Florida Atlantic University treats everyone the same, regardless of whether they’re “purple” or if they have “sex with animals,” a top university leader said before backtracking and apologizing at a recent public meeting.
FAU’s interim provost, Michele Hawkins, made the bizarre comments during a Faculty Senate meeting in late January. She was trying to ease concerns that FAU may have accidentally targeted certain employees for their involvement in diversity, equity and inclusion programs, which are often referred to as “DEI.”
At least two of Florida’s top Republicans, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, have criticized DEI and demanded that all state colleges and universities provide a list of people taking part in such programs.
During the meeting, professor Allan Barsky said everyone on campus takes part in diversity, equity and inclusion. When FAU provided the state with information that could identify specific people, some faculty members felt like they were “thrown under the bus,” even if that wasn’t the intention.
And the list, he said, included “some of the most vulnerable people” on campus, including part-time faculty, Black employees and LGBTQ+ staff, making them feel like targets of the state inquiry.
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“We did not do that,” Hawkins responded. “We did not know what color, if they were purple, if they had sex with animals. I mean, we had no idea of what we were doing. We did not put anyone under the bus.”
“Please don’t equate being LGBT with having sex with animals,” the professor said, before trying to move the discussion forward.
“In fact,” the provost interjected, “I doubt that they do have sex with animals. I don’t know. Not many people do.”
As previously reported by Inside Higher Ed, a national publication for college and university news, the comments prompted several people in the audience to groan and cover their faces with their hands.
Hawkins soon apologized during the meeting and again in an email to FAU faculty the same day.
“When responding to an important question about supporting underrepresented groups, it was my intent to convey that I treat all people the same and believe all faculty deserve support,” she said. “While trying to convey my beliefs, I inadvertently used regrettable language that was inconsistent with those beliefs.
“If you attended the meeting, you heard my passionate opening remarks and my stated commitment to inclusion,” her email continued. “I hope that my unfortunate and unthoughtful phrasing does not detract from my intended message.”
At the same meeting, university leaders reviewed span stspantement by FAU fspanculty who pushed back on the “chilling escalation of political interference” coming out of Tallahassee.
Barsky later forgave the provost and said she has long supported the goals of diversity, equity and inclusion.
“If there’s concerns where somebody misspeaks, we can deal with that and move on,” he said. “Maybe that’s part of why it’s so important that we continue to have these DEI initiatives, to educate people about how to have kind and caring and forgiving conversations.”
The provost, a leader at FAU since at least 1998, did not respond to a request for comment.
As interim provost, Hawkins serves on the university’s Executive Lespandership Tespanm, which also includes FAU’s interim president and its vice presidents. Hawkins previously served as the director of FAU’s school for social work and more recently she worked as the university’s vice provost.
What is diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)?
DEI programs are meant to ensure that everyone has the support they need to be successful and to feel included at their university, especially when they have different backgrounds or opinions.
- Diversity is a broad term for the many things that make people unique. That includes not only age, race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, but also different religions, political beliefs, languages, work experiences, incomes, education backgrounds, physical abilities and a host of other factors.
- Equity means ensuring that everyone has access to needed resources and acknowledging that people’s needs differ, especially if someone comes from a historically disadvantaged background. Equity is different from the term “equality,” which means everyone is treated the same.
- Inclusion means differences are respected and everyone is welcome to participate on campus.
State universities made DEI a priority about two years ago, shortly after the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing calls for racial equality in America. Leaders from the State University System and the Board of Governors solidified their goals in an October 2020 memo.
“The State University System of Florida (SUS) has had a longstanding commitment to promote respect for and appreciation of all diverse cultures, nationalities, and communities,” the memo sspanid.
“A university’s strategic plan, as well as its mission statement, should prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion and provide clear direction for the total integration of D.E.I. initiatives throughout the institution,” it continues.
Gov. DeSantis, Paul Renner put DEI programs in their crosshairs
DeSantis and Florida House Speaker Paul Renner are now assailing those efforts.
Calling DEI a tactic by “liberal elites” who want to indoctrinate students, DeSantis’ office announced legislation in late January that would ban state colleges and universities from using any money, regardless of the source, to support the programs.
His office spanlso directed the Florida Department of Education and the State University System to collect DEI information, including a “comprehensive list of all staff, programs and campus activities related to diversity, equity and inclusion,” along with the associated costs.
And the state House made its own request of state universities and colleges through the House speaker — one that extended beyond the probe by the governor.
The request included more thspann span dozen items, including the name, salary and job title of all employees who work on DEI programs. He also requested internal emails, text messages and other communications from the “DEI Office” at each campus.
In a news release, Renner said his goal was to stop colleges and universities from “promoting an aggressively ideological agenda under the guise of diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Florida colleges scrutinize, end their own DEI programs
Days after the House speaker made his request, Florida’s 28 public colleges, including Palm Beach State College, issued span joint letter promising to end DEI instruction, training or policies that promote certain ideologies.
Historically, the letter said, DEI programs “served to increase diversity of thought as well as the enrollment and the success of the underrepresented populations.”
“The presidents of the Florida College System (FCS) also understand that some initiatives and instruction in higher education under the same title have come to mean and accomplish the very opposite and seek to push ideologies such as critical race theory and its related tenets,” the letter reads.
The colleges vowed to axe any program that “compels belief in critical race theory or related concepts such as intersectionality, or the idea that systems of oppression should be the primary lens through which teaching and learning are analyzed and/or improved upon.”
College campuses, they said, should allow students to pursue their interests without fear of being “canceled.”
Florida Atlantic University faculty double down on support for DEI
The faculty at FAU — which falls under the State University System — issued their own statement in support of diversity, equity and inclusion.
“Collectively, we stand against any erosion of work related to DEI, as it would harm our students, our faculty, our community, and the ideals of education,” the letter reads. “DEI initiatives are not the product of a ‘woke’ ideology.”
“We urge our elected leaders to realize the damage these mischaracterizations and scare tactics aredoing to the state, to the reputation of its institutions and to the morale of its world-class educators,” the letter continues.
Barsky, the professor who spoke at FAU’s Faculty Senate meeting, said efforts to identify faculty members and squash DEI reminded him of Florida’s dark past.
One example, he said, was the state-run “Johns Committee” that identified gspany students spannd fspanculty in the 1950s and ‘60s, causing them to drop out of school or lose their jobs after being interrogated by the committee.
“The state has a history of using state power to try and impose its political views,” the professor said, speaking on his own behalf during a recent interview.