College leaders across the state vowed Wednesday not to teach students about critical race theory unless it is presented alongside other concepts, to protect viewpoint diversity and free expression, and to root out discrimination in hiring and other areas by Feb. 1.
But state education leaders offered a much more sweeping interpretation of the college leaders’ statement, trumpeting it as a vow to eliminate “woke positions and ideologies” from their campuses and support Gov. Ron DeSantis’ higher education priorities, even though the one-page document does not make those promises.
The presidents of Florida’s 28 state colleges agreed they “do not promote any ideology that suppresses intellectual and academic freedom, freedom of expression, viewpoint diversity, and the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning,” said John Avendano, president of Florida State College of Jacksonville.
Avendano presented the statement on behalf of his colleagues across Florida during a state Board of Education meeting on Wednesday.
College leaders, which include Valencia College, Seminole State College and others that primarily offer two-year degrees and career training programs, issued the statement as DeSantis takes aim at revamping higher education. Earlier this month he asked colleges and universities to submit a “comprehensive list of all staff, programs and campus activities” and funding assigned to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
And DeSantis has backed a new law banning the teaching of critical race theory at colleges, universities and K-12 schools. A federal court has temporarily blocked implementation of the law, which prohibits teaching students that people are “privileged or oppressed” based on their race, color, nationality or sex, with a judge describing it as a “positively dystopian” violation of professors’ First Amendment rights.
The letter from leaders of Florida’s colleges says diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives were intended to increase diversity of thought and enrollment on campuses. But, they said, some had “come to mean and accomplish the very opposite,” and push ideas like critical race theory, a once-obscure academic concept that has been the source of derision for DeSantis and other Republicans across the country.
“There has been much debate about the aims of higher education, specifically, the extent to which diversity, equity and inclusion are the fabric of the higher education experience,” Avendano said before reading the statement during Wednesday’s board meeting. “We thought it was important to be clear as to what we believe about the aims of higher education.”
But the state Department of Education went far beyond what Avendano and his colleagues outlined in the letter.
The department said college leaders had rejected “‘woke’ diversity, equity and inclusion [and] critical race theory ideologies” in a press release sent to media outlets on Wednesday. The release also said the college leaders had “publicly supported Governor Ron DeSantis’ vision of higher education” and had committed to “removing all woke positions and ideologies” by month’s end.
“Today’s bold statement by the Florida college system presidents shows their commitment to providing students with higher education opportunities that are free from indoctrination and woke ideology,” said Florida Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz, Jr, according to the press release. “I would like to commend our presidents for ensuring our state colleges are environments where all students can embrace educational freedom and acquire the knowledge and skills necessary for a thriving career.”
The college presidents’ letter did not mention the term “woke” nor did it say the presidents reject “the progressivist higher education indoctrination agenda,” as the education department press release said that it does.
The letter also left open the possibility of critical race theory being taught on state college campuses. The presidents pledged not to support any policy that “compels belief in” CRT while adding that, if the theory is taught, it will be presented “as one of several theories and in an objective manner.”
Christopher Rufo, an anti-critical race theory activist who DeSantis recently appointed to the Board of Trustees at New College of Florida, tweeted on Wednesday that the statement was a sign that “the momentum is starting to shift” and that college leaders were committing to “not promoting left-wing racialist ideology and political activism.”
“All of the Florida public university presidents have released this letter pledging to reign [sic] in,” diversity, equity and inclusion departments, Rufo tweeted.
The signatories to the letter do not include presidents of Florida’s 12 state universities, such as New College.
Education board members, some of whom were appointed by DeSantis, had little discussion about the statement during Wednesday’s board meeting. Chair Tom Grady asked Avendano if the statement was an indication from him and his colleagues that, on their campuses, “diversity, inclusion and equity mean the opposite of what those words historically have meant.”
“Is that the essence of your statement?” Grady asked.
Avendano clarified, saying he and his colleagues believed campuses should be places for people to “explore all thoughts.”
“We’re not looking at indoctrinating anybody, that’s not the purpose of higher education, and that’s really what our position has been,” he said.