UNF professor criticizes Gov. DeSantis’s push to scrutinize higher education programs

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As Gov. Ron DeSantis targets “trendy ideology” in higher education, his administration is asking state colleges and universities for information about resources they are putting into activities related to diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory.

DeSantis has made the fight against critical race theory — which is based on the premise that racism is embedded in American institutions — a linchpin of his education and political agenda.

A UNF professor took to social media Thursday to say he believes the move is a clear attempt to undermine academic freedom.

DeSantis took aim at ideological issues on campuses during his inauguration speech Tuesday to start his second term.

“We must ensure school systems are responsive to parents and to students, not partisan interest groups, and 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,” the governor said in his prepared remarks.

Chris Spencer, director of DeSantis’ Office of Policy and Budget, sent a memo Dec. 28 to Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. and state university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues, who oversee the college and university systems.

“As the Executive Office of the Governor prepares policy and budget proposals ahead of the 2023 Legislative Session, it is important that we have a full understanding of the operational expenses of state institutions,” Spencer wrote in the memo.

The memo said colleges and universities are required to “provide a comprehensive list of all staff, programs and campus activities related to diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory.”

In addition, they are directed to detail “costs associated with the administration of each program or activity,” including a description of the activities, paid positions and how much of the money is provided by the state.

Dr. Nicholas Seabrook, Chair and Professor of Political Science & Public Administration at UNF, said he got the request from the DeSantis administration and shared his emailed response on Twitter.

“None of the courses offered by our department during the 2022-23 academic year contained or will contain components that meet any of the above criteria,” Seabrook wrote in part. He said there was also no explanation of why the request was made or what the information will be used for.

Dr. Seabrook said the criteria he was referencing came from the Stop WOKE Act, controversial legislation that bans things like teaching that one race or sex is morally superior to another.

Late last year, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction against parts of the act and this week a stay was ordered pending appeal.

“The only way to prevent further encroachment on the rights of our faculty and students is for the State University System to stand united against these intimidation tactics. DeSantis wants to pit us against each other in a race to the bottom for funding. We can’t let that happen,” Dr. Seabrook tweeted.

Diaz and Rodrigues are required to collect and submit the schools’ responses by Jan. 13.

DeSantis has repeatedly clashed with Democratic lawmakers and unions representing professors and teachers over his education initiatives.

United Faculty of Florida President Andrew Gothard, said Wednesday his union is “deeply concerned” about the Dec. 28 memo, which he called a “horrible directive.”

“Attempts such as these by the governor to chill speech and to intimidate those he disagrees with into remaining silent, altering their curriculum, and silencing their students are an affront to democracy and the American way of life,” Gothard, who is a professor at Florida State University, said in a statement to The News Service of Florida.. “Let those who supported Governor DeSantis in the recent election heed this warning: A man who will silence those whom he disagrees — in the classroom and beyond — will one day find a reason to silence you as well,”

But Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow with The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, praised the move.

“Gov. DeSantis is going to lay siege to university ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ programs,” Rufo said in a tweet.

Dr. Seabrook is now calling on those who oppose this push by DeSantis to call or email leaders of Florida’s public institutions.

“If you support what DeSantis is doing here, imagine for a second how this kind of power might be used by Democrats in blue states to censor conservative professors and students. Constitutionally protected speech in public universities should be off limits, period,” Dr. Seabrook tweeted.

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Digital reporter who has lived in Jacksonville for more than 25 years and focuses on important local issues like education and the environment.