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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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On March 1, UF announced via a memo from senior university officials that in compliance with recently passed Board of Governors Regulation 9.016, the university would eliminate positions, appointments and contracts pertaining to diversity, equity and inclusion. The news quickly rocked the UF community.

I will not feign surprise because this incident did not teach us anything new about UF or Florida. We have known about Regulation 9.016 since November 2023. Gov. Ron DeSantis and his allies have made it clear that this is their goal, and UF has given little reason to believe it would directly resist the BOG. The wheels of bureaucracy at UF have been rolling in this direction for months, and the state using our campus as a political petri dish is hardly new — nor is our administration’s meek compliance and platitudes about “trust and respect for every member of the Gator Nation,” as the memo put it. 

The principles of diversity, equity and inclusion are integral to academia. We cannot claim to care about intellectual rigor if we do not place high value on diverse perspectives and ideas, especially those that have been historically marginalized. I am confident the overwhelming majority of our faculty and staff hold this position, and absolutely positive that our students do. While the provost’s promises of maintaining trust and respect may seem disingenuous in this context, I believe most Gators remain steadfast in our commitment to a more equitable university, community, and world.

However, the fight over DEI in higher education indicates most strongly how American politics — and especially Florida politics — have been enraptured by a culture war that repeatedly prioritizes symbolism over substance. Pundits and politicians far removed from college campuses vastly overstated the prevalence of DEI initiatives. Ultimately, UF's latest development will lead to removing 13 positions and 15 administrative appointments. 

The programs and entities UF will lose as a result did not reach every student — not even every minority student — but none of that is to say it is not important. This is a hurtful and unnecessary loss for those students to whom UF’s DEI programs are personally valuable. DEI initiatives signify to students that all are welcome on our campus, and to many of our most vulnerable, that is vital to their success in college. 

How and why the acronym “DEI” became the latest flashpoint in the so-called “culture wars” reveals much more about the state of our democracy than our state’s new rules themselves. A year ago, the buzzword, or acronym, maligned by the right and vociferously defended by the left was “CRT,” or critical race theory. To critics, CRT and DEI are essentially interchangeable. I would not be surprised if, by next year, they found a new acronym to be upset about. That is because, to the governor and his ilk, the only incentive or benefit to attacking these programs is to bully for the sake of bullying. No one in power nor their supporters will benefit from this decision meaningfully. The only thing they will gain is the satisfaction of needless cruelty. 

Therein lies the crisis facing our nation. Polarization occurs most naturally in times of widespread dissatisfaction, when people look for convenient answers for why things are the way they are — essentially, who we get to blame. To the demagogues on the far right, “owning” the left is more important than actually beating them on policy. Similarly, since 2016, liberal politics have been primarily driven by reacting to the populist right.

In this way, our current moment of polarization has worked itself into a positive feedback loop. When democracy fails to deliver results for the public, people look to leaders whose politics are defined by who they want to bully rather than how they want to help. When politicians of this type gain power, they spend their limited time, energy and political capital on empty culture wars at the expense of unsexy dinner-table issues, making voters even more cynical about the government's ability to solve problems.

As long as governors like DeSantis or the legislators that enable him prioritize bullying college students, they will ignore pocketbook issues, leading to an increasingly cynical and polarized electorate. Culture wars, by definition, cannot unify a country. They only reaffirm the preconceptions voters on both sides have about the other, while leaving millions more and more convinced that no one speaks for them at all.

It is absolutely vital UF vocally defend its values, celebrate its diversity, and promote a more equitable future. Yet doing so alone will not be enough to repair our democracy. To end this era of polarization, voters on the left and right alike must reject politicians that choose shallow bullying over substantive governing, outright.

Andrew Taramykin is a UF political science and history senior.

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