Students at the University of North Florida protested the imminent closing of the school’s four diversity centers, including the campus LGBTQ center, on Wednesday.
The protest took place the day the Florida Board of Governors, the governing body of the State University System of Florida, voted to prohibit funding for diversity, equity and inclusion programs and activities at the state’s public universities. The vote comes several months after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a measure into law banning all of the state’s public higher education institutions from using state or federal funding for diversity programs.
UNF, in Jacksonville, will close its Office of Diversity and Inclusion — and, with it, its interfaith, intercultural, women’s and LGBTQ centers — to comply with the new law, President Moaz Limayem said in a letter to the university community Wednesday night.
Limayem said the four university centers will be “phased out” immediately but added that registered student organizations that aim to promote diversity will remain active on the university’s campus and that no staffers will lose their jobs. He did not weigh in on student protests or on his views about the state policy.
“We want UNF to be a place where all people feel safe and welcome, and where there is no place for hate,” Limayem said. “This semester, we will begin seeking ways to reinforce UNF’s values in everything we do, and we will review and expand resources as necessary to ensure success for all members of our campus community.”
Cassandra Edwards, a spokesperson for the university system, said in an email Thursday that Florida “will remain focused on high-quality education for our students and not allow indoctrination.”
UNF student Lissie Morales was among the protesters, many of whom were waving rainbow Pride flags and shouting: “What do we do? Stand up, fight back!”
“The center provided me friends; it provided me education to learn more about my gender and sexual orientation,” Morales told NBC affiliate WTLV of Jacksonville. “In regard to the turnout, it warms my heart to see people care about something as much as I do, especially when it comes to the LGBT center, because it was one of the reasons why I came to UNF in the first place.”
In 2022, UNF was among 40 institutions on Campus Pride’s list of best universities for LGBTQ students.
Carlos Guillermo Smith, a former Florida House Democrat who is a policy adviser at the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida, called the new state law “a rubber stamp for Ron DeSantis’s agenda of censorship and surveillance.”
“The Board of Governors had the opportunity to hit the brakes, but instead, shamefully followed their censorship agenda off a cliff in service to DeSantis’s failed political ambitions,” Smith said in a statement Wednesday.
A representative for DeSantis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The regulation comes as Florida continues to build on its reputation for enacting anti-LGBTQ laws and legislation aimed at limiting diversity initiatives.
Florida made national headlines when it enacted what critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law in 2022, which limited the instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools in kindergarten through third grade. DeSantis signed a bill last year that expanded the law to apply to students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Last year, Florida lawmakers prompted outcry for blocking an Advanced Placement course on African American studies from being taught in high schools.
Since the start of the year, Florida lawmakers have introduced roughly a dozen anti-LGBTQ bills. They include a sweeping measure that would force Floridians to sign an affidavit when they apply for new driver’s licenses and state IDs to certify that the gender markers on their birth certificates will match their new IDs. Another bill would allow some published accusations of homophobia and transphobia to be considered “defamation per se.”
Student protests over Florida’s policies about LGBTQ issues have also become common. In November, students at a high school in Coconut Creek, about 15 miles north of Fort Lauderdale, staged a walkout after their principal and other school staffers were reprimanded for letting a transgender girl compete on the school’s girls volleyball team.
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