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Michele Hawkins

Florida Atlantic University

Florida Atlantic University’s interim provost replied to concerns about the university collecting and providing to the state information that might be used to target Black and LGBTQ faculty members by saying, “We did not know what color—if they were purple, if they had sex with animals.”

Michele Hawkins’s joke, during Monday’s Faculty Senate meeting, elicited what sounded like a mixture of groans and chuckles in a video recording provided to Inside Higher Ed. Two attendees covered their faces with their hands.

Hawkins apologized a few moments later and again in an email after the meeting. Neither she nor university spokespeople provided interviews Tuesday.

“In a comment that was intended to emphasize her acceptance of any and all individuals, she inadvertently invoked language that did not convey her beliefs,” a university spokesman said in an email. “Upon further reflection following the meeting’s conclusion, she better understood how her comment was received, and that she had mis-spoken. She deeply regrets her choice of words.”

Hawkins was replying to worries about Florida Republicans’ records requests regarding university diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts. She said the university is trying to comply with those requests. (Governor Ron DeSantis proposed legislation Tuesday that, according to a news release from his office, would prohibit universities “from using any funding, regardless of source, to support DEI, [critical race theory] and other discriminatory initiatives.”)

Hawkins also defended the university regarding DEI, saying her life has been dedicated to it.

“This is what we’re supposed to do in a university,” she said. “We’re supposed to talk about DEI.”

Allan Barsky, the faculty member whom Hawkins was responding to, said, “I thought it was a teachable moment.”

Stressing that he’s only speaking on his own behalf, he said Tuesday that “One of the whole purposes of DEI education is to be aware of the impacts of language on people.”

He noted that comparing homosexuality to engaging in bestiality is an old stereotype.

“Sodomy was criminalized, suggesting that people are evil, against God, against the law,” Barsky said. “And [in] the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, homosexuality was for a long time listed as a mental health disorder. So, there was kind of an equation of same-sex relations with bestiality and other crimes of a sexual nature, so it just kind of harkens back to that.”

“Dr. Hawkins’s choice of words was unfortunate, but she did not intend to say something negative about LGBTQ people,” Barsky said. “She is a strong proponent of respect, social justice and DEI. Her apology was a brave response.”

Here is Monday’s exchange, starting with where Barsky raises his concern:

Barsky: “We do understand, you know, the intent is to comply, but also there needs to be some resistance while not putting people at risk that don’t need to be put at risk, or it’s not going to result in something positive.

“I think what some people felt, despite the intent, is that they were thrown under the bus. We had some of the most vulnerable people who were listed—I know it’s not the intent at all—but some of the people who were listed were assistant professors or adjuncts or whomever, and also, you know, people who are Black, people who are LGBT, so it kind of felt like some people were being targeted for this.”

Hawkins: “We did not do that. We did not know what color—if they were purple, if they had sex with animals. I mean, we had no, no idea of what we were doing. We did not put anyone under the bus.”

Barsky: “Please don’t equate being LGBT with having sex with animals.”

Hawkins: “Oh, are you kidding, Allan?”

Barsky: “No, I am not kidding.”

Hawkins: “I was going to say ‘purple people’ but, you know, that’s —”

Barsky: “But what I really wanted to talk about is—”

Hawkins: “In fact, I doubt that they do have sex with animals. I don’t know, not many people do.”

Barsky then moved the conversation on.

Earlier at the meeting, Hawkins had told faculty, “When you say you’re upset, I’m upset, too, but in the meantime, as provost and [the] provost office, we have to comply with what is requested of us, and we also have to make sure that we do it in a way that does not hurt our faculty any more than it does.”

“With that said, I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I have no idea if we can protect anyone, but we will be doing what we can to protect people,” she said.

“We’ve always wanted to send [the data] in without names,” she said.

Barsky told Inside Higher Ed that one of DEI’s principles “is to promote respect by ‘calling people in,’ not by ‘calling them out’ or trying to cancel them. If somebody says something that you find is disrespectful or discriminatory, then you can share your concerns with them and let them know how their words might have a negative impact on you or on a particular community. When you assert your concerns, the purpose is not to punish or embarrass but to raise their awareness and, hopefully, encourage them to avoid problematic language in the future.”

Following similar requests from DeSantis, on Jan. 12, Paul Renner, the Republican leader of Florida’s House of Representatives, requested from Florida’s public universities and colleges a list of DEI-related information. He requested it by Feb. 13.

Among the requests: “A list of all current DEI employees and other DEI employees. The list should identify each person by name and job title.”

Also requested was “The job description for each current DEI employee and other DEI employees” and the cost of their salaries and benefits. It also requests various records of communications.

“I look forward,” Renner said in an accompanying news release, “to working with my colleagues in the legislature to establish proper guardrails that ensure these institutions provide our students with an inclusive, well-rounded education that prepares them for the future without promoting an aggressively ideological agenda under the guise of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Renner’s communications director said Tuesday that “Speaker Renner is seeking information on how colleges and universities are providing our students with an education that prepares them for a bright future and ensuring that these institutions are not promoting aggressively ideological agendas that could undercut the historic achievements of our top ranked university system.”

Barsky said, “They are asking for, you know, who’s involved in what positions, and how much money is being spent on them. And there’s all sorts of statements from the government about ‘anti-wokeism.’”

He said people “aren’t sure what they’re going to do with that” and asked, “Are they going to target individual people?”

“I’m very concerned about the future of Florida as a democracy,” he said.

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