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Faculty union pushes back against Florida's proposed DEI regulations in higher education

 Students walk on the USF campus in Tampa.
Victoria Crosdale
WUSF Public Media
Students walk on the USF campus in Tampa.

Proposed regulations outlining how the state would prohibit funding for diversity, equity and inclusion programs and curtail social activism at colleges and universities is receiving pushback from faculty and students.

The Florida Board of Governors released the draft to higher education institutions for feedback earlier this month.

 Andrew Gothard
United Faculty of Florida
Andrew Gothard

The regulations come in response to a law that took effect in July. It limits how general core classes are taught and eliminates state and federal funding for campus activities that "advocate, promote, or engage" in political or social activism or DEI initiatives. But the law leaves it to the Board of Governors to define what those initiatives are.

The "prohibited expenditures" outlined by the board provide details about what DEI programs, political or social activism and social issues would be cut.

WUSF's Meghan Bowman spoke with Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida union, about the regulations.

The union represents over 25,000 faculty members at public state colleges and universities, four k-12 lab schools, and the private institution Saint Leo University.

The following is an excerpt from the conversation between Bowman and Gothard.

How have members of your union responded to the draft?

This draft can really be summed up in two words, censorship and exclusion. This is all about silencing students. It's about silencing faculty. It's about withholding funding from individuals who have beliefs, speak ideas, or take actions that would disagree with the politics of elected leaders.

If it is approved the way it's written right now, what student groups on state university system campuses would this regulation affect most?

"If you look at the definitions of diversity, equity and inclusion, political or social activism, and social issues, I mean, by our read, you wouldn't be hard-pressed to find a student group that isn't affected by this. By the way we're seeing it, regardless of what the Board of Governors intended, I don't even think students could hold a canned food drive under this thing.

How do you think this would impact state university system faculty members, and by extension UFF members?

It's going to have a very direct impact. Up to this point, we have not seen guidance from the Board of Governors about what it means for the state to have banned funding for curriculum and programs and classes that fall under the categories of diversity, equity and inclusion.

But with this definition now, we are very concerned about how faculty may lose their jobs, how programs may be canceled and how courses that were designed are going to have to be forcibly restructured, or just completely canceled, by government authority.

And we're broadly concerned about what impact that's going to have on the university and college system when students can no longer gain access to cutting-edge information.

Prohibiting funding for these certain student groups on campuses, does that present any real First Amendment issues?

We believe this is absolutely, clearly a violation of the First Amendment rights of students and faculty, as well as Supreme Court precedent around free speech and academic freedom on campus. And if the Board of Governors goes through with passing this regulation as it is written — they still have a number of opportunities to amend it and change it — but if they were to pass this regulation as written, no options would be off the table for actions UFF would pursue to protect the constitutional rights of students and faculty.

Have you gotten any feedback on this particular draft from any members of the organization?

Yes, all the members I have heard from have been unanimously opposed to this regulation.

If the draft is approved by the Board of Governors and the Budget and Finance Committee at its Nov. 8-9 meeting, it will be available for public comment. After review, the regulations could receive final approval from the board in January 2024.

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF 89.7.

Meghan Bowman