Opinion: Anti-diversity rage explodes in our schools

Photo/Octavio Jones/The New York Times / Students walk on the campus at New College of Florida in Sarasota, on Feb. 3, 2023. Gov. Ron DeSantis has removed six of the schools 13 trustees, replacing them with allies holding strongly conservative views.

The graduation ceremony at the Florida liberal arts New College was filled with boos, jeers and chants from the students. Not what you'd expect from graduates, but for months, Gov. Ron DeSantis, in a Disney-like move, had forced a government takeover of the college. He replaced half of the Board of Trustees with conservative allies who suppressed educational programs that included diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) along with gender exploration and expression. I knew that DeSantis wasn't alone in his crusade, yet I underestimated how many states are proposing anti-DEI bills and where those bill are headed.

More than 20 states have proposed anti-DEI bills or begun drafting bills that restrict, defund or ban DEI initiatives. I received a list of those states from "BestColleges," an organization that provides students with direct connections to schools and programs suited to their educational goals. The list of states is probably not surprising in its focus on Middle America and the South. It includes: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana Ohio, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and, yes, Tennessee.

Some states are attempting make sure that students aren't exposed to "divisive concepts" related to race, sex or religion. That's how Alabama expresses its attempts to prohibit, endorse or require affirmation of DEI. In Arizona, no public funds can be used on DEI programming or establishing a DEI office in colleges. The Arkansas bill says it would supposedly "end state-sponsored discrimination" by prohibiting state and local government agencies, including public universities, from using affirmative action programs. The bill didn't pass, but it has been recommended for study by an interim committee.

The story behind Florida's legislation demonstrates what's happening in our culture wars. The first version of its anti-DEI bill prohibited funding of the promotion, support or maintenance of DEI programs, and prohibited the offering of any general education course that "teaches identity politics, or is based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States." Then, in April, a second version removed all language referencing DEI because of concerns over loss of accreditation. By May, the politics had changed, and there was an intensification of anti-DEI efforts. When a third version containing all of the original anti-DEI language was re-introduced, it passed immediately.

Here in Tennessee, a 2022 state law banned teaching "divisive concepts" that created feelings of "... discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual's race or sex." More recently, Tennessee passed a bill allowing students and employees to report professors who teach "divisive concepts."

The movement to short-circuit DEI in education is not new, but we're seeing an increased intensity with efforts to punish and even criminalize such teachings. And as the presidential campaign gets underway, we're apt to see the issue not just intensify but explode. It's already exploded into the private sector as conservative parents sue private schools for "indoctrinating" their kids. Myra McGovern, a spokesperson for the National Association of Independent Schools, says, "Every school across America ... is dealing with this increased polarization."

This is a battle for the minds of our youth, and I applaud the students at Florida's New College who made their views so clear. They would not willingly be silenced. I hope more students stand up similarly. The next generations must take control of their future — and that of our country.

Contact Deborah Levine, an author, trainer/coach and editor of the American Diversity Report, at deborah@diversityreport.com.