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Thursday, June 13, 2024

UF faculty express concern over state proposal limiting ‘social activism,’ banning DEI funding at public universities

Experts say the rule will hinder free speech, academic freedom

Legal experts at UF and across the state say a newly proposed state regulation could stymie academic freedom and free speech on campus. 

The regulation, if approved, will dictate how public universities implement Senate Bill 266, a sweeping set of higher education reforms signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in May. The regulation would finalize DeSantis’ nearly year-long campaign against diversity, equity and inclusion programs at Florida universities. 

A draft version of the regulation released for feedback bars universities from spending public money on programs that “advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion” or “promote or engage in social activism.”

It describes political or social activism as “any activity organized with a purpose of effecting or preventing change to a government policy, action, or function, or any activity intended to achieve a desired result related to social issues, where the university endorses or promotes a position in communications, advertisements, programs, or campus activities.” 

The definition excludes “authorized government relations and lobbying activities'' that directly affect universities and colleges.

Social issues were defined as “topics that polarize or divide society among political, ideological, moral, or religious beliefs, positions, or norms.”

The draft regulation is “constitutionally overbroad” and would prohibit classifying men’s and women’s bathrooms or engaging in sex-based or race-based research among other issues, said UF Faculty Senate Chair Danaya Wright. 

The university has submitted extensive feedback to the state regarding the regulation, Wright said.

Legal professionals in the UF community say the proposal may hinder free speech instead of supporting it. 

“Florida lawmakers seemingly want public universities to produce an inert and desolatory crop of graduates who are ill-prepared to play an active role in a democratic society,” said Clay Calvert, a former UF law professor.

Calvert, who is now a senior fellow at the center-right think tank American Enterprise Institute, said the regulation is “just one piece of a larger effort by lawmakers in Florida over the past several years to influence the curriculum and speech activities that take place on public university campuses.”

Jane Bambauer, a UF law professor who specializes in the First Amendment, expressed support for efforts to increase viewpoint diversity on Florida campuses but is skeptical of the regulation’s broadly defined terms.

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“We're trying to read tea leaves here to see whether this is going to be a major overhaul to try to turn Florida schools into conservative institutions or whether it's to change overall culture and leave space for multiple viewpoints,” she said. 

The state’s intervention should cultivate critical thinking at Florida universities, but instead favor one political ideology over another, Bambauer said.

In December, DeSantis’ Office of Policy and Budget demanded all Florida universities report any spending toward DEI programs. 

The audit revealed UF spent $5 million — approximately 0.14 percent of its annual budget — on DEI initiatives in 2022. Among the most funded DEI initiatives at the university were the Chief Diversity Office and the Center for Inclusion and Multicultural Engagement (CIME).

Brianna Bennet, a student ambassador for CIME, said the defunding of the Center is “definitely on the table” as a result of the regulation, but the office is ready to accommodate any new regulations.

“We're definitely committed to keeping a space for our marginalized communities on campus,” she said. “It shows more than beyond on paper that these spaces benefit students.”

It is unclear if the programs listed in the audit will be defunded as a result of the regulation.

The UF Chief Diversity Office did not respond for comment. 

The Board of Governors, a 17-member board that oversees the state’s public university system, will vote whether to approve the regulation on Nov. 9. If approved, the regulation will be available for public comment for 14 days.

The regulation is expected to come before the Board for final approval in January.

Contact Garrett at Follow him on Twitter @garrettshanley.

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Garrett Shanley

Garrett Shanley is a fourth-year journalism major and the Summer 2024 university editor for The Alligator. Outside of the newsroom, you can find him watching Wong Kar-Wai movies and talking to his house plants.

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