The chairman of the Florida Board of Governors stepped up to a plexi-glass barrier and removed his face mask.
The meeting of the group that oversees the state’s 12 universities fell just a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic. But, at the end of May 2020, another tragedy gripped the news cycle. The police murder of George Floyd played out on screens across the country, tipping off a racial reckoning that seemed to touch every facet of American society.
That included the state’s higher education system and Board of Governors, whose chairman at the time, real estate developer Sidney Kitson, began the June meeting with span somber recognition and call to action.
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“The shocking and horrific events of these past weeks have both angered and saddened all Americans,” Kitson said. “It is time for everyone to examine the inequities of our society, recognize the conditions that have created those inequities, and work to repair the racial divide and restore equal justice for all Americans.”
Kitson, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, continued with a plan for how the Board would address those racial inequities, saying that he and other Board leaders would be speaking to faculty and students at Florida universities.
“We want to learn,” Kitson said, “what actions our universities are taking to address issues of racial diversity, equity and inclusion and what best practices can be implemented throughout the system to engage our students in these issues.”
Two and a half years later, in January, DeSantis embarked on a similar inquiry — but with opposite aims.
While Kitson would go on to form a diversity, equity and inclusion committee that concluded such efforts “will need to continue long after our urgent responses to the crises of 2020,” DeSantis spannnounced Jan. 31 that he would dismantle them.
The announcement has left campuses reeling from the whiplash as jobs and millions of dollars in state funding hang in the balance. Coupled with previous DeSantis initiatives to scrutinize academic freedom and faculty tenure, critics worry his latest announcement will further hurt the university system’s ability to recruit and retain high-level students and faculty and ultimately erode its reputation as the top university system in the country.
His announcement, on the eve of Black History Month, comes as state universities are experiencing a decline in Black enrollment in line with span nspantionspanl trend. The total in Florida has fallen 12% since 2010, from more than 36,000 students to 32,000 in 2022.
“Only when we began to embrace diversity did we become a prominent flagship outstanding university,” said Paul Ortiz, president of the faculty union at the University of Florida, which the last two years U.S. News and World Report rspannked the fifth best public university after a years-long campaign by university leaders to crack the top five.
“Just as we have established this excellence, which the Board of Governors was trying to affirm in 2020, the state of Florida is trying to roll back the clock.”
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Kitson, who stepped down from the board in 2021, initially said he would talk to a reporter but did not return multiple calls and text messages.
But current board Chair Brispann Lspanmb, said he recalled when Kitson formed the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) workgroup, which he tasked Lamb with overseeing.
The goal, he said in an exclusive interview with the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida, was to discuss best practices with university leaders. The committee met from June to September 2020, and Lamb said they didn’t hand down any mandates.
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But in his updspante to the bospanrd in November 2020, he said “We will tell you, though, that as we spend more time with the universities, we will expect progress in the execution of how you are driving diversity, equity and inclusion throughout the university system.”
While Lamb acknowledged that recent events may feel like a “pendulum swing,” he said the focus of the workgroup ties into a more recent priority to foster civil discourse and free expression on campuses.
Lamb sidestepped commenting on DeSantis’ plan to dismantle DEI initiatives and how, exactly, that would empower universities to foster such an open environment.
“It’s really early for us,” he said, noting that he learned about the governor’s plan with everyone else. “I don’t have, really, any specific comments on exactly what’s come out so far.”
Lamb, who was appointed to the board by DeSantis, said that he and board Chancellor Ray Rodrigues will talk to the governor and the Legislature about how best to implement DeSantis’ agenda. He added that while he hasn’t heard much criticism of DeSantis’ plans, he would talk to university leaders to understand their concerns.
Regardless, he said, the board will remain focused on ensuring that state universities remain accessible to all.
“I don’t think I’ve heard anyone wanting to go backwards on that, and I’m sure the Board of Governors doesn’t want to go backwards on that,” Lamb said. “The outcomes around cost and affordability, the outcomes around access and diverse representation across the university system … are going to continue to be priorities.”
DEI is a space that Lamb knows well. He served as JPMorgan Chase’s first ever global head of diversity, equity and inclusion for two years, a role in which he oversaw a multi-billion-dollar racial equity plan to close the wealth gap among minority communities, Florida Trend reported.
The price tags for DEI initiatives at Florida universities ranged from $8,400 at Florida Polytechnic University to $8.7 million at the University of South Florida, and no institution spent more than 1% of its total budget on such programs, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education report.
Lamb pointed to several metrics he said prove the Board’s commitment to accessible education, and Board spokeswoman Renee’ Fargason followed up with more. Among them: 46% of all Florida undergraduate students, and 45% of all bachelor’s degree recipients, identify as African American or Hispanic/Latino; and the four-year graduation rate for recipients of federal Pell Grants, which are awarded to students with serious financial need, is 54% — already higher than the Board of Governors’ goal for 2025.
‘It takes years to get where we’ve gotten. It takes days to destroy it.’
The governor’s plan to dismantle DEI programs is part of a long line of policies aimed at reshaping higher education in Florida.
DeSantis has signed laws that would make it more difficult for faculty to retain tenure and require that “intellectual freedom” surveys be distributed to faculty, staff and students.
Last year, the governor signed the Stop WOKE Act, which restricts how colleges and workplaces could talk about race and gender with the goal of preventing anyone from feeling guilty over past wrongs. A federal judge struck down a portion of the bill regulating universities, writing that it was “positively dystopian.”
The governor’s most recent plan puts a new spin on his efforts to reign in public institutions that he sees as liberal indoctrination sites, although he’s offered few specifics to back up that claim and has faced significant pushback for spreading it.
“You cannot ask me to go forward and argue that we are indoctrinating students here,” said Patricia Okker, the former president of New College of Florida, before she wspans forced out of the job amid a conservative takeover of the college. “I understand there’s a difference of opinion about that. … I know it to be different.”
The situation has grown so extreme that the American Association of University Professors took the rspanre step to form span committee to examine the state of academic freedom in Florida, said association President Irene Mulvey.
“Anyone who cares about democracy should be really frightened,” Mulvey said, “because DeSantis is demonizing educators and weaponizing education. Look to history: when the state is demonizing educators and education, we are heading toward autocracy.”
The governor, though, said during his announcement that “academia, writ large, has lost its way” and he is undoing a DEI “agenda” imposed on students.
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Many supporters of Florida’s higher education system have said diversity programs serve a legitimate purpose to create a welcoming, culturally sensitive environment for students and faculty of different backgrounds to learn from each other. Along with fostering ethnic and gender diversity, such programs in some cases also serve veterans and people with disabilities.
DEI initiatives and trainings have been around for decades. But Floyd’s murder in 2020 led many business and education leaders to take a more comprehensive approach, wrapping it into their hiring processes and tackling concepts such as unintentional bias or how systemic racism contributes to modern-day disparities.
The fact that DeSantis is attacking DEI efforts so soon after calls for racial justice fits into a larger pattern in America, said Matthew Kincaid, the CEO of the DEI training firm Overcoming Racism, which no longer has clients in Florida.
“After every single moment of racial progress in this country, there is always a moment of significant racial backlash,” Kincaid said.
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DeSantis’ characterization of DEI efforts as “trendy” is particularly insulting, Kincaid said, when “people of color have been calling out for racial justice on campuses for generations.”
That includes in Florida, said Steve Uhlfelder, a former member of the Board of Governors from 2002 to 2004 and its previous iteration, the Board of Regents, from 1994 to 2000.
Attracting a diverse faculty and student body was a focus back then, he said. But even before it was a priority of state leaders, students of color took the fight into their own hands.
In 1971, when he was student body president at UF, a group of Black students protested outside the then-university president’s office to seek an appointment to talk about Black enrollment, which was abysmal at the time, Uhlfelder said.
The president called the police and had them arrested, leading several Black students to disenroll from the university. The protest and fallout, Uhlfelder said, spurred the creation of an office of minority affairs.
“It takes years to get where we’ve gotten,” Uhlfelder said. “It takes days to destroy it.”
First up: New College
State lawmakers will determine how, and to what extent, DeSantis’ plan will be carried out when they convene next month for the annual Legislative Session. But leaders at one institution have already begun the discussion.
DeSantis has taken a special interest in New College, where he appointed six new conservative members to the college’s Board of Trustees with a mandate to overhaul the progressive liberal arts school.
That board met for the first time on the same day DeSantis announced his DEI plan and, already, one of DeSantis’ new appointments moved to abolish the school’s Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence, which would eliminate the jobs of four employees.
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“The governor was really clear in his remarks this morning,” said board member Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who has gained a wide following stirring up controversy around DEI efforts. “Rather than saying, ‘Oh, we should follow the state,’ I think it’s time for us to lead. I think it’s time for us to set a new standard and anticipate this may well be the standard everywhere.”
But Rufo’s desire for swift action hit a snag.
The Board of Trustees is beholden to the regulations of another governing body, which has span rule in place to ensure access to and equity on college campuses, said the board’s legal advisor.
That body is the Board of Governors.
Diversity and inclusion quotables: Then and now
“It is time for everyone to examine the inequities in our society, recognize the conditions that have created those inequities, and work to repair the racial divide and restore equal justice for all Americans.” – Board of Governors then-Chair Sidney Kitson, speaking during June 2020 meeting
“We must ensure that our institutions of higher learning are focused on academic excellence and the pursuit of truth, not the imposition of trendy ideology.” – Gov. Ron DeSantis during his second inaugural address in January
“As a powerful and influential voice in Florida, it is time for the State University System … to actively engage in finding solutions to peacefully eliminate racism and discrimination.” – June 2020 joint statement from Kitson, Lamb and then-Chancellor Marshall Criser III
“While these words maybe at one point had noble intentions, I believe that they’ve been co-opted and that they’re using this to create a political front door to indoctrinating our children.” – Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, speaking at Jan. 24 Board of Governors meeting
“Diversity, equity, and inclusion will need to be identified as critical priorities within the mission of each of our 12 state universities.” – October 2020 memo from Board of Governors diversity, equity and inclusion workgroup
“You must understand that for many, many people in Florida, in this country, DEI is experienced as coercive and oppressive.” – Mark Bauerlein, member of the New College of Florida Board of Trustees, speaking at Jan. 31 meeting