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DEI Bans are Tools for Seizing Control of Universities

May has been a prolific month for new educational gag orders. Three new laws of this type have been adopted thus far, with several more appearing imminent. After reviewing these gag orders in this month’s Roundup, we examine some of the most newsworthy, most extreme, and most censorious bills targeting higher education today: Florida’s SB 266, Ohio’s SB 83, and other so-called “DEI ban” bills. We find that, in reality, these bills go far beyond banning DEI initiatives to enable the partisan takeover of many aspects of university governance.

  • Since January 2021, 306 educational gag order bills have been introduced in 45 different states 
  • 26 have become law in 17 states (3 are not currently in effect)
  • 2 additional states have enacted educational gag orders via policies or executive orders
  • 125 million Americans live in the 20 states where an educational gag order is in effect
  • 81 educational gag orders are currently live


Bills that purport to ban DEI initiatives on college campuses are currently in vogue in state legislatures. Their proponents describe them as straightforward “DEI bans.” For example, Florida governor Ron DeSantis declared during the signing ceremony for SB 266 on May 15, “This bill says the whole experiment with DEI is coming to an end in the state of Florida… “We are eliminating the DEI programs.” Major media outlets have picked up this framing in their headlines as well when covering these bills – including the New York Times and the Washington Post in covering SB 266, and the Associated Press and Axios when covering Ohio’s SB 83, another prominent bill of this type.

This framing is incomplete: it seriously understates the scope and impact of these bills. The legislation does in fact ban diversity and inclusion programs and offices on campus. But bills like Florida’s SB 266 and Ohio’s SB 83 also reach into many other areas of governance typically determined by universities themselves: curricula, tenure, accreditation, mission statements, and more. Ultimately, these anti-DEI laws are best understood as representing a significant threat to the autonomy of colleges and universities from direct partisan or political control – an aspect of higher education recognized by international authorities as essential to guaranteeing free expression on campus.

To understand the connection between DEI bans and institutional autonomy, it’s best to start with where campus DEI initiatives originate in the first place. It’s true that some diversity, equity, and inclusion programs are externally imposed – through federal or private grant requirements or by state governments, as, ironically, happened at New College of Florida less than three years ago. But many also arise organically from within colleges and universities themselves. Numerous colleges have embedded diversity goals in their mission and vision statements and strategic plans, documents typically approved through mechanisms of shared governance between administrators, faculty, staff, and other campus stakeholders.

For example, Florida State University’s mission and vision statements describe the institution as one that “embraces diversity,” “a welcoming place where people discover others like themselves—while also connecting to and learning from classmates and colleagues of vastly different backgrounds and experiences.” The institution’s “distinctive climate…draws from the rich intellectual and personal diversity of our students, faculty, staff, and alumni.” “Diversity and inclusion” was one of FSU’s five central goals in its just-completed strategic plan, and still forms a key portion of one goal in the new plan. Under these documents, to restrict DEI initiatives by legislative fiat effectively violates Florida State’s self-determined mission and goals.

Read entire article at PEN America