A growing number of higher education institutions now offer degree programs in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)—and for good reason.
Numerous studies show that companies with diverse, equitable, and inclusive cultures outperform their counterparts, not just in revenue generation but in more human aspects of business, such as employee morale, team performance, problem-solving, talent retention, and access to a broader range of skills.
Recognizing these competitive advantages, many businesses seek to hire educated professionals in this area, with roles ranging from chief diversity officers to directors of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. However, some politicians are working to legislatively eliminate the DEI-based degree programs preparing in-demand DEI experts for the job.
In late January, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced plans to prevent Florida’s university system from using any funding to support programs centered on diversity, equity, and inclusion or critical race theory. In February, he replaced six of the 13 members on the New College of Florida’s board of trustees, who voted in March to eliminate DEI programs. Legislation impacting DEI funding has not yet become law as in mid-March, a federal appeals court denied Florida’s request to enforce bans on diversity programs pending appeal.
Other colleges and universities face similar proposals. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s DEI Legislation Tracker, states nationwide have introduced 25 bills that would curb DEI offices and staff, diversity statements, mandated DEI training, and identify-based hiring and admissions preferences.
Students are taking a stand. In early March, some 300 students at the New College of Florida in Sarasota gathered to protest the recent board of trustees overhauls and plans to eliminate funding for DEI programs. At the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Students for a Democratic Society led an on-campus protest denouncing “state attacks on academic and free speech.”
“This is beyond just an attack on education,” Lissie Morales, president of the chapter, told News4JAX. “It is an active assault on programs that students, campus workers, and faculty fought bitterly to establish throughout the 60s and beyond.”
On February 23, students in Florida held a statewide campus walkout known as “Stand for Freedom” to protest attacks on college DEI programs, requests for health records of transgender faculty and students, and the changes at the New College of Florida.
The Role of the College Union in Supporting Student Activists
ACUI believes that college unions “serve as the heart of the campus community and create a welcoming environment by advocating for inclusivity and equity, fostering respect, and affirming the identities of all individuals,” among other actions.
As students nationwide grapple with legislative attacks on higher education DEI initiatives, college unions can support student activists by reinforcing their role as spaces for belonging and social justice. Such support is important considering the toll student activism can take on participants.
In a 2019 article in The Review of Higher Education, researchers indicated that student activists with minoritized identities often face burnout, exhaustion, compassion fatigue, and racial battle fatigue, negatively affecting their engagement in educationally beneficial experiences. The authors argued that student affairs educators—who are better able to create equitable learning environments and address issues of oppression, privilege, and power—should instead take on these responsibilities.
In a 2022 speech before the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco, published in the Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal, ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Emerson Sykes commented that “there are many places where your presence can be a form of protest.”
“Just being in the faculty room, in a department meeting, in class, in a student group, just existing in those spaces can be its own form of activism,” Sykes states. “So, I just want to name the fact that there’s a time for raising fists and pulling out bullhorns, and I know that that’s been done in San Francisco time and time again to great effect, but there are also times when just being there says it all.”
By serving as such a space in a time when DEI initiatives are under attack, student unions can relieve pressure on student activists and provide emotional support while still ensuring their voices are heard.
Here are some things to consider:
- Provide forums for positive, outcome-based discourse. Encourage students to share their concerns, investigate the issue, and have meaningful conversations. ACUI recommends checking out the DEI Series: Putting the ‘Civil’ Back in ‘Civil Discourse’ and referencing these 11 Tips for Productive Dialogue and Sustained Activism. See racialequitytools.org for free and accessible resources on systemic racism, power, and privilege.
- Do the research so students don’t have to. Make it easier for students who want to get involved to regularly identify avenues for activism. Provide spaces where students may share information on local volunteer activism opportunities, petitions, advocacy campaigns, social media efforts, and boycotts.
- Help students reach out to local and state governments and legislators. Disseminate information on how to contact elected leaders using the resources at www.usa.gov/elected-officials.
- Protest with your pocketbook. Supporting minority-owned businesses and organizations working toward racial justice when making student union purchases—and involving students in the decision-making process—is a simple and easy way to put power back in the hands of students.
- Don’t forget to support student affairs graduate assistants, who are often put in the position of social justice advocates—or gradvocates. “Talking through different scenarios and even role-playing the dialogue are strategies supervisors of graduate assistants can use in training or ongoing development settings with students,” authors of a 2018 Bulletin article on the subject recommend.