MIAMI — When she visited Florida Polytechnic University with a group of girls from her middle school class last month, Sarah imagined herself in college learning how to use the beakers and Bunsen burners she saw while touring the chemistry lab.

As a sixth grader, Sarah was at the age when studies show girls first start to fall behind in fields of science and technology — a trend that continues into college and the workforce. The day her class spent on campus commemorating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science by building catapults out of plastic spoons was supposed to encourage the students to break the trend.

That mission earned the annual event a spot on a blacklist of university and college programs that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis describes as “discriminatory” efforts, which, he joked, have the same educational value as a degree in “Zombie Studies.”

The roster of “initiatives related to diversity, equity and inclusion, and critical race theory” — also referred to as DEI and CRT — was compiled by public colleges and universities in January, under orders from DeSantis’ office. The sweeping directive, which provided no instructions for interpreting what constitutes DEI or CRT, yielded a grab bag of hundreds of student organizations, mentorship programs, community outreach initiatives, offices dedicated to federal compliance and a seemingly random assortment of classes — including “American History to 1877,” “Topics in Buddhism,” and “Classical Perspectives on Dance.”

As Tallahassee lawmakers consider legislation to ban DEI- and CRT-related programming, not everything caught up in DeSantis’ initial dragnet is certain to be cut. But the information-gathering efforts provide a blueprint for how a legislative agenda billed as a campaign against wasteful spending and liberal bias has ballooned into one that potentially targets any campus activity or course acknowledging diversity, race or gender.

“I think it’s interesting that they talk about academic freedom and no more indoctrination in schools, but at the same time they’re restricting what students can choose to do,” said Pristine Thai, a freshman at the University of Florida who is a member of several Asian-American student organizations.

DeSantis has targeted a collection of programs and classes that account for a tiny fraction of university budgets, a Miami Herald analysis found. And many of DeSantis’ proposed reforms to eliminate diversity programs are likely to prove difficult to implement, as faculty unions promise lawsuits and schools simply rename diversity offices, change course descriptions and shuffle around employees who run programs mandated by state and federal law.

But the buzz around his legislative proposals continues to generate headlines for DeSantis, who declared Florida the state where “woke goes to die” in anticipation of an expected bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.

Even before passing any new laws during the current legislative session, Florida Republicans have managed to push changes via targeted information requests — the first from DeSantis seeking information on DEI and CRT programs and a second from Florida House Speaker Paul Renner requesting a list of names and details of all individuals involved with DEI offices — that have educators backpedaling.

In more than a dozen interviews with the Herald, faculty and staff described a quiet calculus happening behind the scenes on campuses as educators navigate an increasingly hostile work environment resulting from vague and ever-evolving directives coming from Tallahassee.

Trainings and events have been preemptively canceled pending proposed legislation. Fearful of becoming the next viral post on anti-DEI social media accounts, some professors said they are changing the way they teach. Others started recording their own lectures in order to defend themselves should someone take their comments out of context. Many are considering leaving the state.

The process of compiling lists and turning over emails to the government has Florida educators “completely spooked,” said Meera Sitharm, a professor of computer science and mathematics at UF and the chief negotiator for the faculty union. DeSantis’ legislative proposals would empower university boards of trustees to fire faculty, regardless of tenure status, “thus enabling these boards to dismiss faculty that may be pushing prohibited programs,” the governor’s office said in a statement to the Herald.

“People are feeling vulnerable. Certainly it has increased the faculty feeling that they are being watched,” Sitharm said. “It’s almost McCarthyist.”

Most state schools have offices primarily dedicated to promoting “diversity, equity and inclusion” — initiatives endorsed by the Florida Board of Governors after the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests to address disparities on campus. (At UF, for example, only 6% of the student population is Black, compared to 17% of the state’s overall population.)

There is no shortage of criticism of the programs. Many critics, often on the left, raise questions about whether DEI initiatives can meaningfully address inequalities deeply rooted in American society. Another, often louder, critique coming from the right and amplified by DeSantis is that diversity initiatives are inherently discriminatory (i.e. a program that encourages middle school girls to get excited about science might be unfair to boys) and promote harassment (specifically of white men and Republicans, who tend to be a political minority on campus).

In DEI offices, records show daily tasks range from the administrative (compiling diversity data and statistics) to the meaningful (organizing support for professors with family in Iran during the country’s widespread protests) to the tedious (trainings on being an “inclusive manager”) to the potentially controversial (offering an “anti-racist resources” tipsheet with advice like “donate to your local BLM chapter,” and “decolonize your bookshelf.”)

But DeSantis’ efforts appear to target classroom instruction and student life more than DEI offices. Two out of every three programs listed in response to DeSantis’ directive was an undergraduate class or other campus program that had no obvious connection to a DEI office, according to a Herald analysis of the information provided to the state by public universities.

While just one class mentioned “critical race” in the description, the list included a range of other things, such as an event commemorating Martin Luther King Jr., a course on Black Women in America, an African Student union coffee hour, a Black History Month book club and a student exchange program to West Africa. (Other foreign exchange programs to places like Israel and Canada were not on the list.)

As DeSantis takes the national stage, Marvin Dunn, a professor emeritus at Florida International University, said some of the most vulnerable people on campus, like Black and LGBTQ faculty and students, have become pawns in a political game.

“That’s the modus operandi,” Dunn said of the governor. “Go for a weak target and make them into a big threat and then go in and slay the monster.”

Dunn, who leads trips to Rosewood, Florida, scene of a notorious racially motivated massacre after a claim that a white woman was assaulted by a Black man, has vowed to continue his “Teach the Truth” tours and often criticizes DeSantis on Twitter.

If the initial list is any indication, however, any legislative bans on DEI initiatives might prove more performative than substantial.

Records obtained by the Herald show administrators at public colleges have started to preemptively rename diversity offices in hopes of sidestepping proposed bans. Other programs are seeking alternative funding sources outside the university system after DeSantis threatened to cut DEI initiatives off from state funding so that they “wither on the vine.”

Many programs on the list are required under federal and state laws or by the National Collegiate Athletic Association for Division 1 schools like UF. And HB999, one of the bills laying out the proposed bans, currently includes language that would exempt dozens of programs that made the initial list, including those serving veterans, first-generation college students, and “students from low-income families, or students with unique abilities.” (The bill moved forward out of a House committee on March 13.)

While DeSantis’ office told the Herald in a statement that the list revealed “extraordinary misuse of taxpayer dollars to promote a political agenda at the expense of academic focus,” an analysis showed programs listed cost roughly $34.5 million, less than one percent of the State University System’s annual budget.

The program Sarah attended cost $2,559.

When DeSantis appointees on the board of New College at Florida closed the DEI office recently, the school simply shuffled three of the office’s four employees — and presumably most of the expenses — to other departments with different, less politically charged names.

The office cost taxpayers $215,523 per year, records show — about half of the additional expenditures approved by New College’s board of trustees when they appointed DeSantis’ former education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, as interim president in February. (Corcoran makes about $400,000 more than his ousted predecessor.)

Still, even largely nominal bans have an impact, Dunn said.

“It is certainly already having a chilling effect,” Dunn said. “People just aren’t going to take the chance of offering a course or going into details in a course that they know is going to end them up in trouble with the state. Who’s going to talk about reparations now?”

Recent proposals are an escalation in a legislative agenda to narrow the curriculum at state universities and colleges to reflect what DeSantis has called the “values of liberty and the Western tradition” — an overhaul that began with the passage of HB 7, nicknamed the Stop WOKE Act by DeSantis, which would limit the way professors teach certain subjects.

A temporary injunction stopped the law from taking effect at colleges and universities. A federal judge later ruled the information requests from the state were not a violation of the injunction “as long as the Board of Governors or Legislature didn’t act on the information in some way,” according to a Jan. 27 letter to UF faculty by the university’s union president, Paul Ortiz.

“Meanwhile, we are very concerned that its intention is to intimidate and silence faculty and staff,” Ortiz wrote.

Under pressure in the highly politicized environment, administrators at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville shot down a proposal from a campus interfaith group, the OneJax Institute, pitching a campaign celebrating the city of Jacksonville’s diversity, according to Kyle Reese, OneJax’s executive director.

Elsewhere, cancellations have been more subtle. FIU simply never called Dunn back to schedule the next training session in an initiative to teach Black community history. Similarly, a UF training developed for teaching students from varied backgrounds was never scheduled and the prepared materials were never handed out, Sitharm said.

United Faculty of Florida, the state’s faculty union, put out a memo last year suggesting professors consider moderating personal risk by modifying the language they use in the classroom. The memo suggested employing phrases like “benefits from” instead of “privileged” and “is harmed by” instead of “is oppressed.”

Professors who continue to teach as normal, based on their own scholarship and expertise, would be choosing a “higher-risk” route, the memo concluded.

Melba Pearson, a former state prosecutor and the past deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said she sees the targeted information requests and proposed bans as part of an attack on academic freedom.

“Teachers have free speech rights and you should be able to teach in a manner that is consistent with your training, with your area of study and with the topics that the university hired you to teach,” said Pearson, now an instructor in FIU’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “If you can’t teach the way you want to teach, that is an attack on your free speech.”

Making the list

Charlie Mitchell couldn’t believe it when a reporter from UF’s student newspaper called and told him that his theater appreciation class was on the governor’s list.

He was just a guy who had spent 12 years teaching in the theater department, he said, and suddenly it felt like he had a “target” on his back.

Mitchell speculated that his class was singled out because his syllabus includes works by August Wilson, the famed African-American playwright, and Nilo Cruz, the Cuban-American playwright who is openly gay.

“I teach a theater appreciation class. As part of that, I teach the context and the history,” he said. “For centuries, Black people were barred from the stage. Can I teach that? Or will that make someone feel bad?”

The university gave Mitchell no official reason he had been added to the list and did not answer detailed questions from the Herald.

School by school, the lists were developed behind closed doors by university administrators in consultation with the Florida Board of Governors as they scrambled to fulfill DeSantis’ information request in just two weeks over winter break.

At the University of West Florida, staff searched the course catalog for the keywords “diversity, race, ethnicity, equity, inclusion/inclusive, cultural, gender, sex/sexuality, international, and poverty,” according to a statement in response to Herald questions. Deans then went through the results of the initial search, adding and subtracting programs and classes based on their own judgment before sending the list up the chain to the Board of Governors.

A similar process seems to have been used across the state, although a comparison of what each school ultimately included showed no two institutions interpreted the governor’s request in exactly the same way.

In an email exchange with Christy England, a vice chancellor at the Board of Governors, a UWF administrator pointed out that his university appeared to have interpreted DeSantis’ directive more broadly than other schools.

“We provided courses with as little as 10% of the course focused on DEI. We’re not going to be comparable in any sense to the rest of the system if we’re taking this approach,” the administrator wrote. The message ended with a plea for clarification.

“Call me,” England replied.

No public records memorialized her response. But a final version of the UWF list included various benign-sounding general education classes like “American History to 1877,” “American History since 1877,” “English Composition I,” “General Psychology” and “Theatre Appreciation,” as well as federally mandated programs like Title IX, Equal Employment Opportunity offices and services for students with disabilities.

At Florida Atlantic University, where administrators had listed just 16 programs in response to DeSantis’ request — among the fewest of any state university — members of the Faculty Senate voiced concerns that the narrow interpretation of DEI seemed to target certain diversity initiatives but not others.

FAU faculty members pointed out that, in compiling its list of DEI-related courses, the school had singled out some classes on the list of options for fulfilling general education requirements, including “Race and Cultural Inclusion in Social Work” and “Gender and Climate Change,“ while excluding classes like “Global Jewish Communities” and “Disability and Society.”

“We understand DEI as much much broader than a few courses on race or a DEI committee,” one faculty member said in comments directed at Stacy Volnick, the school’s interim president, at a Jan. 31 meeting. “So the narrowness with which it was understood and conveyed also alarmed us.”

In response to questions from the Herald, the governor’s press secretary, Bryan Griffin, said the initial list of DEI and CRT initiatives submitted by universities in January appeared to have been “significantly misreported and under-reported.”

He said the governor’s office considers “DEI, CRT, and other similar ideological agendas” to be a form of “discrimination” as defined in the Stop WOKE Act.

The law prohibits faculty from pushing certain concepts, such as the idea that someone could be “privileged or oppressed” as a result of a particular identity. It also prohibits any discussion of history that makes a student believe they must feel “guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress” because of the past actions of other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.

The law, already in effect in K-12 schools, was temporarily blocked from being enforced at Florida’s universities and colleges in November by a federal judge who called it “positively dystopian,” after professors and students sued. The state appealed, but a federal appeals court on Thursday denied Florida’s request to enforce the law.

In the meantime, DeSantis’ information collection continues. Staffers in the governor’s office have already started performing a review of the list of DEI and CRT initiatives in order to ensure “a full and truthful compilation,” Griffin said.

“I never thought we’d be in a position to legislate feelings,” said Mitchell, the theater professor. “I think there’s an assumption that our students are fragile and I just don’t think that’s true — as if hearing history told to them will somehow make them feel bad about themselves.”


Since January, the names and contact information of hundreds of faculty and staff — and even some students — have also been turned over to state Republican leaders in response to a second order from Renner, the House speaker, seeking information on the activities of anyone involved with campus diversity initiatives.

Renner did not specify the purpose behind compiling the list of names and email exchanges of faculty and staff but said, generally, the information he requested was needed to “weed out unnecessary programs that embrace divisive and misleading concepts like DEI.”

When Laura Heffernan, a professor of English at UNF who served on a DEI faculty committee, learned that some of her emails had been searched and would be sent to the state Legislature, she tweeted about it. Instantly, Heffernan said, trolls descended, barraging her with anti-Semitic and misogynistic messages.

“This is intimidation,” she said.

Now, Heffernan said she is worried that activists will comb through faculty emails looking to cherry-pick messages out of context.

It’s unclear who has access to the records Renner requested. The information — which includes email exchanges between staff and enough private information that the state estimated it would cost more than $20,000 to redact and share it with the Miami Herald — is hardly secure. UF’s batch of records, for example, was sent to the Board of Governors through an unsecured Dropbox linked in an email to every faculty member.

“I have nothing to hide,” Heffernan said. “But I don’t want to become the face of any resistance movement.”

Faculty across the state say harassment and doxing are a growing threat as online activists target teachers they believe to be too progressive.

Amanda Phalin, who teaches international business at UF, said statements she made as Faculty Senate president supporting diversity initiatives and transgender rights were shared by conservative Twitter accounts — along with screenshots of her contact information and office address. A man in sunglasses then came into a lecture being given by one of her graduate students and started recording. Phalin informed police but never learned who the man was.

“People need to understand that there have been some really dangerous behaviors that have been unleashed,” Phalin said. “These things started occurring after the requests from the governor and the speaker of the House.”


Conservatives are a minority on most college campuses. Only about 30% of college–aged Floridians are Republicans, according to data from the Pew Research Center. And for years, Republicans have reported feeling like education had a left-leaning slant, another Pew study shows.

But the idea that DEI offices or critical race theory might be specifically to blame for that feeling of discontent is a much more recent development.

Just a few years ago, almost no one outside of law school had heard of critical race theory, a niche academic framework for considering the role of race and racism in the United States. But in 2019 The New York Times published The 1619 Project, which aimed to “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” The backlash against CRT was almost immediate, and amid the outcry conservative activist Christopher Rufo launched an effort to redefine the term as a catch-all to be used as a right-wing rallying cry.

“The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory,’ ” Rufo tweeted in March 2021. “We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

Mentions of CRT exploded first on conservative talk shows where Rufo made numerous appearances and then on more liberal programs. Now, university professors who teach the subject say Rufo’s plan worked and that CRT has become a “boogeyman.”

“CRT is the new dog whistle in American politics,” said David Canton, an associate professor of history at UF and director of the school’s African-American Studies Program. “It has been weaponized against African Americans who want to talk about institutional racism being a problem in America.”

The point, Canton argued, “is to galvanize voters on the right.”

Rufo, who has been appointed to the New College board of trustees, recently took aim at DEI offices on the grounds that they were a wasteful “threat to academic freedom and academic integrity.”

The logic was taken further last week during a roundtable titled “Exposing the DEI Scam,” in which DeSantis joined Rufo and a group of their political allies to take shots at the concept of diversity more generally, calling it “basically a scam.”

“It sounds very harmless to say you want diversity, like diversity of viewpoints,” said DeSantis. But, he said, in reality the opposite is true. “I think it’s been used in the administrative apparatus of universities to try to impose not diversity of thought, but uniformity of thought.”

That framing has been adopted by some students who report feeling alienated for having unpopular political views. A Black law school student told DeSantis’ panel that he had been mocked by fellow student government members when they learned he was a Republican. And in response to a survey by the student government at UNF one student reported feeling “like a villain everyday I come to school,” as a result of DEI initiatives.

But the UNF survey showed far more students said they supported DEI initiatives and other campus programs like the Interfaith Center, Women’s Center and LGBTQ Center, which could be on the chopping block if bans are enacted.

“As a religious minority, it’s important I have a means of being able to pray while I am on campus,” one respondent wrote in the short answer section. “Having a prayer room has never indoctrinated anyone.”

The survey, which was reviewed by the Herald, got 900 total responses. The vast majority of respondents rejected the idea that the campus programs were “discriminatory,” as DeSantis has suggested. Similarly, most who took the classes targeted by DeSantis did not feel the content indoctrinated students.

Zac Juan, a sophomore at UF studying computer science, said critical race theory has become a “silly nonsensical buzzword” used by politicians to rile up their political base about a problem he doesn’t think exists.

“Never once have I felt indoctrinated whatsoever by a professor,” Juan said. “Even when I’m taking classes like that — that would talk about things like critical race theory — I never feel like it’s indoctrination. I feel like it’s just an open environment for discussion.”

As someone born and raised in Florida, Juan said he is worried that the repressive political environment will cause the state to hemorrhage talent, especially young people. Despite the harsh critique from DeSantis, who has degrees from Harvard and Yale, UF is now one of the top five public universities in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report. Ten years ago, it ranked 19th.

“My biggest concern is always people like getting scared away from Florida because of all this stuff,” Juan said. “I hear people a lot of the time now, saying, ‘As soon as I’m done with college, I’m moving away.’ And that just makes it worse.”


Each state action sparked an opposing reaction on campus, although in the face of unprecedented uncertainty, defiance has taken many forms.

Carrying a sign that read “Black History Matters,” Pearson, the lawyer who teaches criminal justice, joined hundreds of FIU students who walked out of class last month in protest of the governor’s agenda. On Tuesday, the FIU Faculty Senate voted to adopt a resolution condemning HB999, saying the proposed bill “cheats our students out of an education that gives them a chance to become agile workers, critical thinkers, and citizens who value free inquiry.” Only one of the dozens of senators voted against the proposal.

As UF Faculty Senate chair, Phalin made public statements supporting DEI, CRT and transgender healthcare. Sitharm slapped the university with a cease-and-desist order from the union, claiming the implementation of new policies violated the union’s collective bargaining agreement and faculty’s constitutional protections. Dunn, the Miami historian, was a party to the lawsuit that resulted in the injunction on Stop WOKE law. Leslie Lieberman, a retired professor who was a guest speaker for Florida Polytechnic’s science event for girls, said she plans to write her former employer, the University of Central Florida, out of her will.

“I cannot support an institution that does not support diversity and free speech,” Lieberman said. “If more people would be willing to do that, I think that might have an impact.”

Anna Peterson, a professor of ethics, religion and politics at UF, said that although critical race theory had not previously been on her syllabus, she recently started teaching it after media attention piqued her students’ interest.

“There are ways to talk about these things that aren’t indoctrination,” she said. “I can talk about the history of the Ku Klux Klan without encouraging students to join it.”

In Florida universities, Sitharm said, the act of exercising the right to academic freedom that many once took for granted has become an “act of protest.”

And for many without tenure, who teach in areas like gender studies or Black history or sit on DEI committees, simply continuing to show up to work is a form of rebellion.

(Ana Ceballos of the Miami Herald’s Tallahassee bureau and McClatchy’s Susan Merriam contributed to this report.)

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