As recent anti-DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) laws targeting higher education take effect, research faculty and those who support their work in affected states — most notably Florida and Texas — are concerned about future funding and opportunities to collaborate with peer institutions on key projects. Significant dollars, as well as faculty careers and student enrollment efforts, may be at stake.

A key challenge is that federal agencies — which funded more than $49 billion in university research and development projects in 2021 — typically require applicants to show they are considering diversity and equity in their work. When state laws shut down campus diversity offices and DEI staff are reassigned or let go, however, faculty and institutions have to determine which factor most influences whether a research proposal is funded — state compliance or federal standards. 

Shirley Malcom
Shirley Malcom

Shirley Malcom, PhD, is senior advisor to the CEO and director of the SEA (STEM Equity Achievement) Change initiative at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The initiative aims to advance institutional transformation in support of DEI, especially in colleges and universities. Malcom is also a trustee of the California Institute of Technology and a regent of Morgan State University. 

She says the future of research funding for DEI is uncertain and the outcome could affect scientific integrity.

“If universities say, ‘We don’t want to [demonstrate DEI compliance],” the agencies will say, ‘Well, then we can’t give you the money.’ I don’t know whether they will blink, that’s an unsettled question,” Malcom says. “It’s a dicey thing in terms of trying to hold on to your program principles, values, and criteria on the one hand, and yet you’re being given a different message over here.” 

The biggest impact will be felt in STEM, Malcom says. 

“Foundations have been aggressive recently around the question of DEI in STEM fields, for the very reason that there is huge underrepresentation. The impact of that is around whether you have excellent science and excellent research,” she says. “Think about AI that is created without diversity. … You cannot say that there are not components that don’t require diverse perspectives, diverse people, diverse thinking, in terms of standing up this research. We’ve done that experiment and we know it doesn’t work.”

Scientific studies in health care are also at risk, Malcom says, because medical schools or health sciences schools need to populate clinical trials in a diverse way or they’re not accurate. 

“The question is, what kind of structures do you have in place that will enable you to still conform to that [scientific protocol]? And that’s not an element of wokeness, that’s an element of research design,” she says.

Diversity and science are inextricably linked within the value structures and strategic goals of AAAS and SEA Change, Malcom says. 

When asked if the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would withhold higher education research funding in states where diversity activities and spending are prohibited, the agency’s response was somewhat vague: “As a federal agency, we have the authority and responsibility to assure that grant recipients abide by applicable federal laws and regulations and the terms and conditions of award. With regard to state laws, NIH is not in a position to dictate the parameters of the laws that a state enacts. Should state and local governments be recipients of NIH grants, they must abide by all terms and conditions of award and are subject to audit requirements.”

Education leaders, particularly in states where DEI is under fire, are cautioning policymakers about a potential drop in funding and talent. Texas is particularly vulnerable: DEI offices at public colleges and universities have until January to cease all operations and initiatives.

“If you’re silent on [diversity] or don’t address diversity, you can’t compete for these grants,” Brian Korgel, director of the Energy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), told the Texas Tribune in April. “There’s an expectation from granting agencies and companies that we’re doing that kind of thing at the university, and it’s very important to them.”

But the state may have created a legal loophole regarding faculty research activities.

Daniel Jaffe, vice president for research at UT Austin, sent a letter in June to colleagues about Senate Bill 17, the law prohibiting DEI offices and activities. His message emphasizes that “it specifically states that the law’s DEI prohibitions do not apply to scholarly research or creative works by students, faculty, or other research personnel,” with the caveat that the administration is working with legal counsel to understand the law’s complexities.

“We’re going to have to move toward something that is systemic so we don’t have to deal with the fact that every time you look up, a court case or a piece of legislation is picking off one or another of the programs that might have been put in place to overcome the fact that the system does not work for everyone.”

Shirley Malcom, PhD

The importance of research at public higher education institutions is not lost on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. In its 2022 report “Research Funding in Texas Overview,” the board stated: “Scientific research conducted at higher education institutions is vital for identifying and developing new knowledge that leads to groundbreaking innovations. These innovations drive the state’s economy and improve the quality of life for Texans. … Strong research programs provide state-of-the-art educational opportunities for students and attract high-quality faculty. State and federal governments are two principal sources for research funding.”

At Texas public universities and health-related institutions, research expenditures totaled $5.44 billion in 2020, according to the report.

DEI offices and activities were also banned at Florida’s public colleges and universities as of July 1. Research funding is big industry in the state. At the University of Florida (UF) alone, $469 million in research was funded by federal agencies, and UF surpassed $1 billion in research dollars overall, including state and private funding, according to the university.

Frank Fernandez
Frank Fernandez, PhD

Frank Fernandez, PhD, feels caught in the middle of this ideological battle. As a newly tenured associate professor of higher education administration and policy in the College of Education at UF, he researches and writes about education and equity issues. 

The path forward is getting murky, he says.

Last year, Fernandez was part of a faculty team that sent a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund collaborative work with a Florida community college. Submitted and conceptualized prior to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ war against DEI began to take hold, the project prominently included work around critical race theory (CRT) and focused on closing equity gaps in STEM careers. Ultimately, it was rejected on a technicality, but when researchers debated whether to resubmit in this more onerous climate — it was a solid proposal and they knew it was worthy — some team members cautioned that this time around they would need to “hide the broccoli” (i.e., remove explicit CRT language) so that the other Florida institution would be willing to sign on to the project and, equally important, be able to implement it if it was funded, Fernandez says.

“This is ‘1984’ Orwellian stuff, that we can’t use the actual phrase ‘critical race theory,’” he says. “That’s hours and hours of work to go back and rewrite something that’s [already] good.”

He ultimately withdrew from the project but has other research to look forward to in the coming year. He was recently named a fellow by the University of California’s National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement. 

Last summer, Fernandez experienced another funding challenge when he was discussing a project with a researcher at a potential partner institution on the West Coast.  

“He was clear that, based on Florida’s political climate, if we were to move forward with a project, they were really concerned about allowing us to interview their racial minority students or collect other data,” Fernandez says. “They were concerned that the state of Florida might compel us to turn data over.”

Fernandez understands that concern because last year he was informed that his emails regarding DEI would be reviewed, although he never learned how broadly they were scanned. At the time, he was leading the College of Education’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee — the status of which is now uncertain.

“It was an unprecedented conversation [with a potential collaborator] and evidence that whatever people think within Florida, other higher education professionals around the country are skeptical about UF’s future,” Fernandez says.

Many of Fernandez’s colleagues have been approached by other universities and are looking to exit.

“Multiple colleagues across UF have basically told me, ‘This fall I’m back on the job market,’ and they’re willing … to take a step down, at a less elite place with more teaching and less research,” he says. 

People have invested their careers and a lot of money over decades to make UF what it is now, says Fernandez, and instead of faculty discussing how to get to that next level of excellence, now they’re more concerned about how to stay out of trouble.

“The emotional toll is not so much despair as it is frustration,” he says.

In her work with SEA Change, Malcom is aware of a growing anxiety among higher education faculty and administrators. Her organization is focused on systemic change after determining that “little programs and little interventions weren’t going to get it.” 

“We’re going to have to move toward something that is systemic so we don’t have to deal with the fact that every time you look up, a court case or a piece of legislation is picking off one or another of the programs that might have been put in place to overcome the fact that the system does not work for everyone,” she says. “It’s a big challenge, but on the other hand, if we are successful in doing it, you don’t have to keep tinkering around with this stuff. The silver lining is that we get an opportunity to change the system … and support the people, the ideas, and the thinking of the future.”

This article was published in our September 2023 issue.