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Florida’s House Bill 999 Sparks DiscussionAmong MU Community Members

Florida’s House Bill 999, introduced on Feb. 21 by Republican Representative Alex Andrade, aims to ban funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at Florida institutions and remove any major or minor relating to Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, and Intersectionality, as Forbes reported.

According to NBC News, many students at Florida public universities have staged a walkout in protest, accusing the governor of “restricting academic freedom.” They see this as not only an attack on academic freedom or diversity, but also on freedom of speech.

Some wonder what this bill means for institutions in the long run, and if diversity programs at schools in other states are at stake.

As for New Jersey, Democratic Governor Phil Murphy has previously protected diversity-focused education in classrooms. For example, legislation passed in July 2020 required K-12 schools to teach “economic diversity, equity, inclusion, tolerance, and belonging in connection with gender and sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, disabilities, and religious tolerance,” according to the legislation.

Though Monmouth University is a private, higher-education institution nestled in a blue state, members of the campus community urge the importance of teaching gender, race, and diversity in the classroom and speculate what such a bill would mean for students and faculty.

“I’m concerned,” began Kiameesha Evans DrPH, Specialist Professor of Health and Physical Education and Interim Director of Monmouth’s Program for Gender and Intersectionality Studies (PGIS). “Florida’s college system educates hundreds of thousands of students. We are a private institution here in NJ, but whenever extreme policies are put in place (anywhere), you can’t help but be concerned about a ripple effect…I cannot imagine not having the GS (gender studies) minor option for our students.”

Some related minors offered at Monmouth University include Gender and Intersectionality, Race and Ethnic Studies, Religious Studies, and African Diaspora Studies, Asian Studies, Social Justice, and more. Additionally, more than 10 University departments offer a Gender Studies (GS)-designated course.

Meanwhile, PGIS consists of faculty across multiple University departments and “critically investigates gendered power relations in all fields of social life, popular culture, and the arts through exciting course offerings and relevant campus events,” according to their mission statement.

Evans explained that diversity, inclusion, gender, and race are not only the building blocks of these various minor programs at Monmouth, but are also embedded into her public health classes. For example, Transcultural Health has both cultural diversity (CD) and ethnic studies (RE) designations, teaching students about communities that are different from their own. More classes in the department of Health and Physical Education that touch upon these subjects include Women’s Health (CD), Environmental Health (GU), Health in Developing Countries (GU), Wisdom, Wellness, and Aging (CD) and a faculty led study abroad to Costa Rica (GU).

“I teach public health, and I don’t know how I would effectively teach my students about the history of public health and our current day health disparities without a mention of race, gender, ethnicity, or sexuality in the conversation,” Evans said. “In all of our courses, our students leave with an understanding and appreciation for cultural differences that will help them interact effectively as future leaders or health care professionals in our diverse world.”

Students and faculty emphasized that the material and skills learned in GS courses extend to career paths beyond university. “Something we’ve learned in our perspectives course on Gender and Global Culture is that considering the various perspectives gender, race, sexuality and other elements that go along with intersectionality are fundamental elements of thought in one’s abilities to think critically,” said Zafira Demiri, junior English student and future educator currently enrolled in Gender and Global Culture this semester.

Evans noted that some are concerned about House Bill 999 not only removing gender-related majors, minors, and courses from university curricula, but also extending to multicultural, religious, or LGBTQIA campus organizations.

“For many schools, campus organizations are the leaders for modeling diversity and inclusion. Through our campus organizations, students have the opportunity to develop networks and work with/learn from peers of different backgrounds,” she said. “These are the skills that we want our students to have when they graduate from Monmouth.”

Zaneta Rago-Craft Ph.D., Director of the Intercultural Center and Advisor to the President on Diversity and Inclusion, explained how such a bill would also prevent the accurate teaching of history classes. “This bill is likely to have significant repercussions on college institutions, limiting academic freedom and hindering efforts to create inclusive and diverse learning environments,” she said. “A general curriculum that encompasses critical dialogue and accurate history is important to all students and all majors, and these bills will only serve to stifle these learning opportunities.”

Melissa Alvare, Ph.D., Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Sociology and PGIS Affiliated Faculty, also spoke on the repercussions of House Bill 999 and removing gender studies and related courses from university curricula.

“Without such courses, the information shared in the classroom often validates the experiences and perspectives of dominant groups as straightforward, factual depictions of historical and contemporary realities. As the voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) and feminist scholars are erased from curricula, students will be deprived of historical accounts beyond the whitewashed lessons they were likely exposed to in their high school textbooks—and thus, deprived of a more comprehensive and accurate understanding of U.S. history,” Alvare explained.

She continued. “Without these courses, students will be denied opportunities to explore empirical data and gain analytical tools to understand the ways racism and other forms of oppression are ingrained in our social institutions (e.g. our schools, the criminal justice system, real estate). The students who go on to work in these institutions will benefit from understanding the ways that inequities manifest in policies and patterned interactions, and accordingly, be in a much better position to challenge or interrupt them.”

As Rago-Craft puts it, such courses are “essential for creating a more just and equitable society.”

“This bill is clearly an attack on intellectual freedoms and virtues, and Florida is setting up an intentional roadblock in so many university students’ path to the truth,” Demiri concluded. “What they will realize as these students fight for their rights to be taught this material is that simply removing something from a curriculum does not mean erasing it from our global knowledge, and those that want that knowledge will do anything to seek it out.”