Florida’s Board of Education recently banned all 28 Florida College System campuses from using federal funds for efforts related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. This decision made good on the terms of a controversial bill, which the state’s Republican-led legislature approved and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in May 2023.

In a statement on the board’s decision, Florida’s Commissioner of Higher Education Manny Diaz said “Higher education must return to its essential foundations of academic integrity and the pursuit of knowledge instead of being corrupted by destructive ideologies.”

Last June, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a similar bill that bans colleges from spending federal funds on DEI practices and programs not under the state’s constitutional equality laws.

Rules that aim to curb the funding of DEI in higher education have been sweeping yet vague, leading experts on the subject to question their legitimacy and forsee heightened effects they can potentially impose on HBCUs. 

The DEI practices of historically Black colleges and universities, institutions whose origins were aimed to serve minorities, won’t be graded on a curve. This means that even though historically Black colleges and universities were founded to diversify opportunities in higher education, these institutions would still have to omit from spending federal money on DEI. 

Open Campus spoke with Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education about anti-DEI legislation and Florida’s recent actions.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Credit: Paulette Granberry Russell

Open Campus: Is this a trend?

Paulette Granberry Russell: I think that a trend is clear, particularly by the architects of both the model legislation and the targeting of specific areas being challenged. Whether that is admissions or what they regard as “preferential treatment,” the (U.S.) Supreme Court all but eliminating the race-conscious approaches to admissions, getting rid of mandatory diversity training and diversity statements. The Supreme Court has helped to develop model legislation that is being utilized. Because, if you take a look at the various bills that have been introduced and those that have passed, they’re very similar in nature.

Many of those environments are dominated by one political group. I don’t think that they have produced any compelling evidence that our campuses are engaged in indoctrination discrimination or exclusion … Reading straight from their regulations, they don’t necessarily put any parameters around what we mean by federal funds to promote support or maintain programs. Some of these programs have existed on college campuses for over 30 years, and access to those funds historically has been used to address racial discrimination, some of which were sanctioned by law. There may be some shifts in the goals. But if you compare, for example, Florida and Texas, you’ll see things that are in common.

Is there any ambiguity regarding what could be considered DEI?

How are we defining diversity? Or how are we defining equity? Do you mean that those federal funds are intended to support students who have come out of marginalized communities and meet the definition of disadvantaged? Would this be considered a diversity, equity, and inclusion question?

Can you use federal funds, on grants … intended to support increasing diversity in areas like health care, or aid that is intended to increase participation in health equity support programs?

What does Diaz mean by “essential foundations” of academics?

That somehow being inclusive — which requires some intentional efforts to increase diversity on our campus and create more equitable environments and outcomes — is somehow unessential. That it should not be the business of higher education. Clearly,([that) is not how I think. Much of higher education defines both its mission and its values.  The essential foundation of education didn’t include women or people of color. 

Moving forward, how might HBCUs have to navigate DEI bans differently from PWIs?

They don’t carve out HBCUs, who are also recipients of state and federal funding and are governed in the same way and expected to live within the constraints of the law. Can we have Black History Month, can we talk about what it means for faculty to teach a diverse classroom? Or things they can better understand about the lived experiences of Black Americans or veterans? 

What do you foresee given decisions like the one recently made by theFlorida Board of Education?

The broader population is unfortunately unaware of the breadth of the impact of decisions like this. Those in opposition to DEI in higher-ed strategically carved out veterans, persons with disabilities, and student organizations. So what are we left with? We’re left with race, ethnicity,  gender, and individuals who identify within the LGBTQ. If you think about the progress that has been made concerning those communities, this effort of somehow going back to an essential foundation of education or the essential foundation of this country both of which didn’t include women, it didn’t include folks of color. It certainly didn’t include members of the LGBTQ community. 

Richard is a senior journalism student at Florida A&M University.