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Florida university removes some anti-racism statements, worrying faculty

The University of Central Florida temporarily removed some academic departments’ statements, prompting fears of self-censorship under a new state law

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) championed a state law that limits what schools and workplaces can teach about race and identity. (Tristan Wheelock/Bloomberg News)

The University of Central Florida removed statements condemning racism from several academic departments’ websites this week, prompting some faculty members to worry that school officials were self-censoring in an effort to maintain compliance with a new state law limiting what can be taught about race and identity.

Shelley Park, a professor of philosophy and cultural studies at UCF, said the statement in her department, posted amid the national reckoning on race in 2020, “stood behind diversity, equity and inclusivity — which didn’t used to be such a radical thing to say.”

Park said her understanding was that the provost had contacted deans and that the pages were temporarily removed, with additional guidance to come when faculty members return in August. The provost, Michael D. Johnson, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment Wednesday.

“The university recently removed some departmental statements that could be seen as potentially inconsistent with our commitment to creating a welcoming environment — one where faculty objectively engage students in robust, scholarly discussions that expand their knowledge and empower them to freely express their views and form their own perspectives,” Chad Binette, a spokesman for the university, wrote in an email Wednesday.

“UCF is committed to building a culture that values respect, civil discourse, and creating a sense of belonging,” Binette said. “In an effort to more clearly communicate that commitment, we will be working with departments to ensure statements better align with our university values.”

Binette did not specify in the email what in the statements could be “potentially inconsistent.”

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On Wednesday, some links on department webpages — including those for the anthropology, philosophy and physics departments — appeared to be broken or removed.

The philosophy statement had read, in part, “we acknowledge the key place of the university as a site of struggle for social justice and are committed to addressing the problem of anti-Blackness, white supremacy, and all forms of implicit and explicit racism in our professions, wherever we find it, even if in our own department.”

Michael Armato, a lecturer at UCF, said two messages were removed from the sociology department’s website. One, in support of the Asian community, was later restored, he said.

The other began: “We stand in solidarity with the many people across the world who are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of the lives of Black people at the hands of police and vigilantes in the US. Recent events have once again laid bare the longstanding and pervasive legacy of anti-Blackness at the heart of US white-supremacist culture.”

That statement had not been restored to the website as of Thursday afternoon.

“It’s alarming,” Armato said. He was concerned about how he and his colleagues could navigate the tension between research data in the social sciences and “demands by politicians to accommodate their political interests.” There’s no middle ground there, he said. “They’re fundamentally contradictory.”

He said he was worried about whether such changes would affect the school’s ability to recruit and retain students, staff and faculty of color, and about all students’ ability to think critically and evaluate data.

The removal of the statements were first reported by the Orlando Sentinel.

A June 2020 statement by UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright titled “Our Future Is Inclusion,” emphasizing the university’s commitment to be actively anti-racist, remains accessible.

Park said some faculty members are “upset about issues of academic freedom and freedom of speech, as well as our institutional values.”

Park said her scholarly expertise is in the areas of social justice and political theory. “I think most of us are worried,” she said. She said she is concerned that the university is self-censoring.

“This is all happening very quickly,” she said.

The “individual freedom” act, which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) called the “Stop WOKE Act,” went into effect July 1, regulating what schools and workplaces can teach about race and identity.

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A UCF professor is a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the act, arguing that it is unconstitutional and threatens academic freedom.

DeSantis has said he wants to prevent what he describes as intellectually repressive environments at public universities, and his administration has pushed changes to higher education that include altering tenure and accreditation.

Binette shared guidance given to faculty about the new state law, advising them that it mandates that educational institutions “may not subject any student or employee to training or instruction that ‘espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels such student or employee to believe’ any of eight ‘specified concepts’ ” based on race, color, sex or national origin because such action would be discriminatory under the amended statute.

One of the “frequently asked questions” the university cited was, “Can I discuss topics or teach concepts in my classroom that may make people feel uncomfortable?” The answer: “Yes. … However, you may not tell students they should or must feel guilty because they belong to a particular race, color, national origin or sex. And you should not tell students how to feel or that they need to admit to feeling a certain way about these topics. The legislature’s stated purpose in adopting this law was to prohibit coercing students and employees to particular beliefs.”

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.