University of Florida’s Attack on DEI is Degrading Education and Devaluing Our Degrees | Opinion

Gov. Ron DeSantis. Photo via Facebook.

It was morning and I sipped my coffee at a downtown café in a northern state. A customer noticed my University of Florida t-shirt and asked if I had attended the state’s flagship college. When I nodded, I waited for the usual praise that often accompanied.

Instead, I was peppered with questions about censorship, book bans and efforts to control what was taught about minorities in Florida’s schools. Similar interactions have occurred on multiple occasions since that coffee house experience.

As a proud University of Florida graduate, I am deeply concerned that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ unrelenting, self-serving culture wars have tarnished the reputation of our once-renowned universities and diminished the value of my degree, which I received in 1993.

My concerns were deeply exacerbated this month when UF, following the dictates of a new law passed last year, eliminated its diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, program, firing its chief diversity position and 13 staff diversity officers.   

University of Florida officials released a statement, hoping to contain the fallout:

"As we educate students by thoughtfully engaging in a wide range of ideas and views, we will continue to foster a community of trust and respect for every member of the Gator Nation," the memo says.

Such performative puffery spins the depressing reality that University of Florida no longer fully values differing opinions equally. The dismantling of DEI will stifle debate and elevate pre-approved, state-sanctioned ideas above other viewpoints.

My cherished alma mater now behaves, in some ways, like political dystopias we have seen in authoritarian countries, where cynical government officials exploit universities to propagandize preferred narratives. Isn’t Florida still part of America?

How many professors, who want to advance their careers, are going to risk undermining their future by teaching subjects or ideas at odds with the state?

I look back at the opportunities afforded me and my classmates at UF, and wonder if today’s students will be robbed of enriching experiences that widened our lenses and broadened our horizons?

For example, in 1991 I was part of UF’s Gay & Lesbian Student Union (GLSU). We participated on speaking panels at various sociology classes where we discussed our sexual orientation or gender identity. As our speaking panels commenced, we would introduce ourselves and then open the floor to questions, which included anything the audience had on their minds.

Nothing was off the table. Some of the students were respectful, others objected to our existence based on religion, and a few were outright hostile. But most were simply curious and sat with rapt attention. We could see the candlelight of learning flickering in their inquisitive eyes. 

We patiently answered every question—even the annoying ones--until the school bell rang. Something magical would almost inevitably occur as these classes ended. Many of the same students who snickered when we arrived, approached us to say that we had changed their views. We humanized LGBTQ people, and in the process opened hearts and expanded minds. We were no longer an abstract social issue, but actual human beings with hopes and dreams for the future.

It seems that such eye-opening moments, that reduce barriers and foster empathy, is what DeSantis and Republicans most fear. They would likely deride our panels as propaganda, when instead they represent the crux of why we attend universities.

Meeting and learning from people with different ideas and backgrounds is key to the pursuit of knowledge. Without such diverse interactions, the university experience is impoverished and incomplete. We might as well stay siloed in our bedrooms taking university classes online, lest we encounter ideas that contradict the state’s official ideology.  

After University of Florida dismantled its DEI program, DeSantis wrote on the social media site X, "DEI is toxic and has no place in our public universities. I'm glad that Florida was the first state to eliminate DEI and I hope more states follow suit."

What many of us find toxic are the governor’s counterproductive attacks on education and his Big Government approach to dictating what is “acceptable” to think in the Sunshine State. Florida Republicans claim they want to eliminate political correctness, but it seems they are overreaching and determined to replace the prior system with conservative correctness. What we are witnessing at University of Florida is not the enhancement of education, but a strange, new variety of indoctrination.

The future of my beloved University of Florida is imperiled when strangers are now more likely to ask about DeSantis’ oppressive policies than the institution’s academic excellence. I speak for many when I say: I want my university back and Republicans should stop gratuitously toying with the state’s once celebrated schools. In trying to fix what wasn’t broken, they could end up destroying the entire university system.

Wayne Besen is the executive director of Delray Beach-based LGBTQ nonprofit organization Truth Wins Out. He is the former spokesperson of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ rights organization.


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