Yoleidy Rosario-Hernandez was just seven months into a job as chief diversity officer at the New College of Florida when the news came: The board of trustees announced it was dissolving the diversity, equity and inclusion office.
The news, which came in February, disappointed Rosario-Hernandez, who spent those seven months busy – helping students with things like counseling resources and financial literacy, while also advising the school’s former president and assisting with recruitment efforts. (A New College spokesperson told CNN in a statement that the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence was abolished and the position was no longer necessary.)
The situation at New College, which also did not renew the contract of its only US history professor last month, isn’t unique. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill banning public colleges and universities from spending money on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in May. And similar moves are happening across the country.
More than a dozen state legislatures have introduced or passed bills reining in DEI programs in colleges and universities, claiming the offices eat up valuable financial resources with little impact.
Multiple states, like North Carolina and South Carolina, have introduced bills to track college DEI spending. In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin banned the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts” in public schools, and has spoken out against equity initiatives throughout his time in office. In Ohio, a controversial bill that would, among other things, abolish diversity training requirements at public colleges, is also steadily moving through the state’s legislative system.
Even as the academic year draws to a close, these fights against diversity, equity and inclusion are set to continue. And, to some, the future of public higher education is on the line.
Conservatives argue DEI is about indoctrination
Scrutiny of DEI initiatives isn’t new — nor is it necessarily partisan.
Conservative lawmakers have for years claimed DEI efforts are a form of indoctrination. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump called racial sensitivity trainings “anti-American propaganda” and issued an executive order banning such trainings for federal agencies, a move watchdogs noted as a pre-election overture to his base.
On the other side of the political spectrum, there has also been critique: questioning the efficacy of tools like mandatory workplace training videos.
Still, many DEI initiatives have been credited as beneficial. Studies have shown that college students exposed to more diversity have greater levels of cultural awareness and political participation. Meanwhile, scholars credit DEI policies and programs as one way to combat inequality by encouraging multiculturalism and providing resources for people of different backgrounds.
Dozens of activists stage a sit-in outside the office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' office on May 3, the same day Florida Republicans approved bills banning diversity programs in colleges, as well as preventing students and teachers from being required to use pronouns that don't correspond to someone's biological sex.
Yet scrutiny of these initiatives’ place in colleges and universities has mounted, largely from conservative lawmakers. DEI has become akin to terms like “critical race theory,” part of a larger talking point asserting that DEI indoctrinates students and is even a form of employee discrimination, when considered in hiring practices.
“(DEI) has been perverted from the original concept,” said Edwin Feulner, founder of conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. “Instead, it’s become almost an accusation of incipient racism.”
Feulner is also the chairman of the Virginia Commission on Higher Education Board, a governor advisory board that evaluates appointments to the governing bodies of the state’s public colleges and universities.
And he’s already said that reining in diversity, equity and inclusion is a priority in his role on the board. The money spent on DEI programs, he told CNN, could instead be spent on student aid.
But large swaths of students and faculty seem to be against these moves.
In Ohio, for example, the state legislature has pushed forward a bill that not only bans diversity trainings and mandates, but also university partnerships with China and the promotion of any “controversial belief or policy” spanning from “diversity” to “climate policies” and “marriage.”
Ohio state Sen. Jerry Cirino, the bill’s sponsor, did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment. But in a statement posted online, Cirino said the bill is meant to ensure free expression “on campus and in the classroom.”
“Critics say the bill promotes censorship — they have it exactly backwards,” he wrote. “This bill will allow students to exercise their right to free speech without threat of reprisal by professors or administrators. It will permit the marketplace of ideas to flourish, which is the ideal environment for any educational institution.”
The Inter-University Council of Ohio — which represents all 14 of the state’s public universities — has expressed concern over the bill, specifically criticizing its vagueness, government overreach, and underappreciation of DEI, calling the latter “one of the most potentially important parts of the bill.”
“Data shows, DEI efforts help create an academic community that generates a higher enrollment rate, matriculation rate, and eventual success rate. DEI is for students with disabilities, veterans with PTSD, minority students, and students who are New Americans who may need extra help due to language or cultural barriers,” the IUC said in a statement. “DEI helps more students achieve the American Dream of success via a college education.”
Students, faculty, and community members alike have expressed disapproval over the ban in Florida.
Some students are also concerned about the progression of such bills.
In North Carolina, state legislators recently requested an overview of documents related to DEI training from all colleges in the University of North Carolina system. They have also pushed bills aimed at DEI mandates in hiring, as well as restricting the teaching of racism in public schools.
“This is about indoctrination training,” said state Sen. Warren Daniel, the sponsor of the bill limiting DEI mandates.
Andrew Gary, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he is concerned about the recent pushes both in his state and across the country.
“They want to be able to restrict professors’ ability to present information to their classes,” Gary said. “There’s basically a push against perceived liberal bias.”
In Gary’s experience, professors and classes are not pushing a political agenda. The overreach by politicians seems misguided, he said.
“I, at least personally, would rather have academic departments determine what our professors should be teaching us, than state legislatures who are not experts in those subjects,” he said.
CNN reached out to Leah Cox, chief diversity officer at UNC-Chapel Hill, for comment. A spokesperson declined on her behalf.
Others have argued that DEI initiatives in colleges actually deserve more investment, not less.
Arianny Mercedes, who just graduated from the University of Virginia, said UVA doesn’t invest enough in DEI – despite what the state’s conservative leaders have said. In her experience, institutions are already not equipped to provide for a diverse student body. Limiting DEI further will only exacerbate the issue.
“The lack of DEI — whether that be from race, socioeconomic status, lived experiences — really becomes a problem,” she said.
The Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at UVA did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
What this means for colleges and universities
Despite opposition to anti-DEI legislation, such bills continue to be introduced.
And the motivation has seemingly little to do with higher education, said Kenneth Meier, a distinguished scholar at American University who has researched public policy and higher education. Instead, he said, it’s purely political.
Higher education isn’t a high priority issue in most states, Meier explained — funding has decreased dramatically over the years, and it’s still not necessarily a huge budget item. Still, he said it makes sense that it has become a strategy for the Republican party as an issue to rally behind.
“It allows you to focus on a group of people that are probably perceived as privileged in some way and isolate on that,” he said. “It’s unusual I would guess for higher education to be grouped in with immigrants and others we want to demonize, but I think it’s all part of the process.”
But DEI initiatives have “almost no impact” on what’s being taught in the classroom, Meier said. What’s being taught is defined by professors.
A view of the campus of New College of Florida in Sarasota.
Sure, there are instructions concerning classroom atmosphere — tolerating divergent viewpoints, cultivating all sides of an issue, and keeping conversations civil, he said. None of those concepts are new.
So what do these bills actually mean for public colleges and universities?
The idea of consolidating DEI into a single office is relatively recent, Meier said. If diversity and equity staff and programs are rolled back, that work will likely just get reassigned, he said, to department chairs, hiring committees or college deans.
Meier spent 20 years teaching in Texas, he said – a state that has also recently inched closer to a ban on DEI offices in its colleges.
But in Texas, policy dictates that public universities must serve the entire state, and student bodies should resemble the population of Texas, Meier said. Whether there’s a DEI office or not, that work must be done.
“The duties simply shift to somebody else to make sure this happens,” Meier said.
Still, many are concerned, viewing the pushback against diversity programs and initiatives — coupled with attacks on issues like reproductive rights — as another battle in an ongoing culture war. The real impact of restricting DEI programs isn’t just in higher education, Rosario-Hernandez said, it’s a signal of the larger regression of civil rights.
“It’s very fearsome to hear some of the rhetoric from our state leadership and the Board of Trustees in support of ending diversity, equity and inclusion,” Rosario-Hernandez said. “Because behind that, in my opinion, is a White nationalist rhetoric of racism, of homophobia, that’s really looking at establishing White men in the place of power versus really thinking about the community and what people really need.”
The true domino effect of these bills is still to be determined. But one possible outcome, Rosario-Hernandez noted, could be the division between more conservative states and more progressive states in terms of who can access higher education. If some schools are paying more attention to DEI initiatives and more publicly working toward fostering an inclusive environment, that could affect where some students choose to attend college.
Fewer and fewer students are choosing to even enroll in college in recent years, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
That means competition for good students will only get steeper, Meier said. And applicants may be wary of schools in states with DEI restrictions.
“If I were advising Ron DeSantis,” he said, “I would suggest, students are probably going to react the same way Disney reacted.”
Which means they are not, he said, going to be happy.