DeSantis, other state officials, go after university professors, tenure protections

By: - April 19, 2022 4:24 pm

University of Florida. Credit: UF website.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran  scrutinized university professors, made claims about profs indoctrinating students and criticized the long-standing tenet of Florida’s traditional tenure system during a news conference Tuesday.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, in The Villages on Feb. 1, 2021. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

The officials gathered for a bill signing — not at a state university or anywhere related to higher education — but at The Villages in Sumter County in Central Florida, where a majority of residents are senior citizens and where DeSantis has visited many times.

At the event, the dialogue also centered around tenured-professors “indoctrinating” students on campuses.

(Senate President Wilton Simpson also attended the new conference, but kept a majority of his remarks on K-12 education initiatives.)

The Tuesday bill signing of SB 7044  included a number of higher education measures, but the tenure issue was a main focus.

The bill, now a law, states that “The Board of Governors may adopt a regulation requiring each tenured state university faculty member to undergo a comprehensive post tenure review every 5 years. The board may include other considerations in the regulation, but the regulation must address: accomplishments and productivity; assigned duties in research, teaching, and service; performance metrics, evaluations, and ratings; and recognition and compensation considerations, as well as improvement plans and consequences for underperformance.”

The United Faculty of Florida, a statewide university faculty union, responded, saying: “If Gov. DeSantis and Florida’s legislative leaders demonstrated anything during today’s press conference, it is that they fundamentally do not understand how Florida’s higher education system works,” according to the union’s written statement.

“Tenure protects the right of faculty to teach and research honestly and accurately without the threat of politicians who would fire them for doing their jobs, and it protects the rights of students to learn about whatever interests them without being told by big government how to live their lives. The statements made today are playing political games with the futures of over a million of Florida’s students.”

The statement said that DeSantis “enjoys touting the top-ranked quality of our state’s higher education system, while simultaneously failing to recognize that Florida’s higher education faculty are the reason for that ranking.”

The statement also noted the process which professors get tenure.

“Tenure was awarded to them (professors) by the approval of their peers both internal and external to their institution, their administrators and the members of their boards of trustees, who have been appointed by the governor,” the written statement said.

Sprowls, a Republican representing part of Pinellas County, implied that some tenured professors could hold a student’s grade over their head for not believing in certain ideals.

“Are they (students) going to walk into a university system that’s more about indoctrination than it is about getting a job some day and learning the skills necessary and the subject matter necessary to get a job?” Sprowls said. “Or is it about some sort of radical political agenda that a particular professor, who’s been told they get a lifetime job, is going to tell them that they have to believe to get an ‘A’ in their class?”

He added:

“We want to make sure that when they walk into that classroom, and there’s that professor who didn’t really come to teach — And I want to say this, there are lots of professors who come to teach. There’s lots of teachers who come to teach.

“But there are some who come to indoctrinate and they shouldn’t have a life-time job. They shouldn’t get a life-time job here in the state of Florida.”

Sprowls also spoke on changes to syllabus and textbook transparency in the legislation, which requires that students be notified of course textbooks at least 45 days before the first day of class and course syllabi provide “sufficient” information on course curriculum, goals of the course and how student performance will be measured.

“How many of us went to a — you know, whether it’s a high school class or a college class and you get the syllabus like two weeks into the semester. Right?” he said at the press conference located in The Villages. “And they start to tell you, ‘well, we thought this was a class about, you know, western democracy, but really it’s, you know, it’s a class on socialism and communism.'”

Corcoran, who previously attempted a bid for Florida State University’s president and didn’t make the cut, added an anecdote about his college-aged kids and their experiences in classrooms.

“I have two in college, and the two in colleges are saying to me and they’re telling me something that the professor said. And I’ll say ‘that’s just like the most liberal, unfactual diatribe — why didn’t you say something?’ And they literally say ‘I want to get a good grade,'” Corcoran claimed, prompting groans from the audience.

“That’s a horrible institution. That’s not free speech. That’s not the beauty of an academic learning environment,” he said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference at The Villages in Sumter County on April 19, 2022. Credit: Screenshot/Florida Channel

DeSantis bragged about Florida’s top ranking state university system, moments before saying that Florida’s professors need to be “held accountable.”

“Our state university systems rank number one in the nation five years in a row by U.S. News and World Report,” he said, and added: “University of Florida is ranked number 5 amongst top public universities in the entire country and many of our other universities have improved dramatically, so we’re proud of that and I can promise we can keep that going.” (The rankings also show that UF is not alone. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and University of California, Santa Barbara, also rank 5 in the rankings.)

He added:

“Yes, higher education is important but it needs to be accountable,” DeSantis said. “We need to have good curriculum. We need to make sure the faculty are held accountable and that they don’t just have tenure forever, without having any type a — of, of, of, of, of, of, of, — a voice to hold them accountable or evaluate what they’re doing,” DeSantis said, struggling to find his words.

He added later:

“So, now with tenure, you have a five-year review. Every five years you go in front of the board of trustees–”

Applause and cheering from the audience interrupted DeSantis mid-sentence.

He continued:

“You go in front of the board of trustees, and they have the ability to part ways with you. And I think the thing is that tenure was there to protect people so that they could do ideas that maybe would cause them to lose their jobs, or whatever, and academic freedom. I don’t know that it’s really the role that it plays quite frankly, any more. I think what it does, if anything, is created more of an intellectual orthodoxy, where people who have dissenting views, it’s harder for them to even become tenured in the first place. And then once you’re tenured your productivity really declines, particularly in certain disciplines.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.