State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues answers questions from Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) during a legislative subcommittee meeting. [ Photo courtesy of Florida Channel ]

A day after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Florida universities would make it easier for Jewish students fearing antisemitism on campuses across the country to transfer, state university system chancellor Ray Rodrigues said the state’s emergency order applies to all fearing religious prosecution.

His remarks followed DeSantis’ State of the State speech on Tuesday, in which the governor offered Florida as a haven for Jewish students who feel threatened by antisemitism as fighting continues in Gaza between Israel and Hamas.

DeSantis announced a series of accommodations for Jewish students at Florida universities, including a relaxation of some entrance requirements and, in some cases, the ability to pay in-state tuition.

During Wednesday’sHouse Postsecondary Education and Workforce subcommittee meeting, state Rep. Anna Eskamani asked Rodrigues how the new rule fits in with Florida’s efforts to end diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

“I think it is a wonderful intention,” the Orlando Democrat said. But she questioned how it would be allowed under new proposed state rules saying “we cannot promote differential or preferential treatment of individuals on the basis of these different classifications?”

Rodrigues said attorneys for the Board of Governors overseeing the university system, the governor’s office and the Department of Education approved the emergency order that DeSantis described.

“What I would concede is, yes, if it was purely for those students who were Jewish students wishing to transfer into Florida, it would appear to violate the regulation, as it’s been drafted, and it’s pending approval,” Rodrigues said.

But, he said, Jewish students are not the only ones who will benefit.

The emergency order, he said, is “specific to those who are who are fleeing religious persecution, which not only includes our Jewish students, but any student that’s seeing religious persecution as a result of what we’ve seen after Oct. 7.”

The document says the university system recognizes the dangers students have faced in the months since Oct. 7, and that some wish to transfer to a Florida schools to “escape a reasonable fear of antisemitic or other religious discrimination.”

But in other sections of the order, and in a written announcement DeSantis’ office issued on Tuesday, the writing is almost entirely about the Jewish community.

The order describes an increase in troubling incidents across the nation and a high percentage of Jewish college students surveyed who said they have experienced or witnessed antisemitism since the beginning of the 2023-24 school year. It also noted the State University System of Florida has donated medical equipment to assist Israeli hospitals.

DeSantis referred only to Jewish students in his State of the State address.

The order says that any student wishing to transfer needs to demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of religion.”

The Board of Governors will vote later this month on the policy related to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, which would define preferential treatment.

The measure became a hot-button issue after DeSantis last year vowed to purge universities of diversity initiatives, calling them a poor use of tax dollars. Calls from conservative activists around the country bolstered his case.

The policy the board will vote on is the result of Senate Bill 266, which passed during the 2023 legislative session. It attempts to prohibit university spending that would “advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion” or “promote or engage in political or social activism,” and define parameters for discussing social issues.

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.