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IBHE chair: Nation “standing at a dangerous precipice”

Thursday, Mar 16, 2023 - Posted by Rich Miller

* Illinois Board of Higher Education Chair John Atkinson delivered some extraordinary remarks to the board yesterday. Whether you agree with him or not, I thought his speech was worth sharing in full because it was so unusual…

When attacks on diversity and equity are ramping up in various states across the country, we should all be relieved and proud that, in Illinois, everyday we’re taking steps toward a more diverse and equitable state.

In no other state are these attacks more blatant and destructive than in Florida. Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis has resorted to implementing a hateful agenda across the state’s education system.

DeSantis’ Stop WOKE Act prohibits diversity initiatives in the workplace and limits school curriculum that celebrates Black culture. This racist Act is forcing educators to remove books from classroom and library bookshelves for fear of facing retaliation.

DeSantis has also forced the College Board to whitewash its Advanced Placement Black Studies curriculum — removing books by contemporary thought leaders like Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates and topics like the Black Lives Matter movement. The updated curriculum does not prohibit teaching about slavery, so the apparent message to students is that it is okay to study racism if we pretend it no longer exists.

DeSantis is bent on taking us backwards. It is not too long ago when segregation in schools in this country was allowed. It is not too long ago when Black and white people couldn’t drink from the same water fountains. At a time when all leaders should be making a serious and concerted effort to foster a more just country for everyone, DeSantis is leaning into racist practices of the past, stoking fears, and division for political purposes.

But, we can’t pretend that racism is a thing of the past. Not only is it a lie, but it’s also just wrong to tell people who experience discrimination because of the color of their skin that what they’re experiencing isn’t real.

What’s more disappointing and frightening is that DeSantis isn’t acting alone. He has the support of many Florida state legislators. A few weeks ago, Florida State Rep. Robert Alexander Andrade introduced House Bill 999.

This bill would place the public higher education system under extraordinary state control and out of the hands of educators. In fact, he just appointed a majority board of trustees to Florida’s New College, and according to the conservative magazine the National Review, Desantis’ Chief of Staff said that they hoped, and I quote “New College would become the Hillsdale of the South”, a reference to a fundamentalist Christian School in Michigan.

This is simply outrageous and in fact highlights the hateful and intolerant views that are seeping into the mainstream of our culture. Our higher education system should serve as a buffer against, rather than a catalyst for this throwback agenda.

HB 999 would prohibit public colleges from funding any projects that “espouse diversity, equity, and inclusion or Critical Race Theory rhetoric” no matter the funding source and put faculty hiring into the hands of trustees. This is an egregious attack on academic freedom and the long held principle of shared governance.

The bill also directs trustees to remove from their institutions majors and minors “in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems.”

In the land of the free and home of the brave, DeSantis has made his state less free for teachers, for women, people of color and LGBTQ people. It appears Florida is home of the brave but not land of the free.

Florida is not alone on this attack on higher education and academic freedom: Oklahoma Governor, Kevin Stitt singled out the state’s two largest public universities: “Because when we send our kids to college, we expect our tuition to pay for their education, not their indoctrination,” Stitt said. “I want our universities to have less DEI officers and more career placement counselors.”

Well I have news for both Governors, career success, business success and DEI are not mutually exclusive, and in fact business leaders know, that the opposite is true. Diverse teams produce better outcomes. Numerous studies show this to be fact. A recent study by McKinsey of over 1000 companies found that organizations in the top quartile outperformed those in the fourth by 36% in 2017 and these trends are similar when considering both gender and multi-cultural diversity.

A diverse, equitable Illinois is a thriving Illinois. Diverse, inclusive teams make faster, better decisions and those decisions yield better results for employers. Diversity and equity are good for companies and our economy. But above all else – it is a moral imperative.

We all benefit from a diverse workforce. And to ensure a diverse workforce, we must deliver equitable educational experiences to all students.

We know that inclusive curriculums and classrooms make for better student outcomes, and successful students make our state and our nation flourish.

In Illinois, we understand the value of diversity. We understand the importance of an equitable system of higher education. That’s why our higher education strategic plan explicitly promotes equity in education, and Governor Pritzker has not only made historical investments in this work year after year, but his charge to myself and this board when we were appointed in 2019 was to be focused on equity so that every student in our state can Thrive.

And guess what? It’s working!

We’ve seen Black and Latino student enrollment increase at record levels in Illinois when it has decreased nationwide. The governor has increased MAP funding in the FY24 budget to make college more affordable, especially for students from low-income households. The governor also increased funding for the MTI scholarship to recruit and retain teachers of color. All of these are deliberate investments to make progress toward equity.

Inviting students to wrestle with colonialism and slavery in American history is important for the development and advancement of our society. Our students must learn the reality of systemic racism in our society so they can be equipped to extinguish it forever.

We cannot and will not allow the evils of the past to reign again. We have a responsibility for producing educated citizens that are so vital to a healthy democratic society.

We are standing at a dangerous precipice as a nation as certain kinds of political dogma steeped in racism, homophobia and sexism continue to infiltrate all forms of public education systems across the country.

We cannot, and will not, as a state or here at the IBHE tolerate any attempt to strip anyone of their identity or to erase the complicated and sometimes inconvenient history of our great nation.



  1. - Steve - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 9:13 am:

    -I quote “New College would become the Hillsdale of the South”, a reference to a fundamentalist Christian School in Michigan.-

    Imagine saying this when Hillsdale graduated the first African-American woman in America in 1844. Hillsdale is one of the few colleges in America that takes zero dollars from the federal government.

  2. - Techie - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 9:19 am:

    One of his key points seems to be that we must teach young people our true history in order for them to effectively deal with society today. And he’s right that in many places in the US today, there is an effort from the right wing to prevent students from learning about anything which might reveal racism in recent history or even current society. This is of course destructive and morally reprehensible, so he is right to call it out and point out that we will not shy away from teaching and discussing difficult realities about history and the present day.

  3. - Steve Z - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 9:22 am:

    Exactly why I support MTG’s idea of a national divorce. Let the radical right have its own country and see how the rest of us flourish even more.

  4. - Candy Dogood - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 9:24 am:

    In Illinois our leaders have embarked our institutions on a conscious effort to redress issued caused by our historic lack of equity. We’re making an effort to improve things even if every employee, administrator, or politician isn’t on board. Not only do I agree with those remarks, I believe that the might of the State of Illinois is behind supporting IBHR and its Chair.

    We are absolutely not Florida, nor will we be. Florida is where Illinois billionaires go to sulk when they fail to destroy the progress we’ve built.

  5. - Norseman - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 9:35 am:

    He speaks the truth, with one small exception. Not everyone in Florida is brave. Those that use their state power to attack others are cowards and traitors to the values espoused for this country.

  6. - Oswego Willy - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 9:36 am:

    ===Imagine …in America in 1844===


    The reality is Republicans in 2023, they didn’t even exist as a party in 1844 and further… the Democrats were the ones fighting the 13th Amendment and your unusual lust for the 14th amendment, well after 1844… when women couldn’t vote…

    See, here in 2023…

    ===DeSantis has also forced the College Board to whitewash its Advanced Placement Black Studies curriculum===

    You must favor that, is that correct?

    This is everything;

    ===We cannot, and will not, as a state or here at the IBHE tolerate any attempt to strip anyone of their identity or to erase the complicated and sometimes inconvenient history of our great nation.===

  7. - Nuke The Whales - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 9:41 am:

    ==- Steve - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 9:13 am:==
    Institutions change. Given that they only don’t take federal money because Grove City College v. Bell says they need to follow Title IX to get money, it’s not the noble, fiscal stance you hope to imply in your comment.

  8. - Amalia - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 9:43 am:

    while I agree with his comments, it sounds more like a speech from the Gov. so it is a bit odd. so much DeSantis.

  9. - Leap Day William - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 9:44 am:

    == Imagine saying this when Hillsdale graduated the first African-American woman in America in 1844. ==

    An interesting claim, given that the Hillsdale College was first established in 1844, and therefore could not have graduates in the same year it was established.

    It also flies in the face of the reality where Mary Jane Patterson is considered the first African-American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree, and she did that in 1862 from Oberlin College.

    If you are going to make something up out of whole cloth, it’s best to choose something that isn’t easily disproved with a simple use of the Google machine.

  10. - Earnest - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 9:46 am:

    I agree with him. It is disheartening to see how stoking hatred against a group is so effective politically versus responsible administration of governmental responsibilities. And it is a precipice, if not in Illinois state government, nationally, locally, and even Chicago is close to electing a mayor personally opposed to a woman’s right to choose and supportive of Awake Illinois.

  11. - RNUG - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 9:56 am:

    Given the multiple meanings assigned to words, the question I have is how does JB define equity?

    If he means equity in opportunity, I agree with him.

    If he means equity in outcome, all things being equal, I would agree with him.

    But if he means equity in outcome regardless of other factors, then I would likely disagree with him.

  12. - Demoralized - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 9:59 am:

    ==Hillsdale is one of the few colleges in America that takes zero dollars from the federal government.==

    What difference does that make in discussion such as this. Does that somehow in your mind give them a free pass?

  13. - Red Ranger - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 10:01 am:

    I would much rather be a parent in Florida trying to figure out how to pay for UF than be a parent in IL trying to figure out how to pay for an Illinois state school like U of I or ISU. I would leave the MSNBC talking points to Rachel Madow and focus on things you can control.

  14. - Demoralized - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 10:03 am:

    I think it was more than appropriate and support the sentiments of his remarks. We have got to continually push back on the Ron DeSantis’ of the world and their hatemongering and their attempts to completely whitewash the history of this country. Ron DeSantis and his ilk claim they are fighting back against “indoctrination” when the only ones actually doing the indoctrination are people like him. We can never ever as a nation give in to the attitudes expressed by the Ron DeSantis types. We must push back against it at every single opportunity. Hate isn’t an acceptable ideology.

  15. - OneMan - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 10:05 am:

    Seems like a great statement to me.

  16. - Blue Dog - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 10:09 am:

    Chairman Atkinson referenced a study produced by McKinsey and Company. A quick google search of this firm, IMO, reveals a predictable outcome of this study and thereby discredits any relevancy.

  17. - Rich Miller - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 10:11 am:

    ===A quick google search of this firm===

    Man, if you didn’t know what McKinsey was, maybe you should have done more than a quick Google search.

  18. - Grandson of Man - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 10:19 am:

    These things may work out themselves, like when MAGA wrecked Raunerites in last year’s primary. MAGA is attacking DeSantis, to the discomfort of some Republicans. It’s just getting started. Pass the popcorn please.

  19. - Jerry - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 10:58 am:

    So amazing that xtians insist on forcing their “lifestyle choice” on others.

  20. - Blue Dog - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 11:15 am:

    It’s tough getting old. I completely forgot about some of the great consulting work McKinsey has done in the past. Shame on me. I stand corrected. Their work is to be trusted.

  21. - Chicago Republican - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 11:39 am:

    The American people are much more in the middle than Florida or Illinois. It’s the reason Joe Biden is president and not Bernie Sanders. This culture war, driven by the politicians and media is harmful to the country, and speeches like this one, and policies like those in Florida do nothing to lower the temperture, and dont match the reality of what Americans are concerned about. In short, tell me about your ridiculous left and right wings positions once I can afford to pay my rent and power bill

  22. - cermak_rd - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 1:09 pm:

    I have worked for decades in industry and since at least 1990 it has been recognized that diversity is important, not just because our customers are diverse and we want to make products that appeal to them, but also because project teams with diversity tend to have multiple angles they can approach a problem, due to the differences in the backgrounds of the team members.
    Also these days for the very practical reason that we are approaching a situation in which there is no clear majority of anyone in the younger crowd. No group makes up 50% so unless you want to limit yourself to recruiting to a minority of the population, you’re going to have diverse teams.

  23. - Dotnonymous - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 1:51 pm:

    “People are created by God to be male or female.” - Kevin Stitt

    “Because when we send our kids to college, we expect our tuition to pay for their education, not their indoctrination” - Kevin Stitt

  24. - Shytown - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 2:49 pm:

    == speeches like this one, and policies like those in Florida do nothing to lower the temperture ==

    And folks like you are too quick to forget history. Some of us have learned to stand up to hate and efforts to marginalize people who don’t have a voice as so many of us do. And if all we do is worry about our own pocketbooks, then we are part of the problem. We need to bring everyone along, otherwise we’re no better than those who did/said nothing while some forces in history committed terrible atrocities on others.

    Complicity is our enemy and if those with a platform, like this chair or our governor or others, say nothing then they are part of the problem.

    Remember these words:

    First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

    That is as true today as it was 90 years ago.

  25. - Arguenda - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 3:07 pm:

    @dotnonymus Thank gosh we aren’t a theocracy -or do you have some Christian Sharia for us to stomach?

  26. - Politix - Thursday, Mar 16, 23 @ 3:48 pm:

    Speeches like this are absolutely necessary. We need leaders in every state and every sector to take a stand against racism and bigotry. We cannot underestimate the nationwide impact of state-level supremacist policies. They’re a plague on the nation.

Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.

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