Amid Clampdown on DEI, Some on Campuses Push Back

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This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet focused on education.

It doesn’t take much searching to spot the fallout from the newest Florida law seeking to erase DEI, or diversity, equity and inclusion, from public campuses.

Several weeks ago, for example, staff offices at Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Inclusion, Diversity Education and Advocacy in Boca Raton were vacant, with name plates blank and abandoned desks, plus LGBTQ+ flags, posters and pamphlets left behind.

Elsewhere on the palm-tree-framed campus, a sign for the “Women and Gender Equity Resource Center” remained, but a laminated paper on the door offered a new identity, “Women’s Resource and Community Connection Division of Student Affairs.”

In Florida, which, along with Texas, has the most extreme anti-DEI laws in the country, virtually all DEI staff have been fired or reassigned and offices shuttered — but that’s not the only story. There is also mounting resistance to the laws.

Students have devised workarounds, like camouflaging FAU’s annual homecoming drag show as “Owl Manor,” nodding to the school mascot. Mary Rasura, a senior, launched an LGBTQ+ newspaper, OutFAU, saying, “It just seemed like a no-brainer. You know, we are still a community. Like, we’re still here.” 

And while some wary faculty members have recast their lectures, others have boldly not done so. Prof. Robert Cassanello at the University of Central Florida in Orlando — one of the nation’s largest campuses with 70,000 students — warned in red ink on the syllabus for his graduate seminar on the Civil Rights Movement (as for all courses he teaches) that he “will expose you to content that does not comply with and will violate” anti-DEI laws. 

Cassanello feels compelled to object. “My area of research is Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement,” he said. Being told not to discuss institutional, structural racism, “that’s like, what would be the point of me teaching? You know, I might as well just go home.” 

The anti-DEI pressure in higher education has caught on — the Chronicle of Higher Education’s DEI tracker identifies 85 anti-DEI bills introduced in 28 states since last year, with 13 becoming law — but it is hardly something that colleges and universities came to on their own. Rather, it is a campaign led by the conservative activist Christopher F. Rufo and other far-right influencers seeking to make “DEI” as scary and repulsive a term as “CRT” (Critical Race Theory). Rufo has said as much.  

And while Rufo frames DEI as an affront to colorblind meritocracy, Brendan Cantwell, a professor at Michigan State University who studies politics and policy in higher education, argues that there is nothing ideological in how DEI offices operate. 

“The DEI movement as it manifests in colleges and universities is not radical,” he said. “It’s very bureaucratic and institutional.” 

Cantwell said DEI shows up in tasks such as student advising or ensuring that databases accommodate gender identities and meet federal regulations — efforts that have arisen over the past decade as a direct response to campuses growing more diverse, racially and in other ways. DEI also covers veterans, first-generation students, international students, members of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities and people of different faiths. The aim has been to institute policies and practices that allow all students to feel accepted. 

But now anti-DEI laws are reaching beyond attacking such functions and seeking to control what may be taught in college courses. 

“We are fighting over whether or not political parties that are in control of state government, in control of Congress, can control higher education,” Cantwell said. This is not about regulating funding or financial aid, but “what people learn” and “how colleges and universities can serve their students and staff.” 

That was apparent in January when the Board of Governors for Florida’s state university system, in approving regulations for the new anti-DEI law, also removed sociology from the list of courses that meet general education requirements. (On the social platform X, Education Commissioner Manny Diaz berated sociology as “woke ideology.”) 

For Prof. Michael Armato, the sociology undergraduate director at UCF, the elimination of general education credit for his discipline was upsetting enough; introductory sociology enrolls 700 to 800 students per semester. But more disturbing, he said, “was the absolute silence on behalf of our administrators” who failed to defend the field or challenge state “meddling” in campus curriculum. 

“What’s next?” he said, noting that fields like literature, anthropology and psychology also grapple with issues of race, gender and sexuality. “There is this sort of fear hovering over us,” said Armato, raising concerns “for what we can teach, for what we can advise students about.” As a result, his department now allows faculty who are assigned to teach potentially hot subjects like race and ethnicity to bow out. “It is their neck on the line,” he said. 

Yet he is not backing down himself. He is preparing to teach a graduate course that includes Critical Race Theory.* “I refuse to kowtow to attempts to have me not teach what is the accepted and documented evidence within my field,” he said. Last semester, he taught a course, “Beyond the Binary.” Still, Armato wonders, “Is this going to blow up on me?” 

Certainly, it’s easy to spot worry on campuses. At UCF, the student government counts on staff members to run an annual diversity training. The staffer responsible for it said he was unsure if it could happen — “we are waiting on guidance” — then ignored all follow-up emails. Across the state, more than a dozen campus leaders, including administrators, faculty representatives, staffers and student leaders who were contacted, declined to be interviewed about DEI or even to answer questions via email. Some apologized, as one did after initially agreeing to an interview, that “this is a very sensitive subject for state employees.” Some spoke only on background. 

In teaching, Cassanello has a latitude that others don’t, because he has tenure. “If I were a lecturer, and I see what’s going on in Tallahassee,” he said, “I would say, ‘Maybe I don’t teach that concept.’” 

Marissa Bellenger, one of Cassanello’s graduate students, was warned by a visiting professor teaching a lecture course on American history for which she is a teaching assistant. “He said, ‘You know, be careful of students asking you questions to get a rise out of you, to get you to say something that will get you in trouble,’” she said when we met outdoors in a shaded spot on campus. “I mean, if he’s worried about you, that says a lot.”

Bellenger, from Tampa, is studying for her Ph.D. at UCF, and has weighed leaving the state but would want to “come back and teach here. But then, it’s like, what is there to teach? You know, I’m going to be censoring myself.” 

Such calculations are shaping Grace Castelin’s plans. Castelin, a senior and the president of the UCF chapter of the NAACP, sees professors avoiding certain discussions; they offer comments like, “Oh guys, you know, so the law, I can’t really say too much on this,” she said, or, as another did, add a disclaimer about “not trying to impose any beliefs on you guys.” 

“It’s frustrating. It’s like we’re not getting the full course content,” Castelin said. She plans to go out of state to attend graduate school in public policy. “I applied to seven schools. None of them are in Florida,” she said. “If I stay here, I’m not going to learn the content that I need to know without it being censored.” 

It is this kind of worry that spurred Michael H. Gavin, the president of Delta College in Michigan, a two-year institution, to start Education for All a year ago. The group gathers some 175 higher education leaders, many of them community college presidents, to monitor attacks on DEI and coordinate support through an online discussion list and regular meetings. 

Gavin, who wrote a book on white nationalism and politics in higher education, said it is critical for leaders in states not facing anti-DEI laws to speak up for those who cannot. “Let’s not get tricked into this notion that we have to somehow be quiet about things that are right in our domain,” like restricting curriculum topics and banning books, he said. 

He added that anti-DEI attacks are particularly damaging to students in community colleges, many of whom are from marginalized groups, “because the rhetoric is about their very identity.” 

Conservative activists cast the anti-DEI movement as a sober pursuit, but opponents say it appears bent on chasing certain people from view or halting efforts to acknowledge and serve them. This, despite the fact that high-quality research shows the value of “belonging” to student success. 

But even as home pages for DEI offices are redirected or show error messages, services may still exist. For example, the University of North Florida in Jacksonville dissolved DEI-related offices, but OneJax, which had run UNF’s Interfaith Center for 11 years, became an independent nonprofit. Elizabeth Andersen, the executive director, said the group hired the same leader who is “continuing to serve youth in an interfaith capacity on campus.” 

Severing campus ties left them without office space or supports, like HR and IT, however. “It’s been a difficult nine months,” she said. 

Andersen finds the anti-DEI landscape absurd. “The idea that diversity, equity and inclusion have been co-opted to be bad words is bizarre to me,” she said. 

A sense of outrage fuels Carlos Guillermo Smith, a policy adviser for Equality Florida and a former state representative now running for the state senate. Smith, a UCF graduate, helped lead a large protest on campus last spring. Smith is campaigning to support abortion rights, affordable housing and college affordability — and to hold DeSantis’s administration “accountable.” 

Despite the clampdown in Florida, Smith said he sees no choice but to speak up and push back. “Resistance, public pressure and litigation are the only paths” to counter “the far-right’s extreme agenda of censorship and control,” he said.” I am committed to that fight for as long as it takes.”

*Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the course that Prof. Michael Armato is teaching this fall.

This story about the anti-DEI movement was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.


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