A datapoint for how American politics impacts higher education in 2023: the state of Florida just told one university to provide data about some of its academic operations. Specifically, how it spends money on diversity, equity, inclusion, and critical race theory work.
This is a developing story without a lot of information at present. I’m sharing what I can find along with some first-blush reflections. Things may well change as we learn more.
The Chronicle of Higher Education broke the story based on an email they obtained from someone at the University of North Florida. In the leaked message Karen B. Patterson, Provost and Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs, tells UNF deans that the state’s public higher education system chancellor, Raymond Rodrigues, has requested DEI support data.
In Emma Pettit’s summary:
Rodrigues’s email included a memo from DeSantis’s executive office along with an “activity survey form.”
Cousins seemed to quote from the memo, writing that it is “a request for information ‘regarding the expenditure of state resources on programs and initiatives related to diversity, equity and inclusion, and critical race theory within our state colleges and universities.’
The request pertains to all programs and initiatives, including ‘academic instruction.’”
Cousins requested that the deans communicate with their associate deans and department chairs to identify the courses within their colleges that “contain DEI and/or CRT components.” She instructed them to include the course name and number, the number of credit hours, and the instructor of record and that person’s rank, along with other information. (She noted that the instructor’s name would not be included on the survey form.)
Here’s the Chronicle’s copy of the email and my screenshot of it:
What does this mean?
I don’t know how legal this request is, neither being a lawyer nor knowledgeable about Florida higher education laws and policies. Maybe a court challenge could block it. I have no idea. I’d like to hear from those with expertise.
The request (as we see it) does fit with Republicans’ national drive against DEI and whatever they think “critical race theory” means. Locally, that’s very consistent with Florida’s governor DeSantis, who has become a leader of that effort.
The story – as we know it so far – also fits with rising dislike or skepticism of higher education, again with a strong (yet not exclusive) base in the GOP.
On a practical level, this request is a slug of work added to the UNF’s staff at semester’s start, which might be part of the point, given the pugilistic style of some Republicans, such as DeSantis. Further, the resulting data could become fodder for political rhetoric and actions against that university, and, by extension, against others. additionally, how many faculty and staff who work on DEI/CRT just felt a chill and might consider stealthing or decreasing their efforts? Surely that would be an intended effect.
I repeat: this is a developing story. We don’t know much as of this writing. The Chronicle piece is the only reporting I can find. There has been silence so far from key players: “Neither Cousins nor spokespersons at the University of North Florida responded to Tuesday evening emails from The Chronicle… A Tuesday evening email to a DeSantis spokesperson was not returned…” The UNF Twitter account says nothing so far. So we should be cautious, especially in drawing inferences and conclusions.
But this story is of a piece with several key trends, and I wanted to post about it now to identify it as such.
I welcome any comments or reactions from people affiliated with the University of North Florida, the state’s government, or anyone else in Florida’s public higher education system.