Let’s take back the HE narrative from people like DeSantis

On 31 January 2023, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced his plan to stop state universities from offering diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programmes as well as any teaching related to critical race theory (CRT). A possible 2024 presidential candidate, DeSantis is hanging his hat on fierce opposition to DEI initiatives as well as attacks on what he refers to as “woke” policies on college and university campuses.

DEI programmes at colleges and universities are aimed at ensuring that students, faculty and staff understand the vast differences that exist on college campuses and that respect for these differences is at the forefront of campus constituents’ minds.

CRT, a theory developed by legal scholars in the 1970s and ’80s, is a framework for examining history. It views United States history through the lens of systemic racism. CRT is typically taught in law schools, but has also been adopted by education scholars and is taught in some graduate programmes focused on education. CRT is not taught at the K-12 level and is rarely offered to students at the undergraduate college level.

The ‘raising standards’ argument

According to a statement from DeSantis’ office, the governor aims to “raise the standards of learning and civil discourse” at the state’s public universities. Moreover, he is focused on “prohibiting higher education institutions from using any funding, regardless of source, to support DEI, CRT and other discriminatory initiatives”.

Given that DeSantis appoints the board members of Florida’s public colleges and universities, he has the power to stack these boards with people who agree with his policies. These board members, likewise, have the power to appoint presidential leaders who support these same policies.

DeSantis is not on his own in this attack on DEI efforts and CRT. According to a 2021 study by Education Week, roughly 25 states have passed or are considering laws to limit how race and racism are taught in both the college and K-12 settings. In fact, the teaching of CRT has been banned in eight Republican-led states.

Moreover, states are threatening to penalise public colleges and universities because of faculty members’ comments on or research about issues such as gun control, sexual orientation, stem cells and police brutality against black citizens.

Is there an answer to these attacks on academic freedom within the college environment? I think there is, but no one is going to be 100% happy with it. Both the left and the right must be open to ideas being discussed within the college and university setting that they disagree with and even despise.

A marketplace of ideas

According to the courts, colleges and universities are supposed to be the marketplace of ideas – a place where students and faculty can explore any and all ideas on the path to acquiring and enhancing their knowledge. If we are honest, we know that on both sides of the political aisle, we want to limit speech we disagree with and we both think we are right in doing so.

I, personally, have strong opinions (based on considerable evidence) about various issues – and yes, I’d love for people to see things my way, but that’s not what happens in an environment that aims to respect academic freedom and a country with a commitment to freedom of speech in the Constitution. We regularly hear ideas and words we disagree with, and we can’t control the thinking – or for that matter the speech – of others, no matter how vile we consider it.

Of course, hate speech – abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice or incites hatred towards a class of people based on religion, race, skin colour, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, ability or national origin – exists and has consequences. However, this type of speech is often protected by the courts as they typically rule that speech cannot be punished based on its content or expressed viewpoint.

Ironically, the presence of hate speech is clear evidence that we need DEI training in colleges and universities (and everywhere else) – so that everyone understands how our speech can hurt others, and so we can, perhaps, reconsider our perspectives.

As those on the right and left fight over what can be taught, discussed and researched within the college and university environment, it is inevitable that these issues will end up in the courts, and possibly at the Supreme Court level. Students of all political persuasions will file lawsuits claiming that their constitutional right of free speech has been violated.

Faculty could file lawsuits claiming that their free speech rights are being trampled on as they are forbidden from teaching about race, DEI issues or CRT. Citizens might file lawsuits against states for supporting DEI-related curricula or co-curricular programming with state funds. Students might file lawsuits claiming that a campus without attention to DEI issues results in a hostile learning environment for them.

Being open to questioning

I fiercely believe in providing students (and others) with DEI training and infusing issues related to DEI in classes so that students learn more about each other and respect each other more fully. As a historian, I am also fully aware of how systemic racism (as CRT explains) has shaped our institutions, laws, commerce, education systems and nearly everything else in the United States. However, I am open to people questioning my perspectives, evidence and ideas.

Is it frustrating that people don’t see the benefits of DEI education, or the ways that systemic racism limits opportunity for people of colour? Yes! Regardless, as a faculty member, I think it is my role to present many perspectives in my classes and teach students to think critically instead of what to think.

Most faculty I know across a wide spectrum of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, political views and country of origin feel similarly. As faculty and higher education leaders, we need to communicate to the general population how we teach and how we ensure that students learn about and engage with a variety of perspectives.

It’s time to take back the narrative about higher education from people like Ron DeSantis.

Marybeth Gasman is the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Endowed Chair and a distinguished professor at Rutgers University, United States. She also serves as the chair of the Rutgers University-New Brunswick Faculty Council and is author of Doing the Right Thing: How colleges and universities can undo systemic racism in faculty hiring (Princeton University Press, 2022).