Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to a panelist during a roundtable discussion critical of diversity, equity and inclusion programs at state universities on Monday, March 13, 2023. The session was livestreamed on several online platforms. [ Rumble ]

Gov. Ron DeSantis led a roundtable discussion on Monday that portrayed Florida’s public universities as a system of schools that had lowered its standards and was gripped by an “ideology” that based advancement on race instead of merit.

The mid-morning discussion occurred as a wide-ranging bill to change higher education was due to be debated for the first time later in the day by state lawmakers. The measure, House Bill 999, includes a provision that would end funding for diversity, equity and inclusion programs at state colleges and universities.

The roundtable opened with a video mashup of clips from Fox News and the conservative website Campus Reform among others that were designed to illustrate what the governor and his panelists later called a “pernicious” ideology. The presentation showed students attacked for questioning “transgenderism” and being required to take courses in New York on racial equity. It included clips of diversity “bureaucrats” in Michigan said to be making millions and an English professor at Florida International University using the term “Latinx” instead of Latino or Latina.

It also presented findings from Chris Rufo, a conservative activist who has helped shape some of Florida’s education policies and was appointed by DeSantis to the New College Board of Trustees. Rufo has taken to Twitter in recent weeks, citing public documents to deride diversity, equity and inclusion programs at a number of Florida universities.

For example, he has called out an endocrinology program at the University of Florida that offers gender-affirming care and a social justice badge program at Florida International University.

Also during the roundtable, DeSantis accused universities of underreporting what they spend on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in response to a request from his budget office. Together, the universities said they spend about $35 million on such programs, but the governor said he believed it was “significantly higher.”

He said universities were right aim for diversity and “making sure that people from different walks of life are able to participate. But he added: “I think it’s been used in the administrative apparatus of universities to try to impose not diversity of thought, but to try to impose uniformity of thought. And instead of inclusion, the people that dissent from this orthodoxy are actually excluded and marginalized.”

Joined by nine panelists, DeSantis worked to show that diversity initiatives were “indoctrinating” students and lowering standards. The group included Rufo; New College board of trustees chairperson Debra Jenks; Scott Yenor, a fellow at the conservative Claremont Institute; conservative analyst Carrie Sheffield; Florida International University trustee chair Rogelio (Roger) Tovar; State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues; education commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr.; and two students from Florida State University and the University of South Florida.

Rodrigues and DeSantis acknowledged that Florida implemented diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives across the university system in the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. But while the intentions were good, they said, the results were not.

With the “passage of time” came a “new perspective” and “a clear recognition that a course correction is intended,” DeSantis said.

The push for diversity, equity and inclusion has “become a means to advocate a political ideology of the left,” Rodrigues said, “and it has ignored merit and instead sought to provide equal outcomes, not based on the merit of the individual or the work, but instead on their physical characteristics, which is exclusionary, not inclusive.”

Panel member Aleyda “Ally” Matamoros, an engineering student at the University of South Florida, said she experienced rejection from student groups because of her conservative views.

The governor asked her how she felt diversity initiatives were impacting the quality of her education. Matamoros said she didn’t think it helped. She said her engineering professors often tell students that one calculation mistake could cost hundreds of lives.

“I feel like moving away from merit-based systems and focusing solely on the superficial and the fact that we need to have diversity, you’re opening up the fact that more of these mistakes can happen…. and it could lead to a lot of dangerous things down the road,” Matamoros said.

At the first hearing on House Bill 999, where 150 people had signed up to speak, bill sponsor Alex Andrade faced a series of pointed questions from four House Democrats. At the core of their concerns was removing curriculum related to critical race theory, gender studies and diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

Christine Andrews-Larson, a professor at Florida State University, said provisions concerning spending on diversity could preclude Florida universities from eligibility for major research grants. At FSU, that could mean returning 30 to 50 percent of their grants, she said.

Andrew Gothard, chair of the statewide faculty union, said he spoke on behalf of faculty, and asked the committee to vote the bill down.

“You can vote for freedom or you can vote for fascism,” he said.

Divya Kumar is a higher education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.