What does Diversity, Equity & Inclusion mean to universities? UF faculty leader explains

ORLANDO, Fla. — Hours after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis released a new round of proposed changes to state-funded schools, the chair of the University of Florida Faculty Senate described many as lacking an understanding of the nuances of higher education.


Amanda Phalin, an economics professor at the university’s business college, said she stands behind the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work that her colleagues and school accomplish. One of DeSantis’ primary proposals was to eliminate funding for such initiatives as part of his “anti-woke” agenda.

“I stand behind all the work that we do at the university, in DEI, in Critical Race Theory and providing gender affirming health care,” she said. “I also stand behind the work that we’re doing to create the new legally mandated Hamilton Center, which is a conservative Academic Center… I don’t care where a topic falls on the political spectrum. I care if the work that is being done is excellent.”

Phalin described academic excellence as the core function of the university, where administrators should not be asking what political goal the coursework achieves but whether it’s rigorous enough for one of the best public universities in the nation.

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An excellent university, she said, pushes the boundaries in every direction.

“[Critics] think that DEI is about some kind of affirmative action program or giving everyone the same outcome, making sure that everyone graduates with a certain GPA,” she explained. “What DEI means in the academic space is to reach out to those communities that might not already have deep connections… It means that we are expanding access to those who wouldn’t be able to have it otherwise, but to those who absolutely deserved it.”

The economist put it into business terms: the more talent the university could assist in achieving its potential, the better growth potential the state would have.

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DeSantis’ proposals also included the ability for university presidents, who the governor indirectly influences through governor-appointed Boards of Trustees, to have more of a say over the hiring of faculty members and for tenure to be reviewable at any time.

Phalin said it would destroy the purpose of tenure, which she said promotes the very academic freedom DeSantis champions.

“Tenure does not mean that you have a job for a lifetime,” she explained. “It protects faculty who are working on research and topics that take years to yield results. Tenure says that if you don’t have a breakthrough in one year or two years, that’s okay, because you have time to do more work.”

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Phalin invited the governor or any legislator to visit her classroom and watch her interactions with students, which she said would demonstrate the standard of excellence UF has built.

“It is frustrating,” she described. “I know that a lot of people do feel chilled and scared to continue doing the work that they’re doing and to continue to work in the system, but I hope that they do because we support excellent work.”

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