APS News

December 2023/January 2024 (Volume 32, Number 12)

APS and Partners Help Members Navigate Anti-DEI Legislation

By Tawanda W. Johnson and Julie Davis | December 7, 2023

University of Florida campus sign
Credit: Katherine Welles - stock.adobe.com

Florida passed some of the first laws targeting DEI initiatives in public colleges and universities.

In the last two years, dozens of state governments have proposed legislation to limit or ban diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs and policies in public colleges, universities, and other institutions. Many in physics have expressed alarm, concerned these bills could harm research, teaching, and diversity in the field.

“Most people are not sure what to do,” said Katheryn Russell-Brown, a law professor at the University of Florida, located in a state that has passed some of the first and most extreme anti-DEI laws.

To help members navigate these changes, APS, the American Association of Physics Teachers, and the National Society of Black Physicists sponsored two webinars on the topic — one on laws in Florida, led by Russell-Brown, and one on national legislation, led by Jeremy C. Young, program director of Freedom to Learn at PEN America, the professional society for writers.

One of the big takeaways: Most DEI work can continue.

“Can you achieve the same programmatic goals you had before the passage of SB 266?” asked Russell-Brown, referring to a Florida anti-DEI law that took effect in July. “I would say that the answer is yes, but it will require some different strategies.”

Colleges in Florida are far from alone in grappling with these laws. Since January 2021, there have been 99 proposed anti-DEI bills in 33 states, 12 of which have passed in nine states, said Young. These bills could shape higher education curricula, teacher training, and beyond.

Young noted that many of these laws are often vague and difficult to administer — by design. “The vagueness is the point,” he said. The laws are rarely enforced; rather, they’re “designed to cause you to self-enforce, rather than to follow the direction of the law.”

Both experts offered advice on how members can work with their institutions and advocate for change.

Russell-Brown recommended that educators present program ideas in writing to department leadership, to ensure “that your intentions aren’t misunderstood” and that programs comply with SB 266. She also suggested that educators use existing programs at their institutions as models, and keep colleagues informed of their plans.

Young advised educators to avoid over-compliance. “Don’t do the censors’ work for them,” he said. “Wait for someone to actually tell you something is banned before you act as though it’s banned.” Members of the public can also help by speaking up, if possible, Young said — by writing op-eds and letters to the editor, for example, and talking with family and friends about the laws.

And importantly, Young says, don’t go it alone. “These laws affect all elements of higher education institutions pretty much equally,” he said. “There is an opportunity here for unprecedented unity and coalition-building.”

Watch the webinars on legislation in Florida and across the U.S. on YouTube.

Tawanda W. Johnson is the APS Senior Public Relations Manager at APS. Julie Davis is an APS Federal Relations Senior Associate.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Taryn MacKinney

December 2023/January 2024 (Volume 32, Number 12)

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Articles in this Issue
The P5 Report is Here: Particle Physicists Set Sights on the Multi-Billion-Dollar Road Ahead
The Scientist Who Launches Rockets at the Northern Lights
This Month in Physics History
Physicist Stuart Parkin, APS Medal Winner, on the Digital Age and “Going Beyond”
To Boost Undergrad Enrollment, Physics Departments Turn to APS Innovation Fund Program, DALI
STEP UP Program, Aiming to Grow the Number of Women Physics Majors, Expands Training in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles
APS’s “Show Me the Money!” Webinar Helps Students Negotiate Job Offers, Kicking Off Multi-Month Careers Series
Opinion: The Extraordinary Life and Science of Hilde Levi
Science Policy Highlights
APS and Partners Help Members Navigate Anti-DEI Legislation