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Students say they’ve lost valuable mentorship in the wake of DEI closures at UF

Jacob Fazio is a senior at the University of Florida. He says he lost a mentor when the school laid off its chief diversity officer, Marsha McGriff, earlier this month.

“I just feel this immense frustration and lack of understanding and honestly, disregard for the value that does come through diversity,” he said.

On March 1, the University of Florida sent out a memo announcing it was closing the office of the Chief Diversity Officer, eliminating 13 DEI positions and 15 administrative appointments, and terminating its DEI contracts with outside vendors.

The memo says this was done in compliance with the Board of Governors’ regulation that was passed in January, which prevents public money from being spent on DEI.

Hours after the memo went out, Governor Ron de Santis posted on social media platform X, writing: “DEI is toxic and has no place in our public universities. I'm glad that Florida was the first state to eliminate DEI and I hope more states follow suit.”

For Fazio, who identifies as queer, he says attending schools in rural Florida without DEI programs was rough.

“I came from the Florida Panhandle, a place where diversity, equity and inclusion has never been a part of my school curriculum,” he said.

Fazio said he never had a teacher or staff member make him feel accepted for who he was.

“Resources didn’t come to my benefit. I didn't have administration. I didn't have a Chief Diversity Officer to tell me that I was okay to be myself and pursue the things I wanted to do,” he said.

Until he came to UF and met McGriff.

“I remember being wowed by her leadership then. And ever since I've been able to build a personal and professional relationship with her as a mentor,” he said.

Fazio is actively involved with the university’s LGBTQ community. Last spring, he conducted a student-led survey of 320 students that found a little more than 32% of them felt unsafe on campus because of their sexual orientation and more than 58% didn’t feel the university adequately supported the LGBTQIA+ community.

“I had to kind of pour my heart out to Dr. McGriff about how I was feeling and how distraught I was over those results and how at a loss I was because that was my community. That was a group of people that didn't feel like this university was supporting them. And she was that first person to give me a plan of action to make it better,” he said.

With the DEI positions gone, it’ll be left to affinity and student groups that don’t receive state funding to fill in the gaps.

“I think we can get pretty close. Building community on our own has been something that minorities have had to do for a long time,” said Cassie Urbenz, a graduate student at UF and the communications co-chair for Graduate Assistants United.

While Urbenz thinks student groups can fill in some of the gaps, she said not having experienced DEI staff members to bounce ideas off of or to get a second opinion from will hurt their ability to be as effective as possible.

“There's going to be a really huge loss of institutional knowledge because as students we're only really going to be at the university for four years, maybe five,” said Urbenz.

According to the memo, the university had five million dollars earmarked for DEI, which will now go to a fund to recruit faculty. While that may sound like a lot of money, it’s really not, said Danaya Wright, a law professor at UF and Chair of the Faculty Senate.

“It's such a drop in the bucket. Like, who cares, right? 5 million, it sounds like a lot of money. It's like less than 1 percent of our budget,” said Wright.

Especially when it comes to getting people to move to Florida.

“I'll tell you right now, it's kind of hard to recruit faculty,” said Wright.

Those who’ve been laid off will receive 12 weeks pay and have until April 19 to apply for other positions at their university and have their applications fast-tracked.

Áine Pennello is a multimedia reporter and Morning Edition news anchor for the College’s Innovation News Center. She has a background in video news and documentary and most recently worked at WCBS Newsradio in New York City covering local news and the tri-state area. She has also reported internationally, freelancing from Paris and Berlin during the Syrian refugee crisis. During the Syrian Civil War, Pennello reported from the Golan Heights while on a reporting grant from the International Center for Journalists.