Florida bill would ban gender studies majors, diversity programs at universities By Reuters

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: University students walks along a street of Miami Beach during Spring Break in Miami Beach, Florida, U.S., March 18, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Sharon Bernstein

(Reuters) – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis would gain more influence in the state’s public university system, and majors involving gender studies or critical race theory would be eliminated if a bill filed this week wins support from the Republican-controlled legislature.

The new measure, which largely reflects a legislative agenda announced by DeSantis in January, also would ban consideration of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in hiring of faculty. It would require each institution’s board of trustees to approve hires, giving DeSantis greater influence over those decisions because the governor appoints a significant number of board members.

The wide-reaching legislation represents a new front in the Republican war against the “woke” agenda many conservatives believe liberals are trying to push on public education across the country. DeSantis, who is expected to launch a presidential bid after Florida’s legislative session ends this spring, has positioned himself as a leader in that fight.

“In Florida, we will build off of our higher education reforms by aligning core curriculum to the values of liberty and the Western tradition,” DeSantis said in January.

The legislature, which has a clear Republican majority, convenes for its regular session in March.

Asked about the bill on Friday, a spokesman for the governor, Jeremy Redfern, said DeSantis would decide whether to sign it after seeing a final version passed by lawmakers.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Representative Alex Andrade, could not be reached for comment.

Academics, free speech advocates and students condemned the measure. Jeremy C. Young, senior manager of free expression and education at the writers’ organization PEN America, tweeted that it would be the “central battleground for the soul of higher education.”

“It would virtually end academic freedom, shared governance and institutional autonomy at all Florida colleges and universities,” Young said in a statement on Friday.

Florida’s public university system includes 12 universities with an enrollment of more than 400,000 students.

The use of DEI programs in hiring has caused controversy more widely. Critics say that favoring underrepresented groups is unfairly detrimental to others, while proponents say such efforts are needed to help give traditionally marginalized groups equal footing.

Earlier this month, Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott told state agencies and public universities that such practices violated labor laws. The University of Texas system’s board of regents on Wednesday said it had paused all new DEI policies in its hiring.

The Florida bill would also prohibit spending on programs or campus activities that promote DEI and what it calls “Critical Race Theory rhetoric.” Programs required for compliance with federal regulations and some other assistance programs would be exempted.

The measure states that general education core courses taught at public universities “may not suppress or distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics, such as Critical Race Theory, or defines American history as contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”

Critical race theory is an academic concept that asserts that racism is woven into the U.S. legal system and ingrained in its primary institutions.

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