeSantis. The proposals would abolish DEI and end other identity-based programs. Christopher Rufo, senior fellow at the institute and DeSantis-appointed trustee at the New College of Florida, co-authored the proposed reforms.

“We have people come up on a daily basis to Tallahassee to give us their peace of mind and their opinions on something,” Perry said. “It's not their role or decision to make anything into law, but I welcome it.”

Responding to faculty concerns on history curriculum, Perry said the line between teaching and indoctrinating should be clear.

“I think that’s a ridiculous statement to make,” Perry said. “You don't have to be a history major or a history professor to realize that there's a difference between theory and history.”

While some DEI initiatives listed on the audit required partial or no state funding, all 10 UF General Education courses listed on the report, including Cultural Anthropology and Theatre Appreciation, rely entirely on the state.

About 85% of the more-than $400,000 allocated to the UF Center for Inclusion and Multicultural Engagement is state funded.

Individual colleges’ DEI committees and departments are also listed. Among them is the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ DEI administration, which operates entirely on state funding with a $181,815 budget.

Bianca Evans-Donaldson, chair of the CLAS DEI administration, didn’t respond to a request for comment as of Saturday.

Florida Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, expects Republican members of the House to use collected information to defund DEI — or to aid DeSantis in doing so. 

“It's so invasive,” she said. “And of course creates a very chilling effect, where folks are hesitant to even pursue this type of research, let alone teach classes that intersect with race, class or culture.”

It’s unclear whether university DEI departments will be able to receive federal or private funding if state funding is revoked.

UF won the INSIGHT Into Diversity Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award in 2022. Marsha McGriff, UF chief diversity officer, and her office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Faculty Senate Chair Amanda Phalin thinks the state misunderstands DEI, she said. DEI is one of the reasons UF is highly ranked, she added.

“It's really about providing equity of access and equity of opportunity,” she said.

Paul Ortiz, a history professor and president of UF’s branch of United Faculty of Florida, has increasingly had conversations with potential UF students and parents who have been deterred from attending the university due to Florida’s DEI policies, he said.

“What's happening now is so appalling and so tragic,” he said. “The people studying here, the people teaching here, are under almost constant surveillance — constant attack.”

Former UF President Kent Fuchs was unsure of how the state would use the requested information, he said. He recalled when House Bill 7 – commonly known as the Stop W.O.K.E. Bill – was first put into effect, he and Provost Joe Glover instructed faculty members on how they could continue to teach diverse topics within the confines of the law. 

“We took the lead on sharing with the faculty how you can do this, so you can still function and do your jobs and stay within the law,” Fuchs said.

Part of the UF administration’s responsibility is to help the state understand the university’s everyday function, Fuchs added.

“Elected officials have a lot of authority, and it's important for us to understand their goals,” he said. “But it's also important for us to provide great education and great research.”

Contact Alissa at Follow her on Twitter @AlissaGary1.

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Alissa Gary

Alissa is a sophomore journalism major and University Editor at The Alligator. She has previously covered student government, university administration and K-12 education. In her free time, she enjoys showing photos of her cats to strangers.

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