Some faculty, students consider leaving state due to DEI legislation

Assistant professor Kyaien Conner said she made the decision to leave the state partly because of the current political and social environment surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion and higher education institutions. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

When assistant professor Kyaien Conner was offered a position to be the director for a Center on Race and Social Problems as well as the Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in an out-of-state university, she said knowing she’d probably never be offered the same position in Florida solidified her decision to leave the state. 

“I do love Florida. My family is here. I have great colleagues at the University of South Florida and I’ve been successful at USF and have achieved tenure and have multiple, very large grants,” Conner said. 

“I think it was the recognition that what I was being offered at the University of Pittsburgh is something that fundamentally right now I would not be able to do at the University of South Florida. I would not be able to get funding from the university to have a center on race and social problems. I would likely not be able to be an Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.”

She said with legislation targeting DEI and critical theory –such as House Bill (H.B.) 999 and its companion Senate Bill 266 – it would be hard for her to continue the work she is passionate about. Conner, who also serves as the Chair of the Faculty Senate’s Racial Justice Council, said she needs an environment where politics don’t dictate the ways she can conduct her work. 

“For me, for my mental health, but also for me to be able to continue to do the work that I am passionate about, it was the best decision for me to take that offer and to move my program of work to the University of Pittsburgh,” she said.

Under H.B. 999, Florida state universities would be required to remove majors and minors which are related to critical race theory, queer theory, intersectionality and radical gender theory, according to the Florida Senate

The bill would also prohibit universities from expending funds into DEI and institute post-tenure review for faculty every five years or at any time with cause – such as insubordination, misconduct and violations of laws and rules. 

As a result of legislation targeting DEI and critical theory, Conner said there will likely be an exodus of people leaving the state, attesting that many of her colleagues are currently on the job market or have already accepted offers to leave the university.

For faculty in the STEM fields, the legislation will also pose a challenge, according to psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor Jerri Edwards. She said as a consequence of the bills, obtaining external funding will become difficult as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) consider the “environment” when scoring grants. 

Edwards’ own NIH funding is contingent on maintaining positive relationships with minority communities so they are able to engage in research, according to her. In order to be successful, Edwards said she has considered leaving the university if the legislation were to be implemented as she needs to be in a university which promotes DEI and faculty success. 

“Merely the consideration of this legislation is hurting our reputation and likely how our grants will be scored on the environment,” Edwards said. 

Conner said losing research faculty will impact students as well, as they will miss out on an opportunity to have mentor-mentee relationships. With Florida’s reputation being hurt on the world stage, she said she foresees a huge loss in “people capital, social capital but also financial capital.”

The bill also stands to have an impact on the courses and curriculum offered in universities, according to Conner, but this could then affect accreditations. This is a possibility in the case of the School of Public Health, where DEI curriculum plays a major role, she said. She said if the university loses courses and consequently its accreditations, less students and faculty will choose to come here.

“[It could impact] faculty decisions about whether or not this is the right place for them to teach… If they want to be in a system where the concepts and the values that they believe in very strongly are things that we have to sort of tiptoe around because there’s this new language in the law that prohibits us from being able to talk about certain issues,” she said.

USF is currently monitoring bills that have been introduced which could impact the university, according to Director of Media Relations Althea Johnson. She said the university will assess how legislation might impact the university if any laws are passed.

Freshman psychology major Isabel Santos said she is scared her minor in queer and sexuality studies will not count anymore and is considering leaving the state after graduation. Though she said she always thought she’d stay in Florida, the new legislation targeting both DEI and LGBTQ rights has changed that.

“I don’t feel safe in Florida anymore. I was born and raised in Florida. I always thought I would live in Florida forever because I love the state. I really do. It’s beautiful. But with all the laws being passed lately, I do not feel safe as a gay woman,” she said. 

The courses that would be in danger of being banned have great value as they ensure history won’t repeat itself, according to Santos.

“History will repeat itself if we don’t teach about it. And, it’s not something we’re supposed to hide. It’s history. It happens. People need to know what actually happened,” she said.

Taking away the option of those courses will also narrow down people’s exposures to different cultures and viewpoints, according to junior political science major Nakai Creecy. He said it is also important for him as a Black person to be able to know and learn about where he comes from. 

“I don’t think that it’s fair for the government to deny that of me and my identity,” he said. 

Due to the legislation both in Florida and surrounding states, Creecy said both he and his wife are in the process of coming up with a plan to leave the state, as they no longer feel safe. 

“It’s getting to a point where I feel like there’s better places out there. Honestly, I mean, who would want to live in a place where [it is] one way or no way?” he said. 

Conner said H.B. 999 is not the only issue, but also the book bannings and removal of the Advanced Placement African American History course, according to Conner. She said these recent legislative decisions have made her feel as though she is personally under attack as someone who represents the Black community. 

“It feels like a lot of the things that we have worked very hard for us as society to try to recognize the importance of equality and equity, to move these issues forward …that we’ve taken some pretty significant steps backwards in history,” she said.

“It feels very scary to live in Florida right now. It doesn’t feel like a safe place for me or my children.”