FL’s higher ed system faces a mountain of contentious changes under DeSantis; here’s a rundown

The governor has engaged in a feud that pits faculty members against university and college administrators

By: - January 24, 2023 12:37 pm

Pugh Hall at UF hosts the Bob Graham Center, among other programs. Credit: Spohpatuf via Wikimedia Commons

Gov. Ron DeSantis regularly touts the top-ranking status of Florida’s higher education system, but over the past year, his administration has micromanaged and implemented a barrage of fundamental changes that have impacted how the state’s universities and community colleges function.

Between legislation, lawsuits, trials, and conservative policies, DeSantis has engaged in a feud that pits faculty members against top university and college administrators who have gone along with the governor’s initiatives.

Just a sample of the policies drastically shaping the landscape of Florida’s higher education include:

Stifling testimony from professors in federal court cases, creating new “evaluations” for tenured professors, surveying students and faculty on campuses to measure political leanings, investigating expenses related to Critical Race Theory, and rejecting an Advanced Placement course on African-American studies that has reached national criticism.

As state lawmakers prepare for the 2023 legislative session starting March 7, the Florida Legislature could enact even more changes for the state’s universities and community colleges.

Here is a roundup of what’s happened in just one year.

Judge says that UF professors were barred from testifying

One of the major shifts in Florida higher education and free speech occurred when University of Florida professors were barred from testifying in a federal court case challenging a law that restricted voting access.

The professors challenged the decision in court on the count of limiting free speech. A federal judge agreed with the challengers, comparing the Florida’s flagship university to the Chinese Communist Party, the Phoenix reported in January.

Intellectual Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity 

In April, students and faculty across the state received an email from top state education officials asking them to fill out a survey that asked about their own political leanings.

Florida State University campus. Credit: Diane Rado.

Students were also asked to speculate on the political leanings of their university or college instructors.

The controversial survey is a part of a law from the 2021 legislative session, which was intended to measure the “extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented” to students and faculty of higher education.

The survey created a stir among many faculty and students, and when the results of the survey were released in late August, a vast majority of college and university students did not fill it out.

The law is being challenged at the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee. Hearings wrapped up last week and the defense and plaintiffs will provide written arguments before a ruling is made.

Tenure changes

Later in April, DeSantis signed fundamental changes to tenure protections of university professors into law, requiring that tenured professors undergo an evaluation every five years, which would consider a variety of factors: “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.”

Tenure has been a long-standing tenet of Florida’s higher education system and is supposed to protect professors’ academic freedom.

At the bill signing, DeSantis, then-House Speaker Chris Sprowls and former Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran scrutinized tenured professors who supposedly “indoctrinate” students and base grades on conforming to certain political ideas.

Lawsuit on HB 7

A law banning certain lessons regarding race and gender called HB 7: Individual Freedom, casually referred to as the “Stop WOKE Act,” was passed in the 2022 legislative session.

Schoolchildren at a public charter school in South Florida attend a bill signing, HB 7, with Gov. Ron DeSantis. CRT references Critical Race Theory. April 22, 2022.

While the law was already contentious, last minute changes in another law regarding the state budget created extra stakes: that state universities that are found in violation of the law might face financial penalties.

The Phoenix reported in a December commentary that portions of HB 7 had been blocked by federal courts:

“Thankfully, a court blocked the enforcement of HB 7 in higher education in mid-November. The lawsuit, which was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Florida, the Legal Defense Fund, and Ballard Spahr, argued that HB 7 violated the First Amendment right to free speech in classrooms and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause as the language quite openly targeted Black educators and students.”

Crackdown on critical race theory funding

In December, the governor’s office asked Florida’s public colleges and universities to collect data on how much money is spent on so-called “critical race theory” and “diversity, equity and inclusion” initiatives.

Critical race theory was originally coined decades ago as an academic term to “interrogate the role to race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship,” according to the American Bar Association.

The state memo requesting for such data was sent by the governor’s Office of Policy and Budget, indicating a potential risk in state funding should the results not come back to DeSantis’ liking.

All state universities have responded to the request, according to Renee Fargason, a communications official for the Board of Governors, in an email to the Phoenix.

The request for financial information shocked higher education and civil rights organizations, who say that it’s an effort to further chill university and college professors and threatens academic freedom.

But House Speaker Paul Renner said he wanted to know even more information than the governor’s office asked, including the names of faculty members associated with diversity, equity and inclusion programs, according to a statement from the Florida House of Representatives on Jan. 12. The deadline for Renner’s request is Feb. 13.

New College shake-up

On Jan. 6, DeSantis announced the appointment of six conservative-leaning members to the Board of Trustees of the New College of Florida, a public liberal arts college that is largely seen as more progressive-leaning.

College Hall at the New College of Florida in Sarasota. Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Included in the appointments is conservative activist Christopher Rufo, who is largely credited for spearheading the campaign against critical race theory as a talking point for Republicans, according to the New York Times.

Another appointee is Matthew Spalding, a dean at the very conservative and private Hillsdale College in Michigan. Members of DeSantis’s team have said that through the appointments, he intends to shape New College into the “Hillsdale of the South.”

DeSantis and transgender care at universities

On Jan. 11, the DeSantis administration sent a memo to the Board of Trustees chairs of each state university instructing them to collect thorough information about resources offered to transgender students for gender affirmation.

While the memo specifies that the responses should “not contain personally identifiable information or protected health information” it does require that universities provide the age and number of students receiving a variety of hormone therapies or gender affirming surgeries.

The memo also requests information on how long, if at all, individuals received “behavioral health services prior to their first treatment.

The memo was sent out of the Governor’s Office of Policy and Budget, and the deadline for university board of trustee chairs to respond is Feb. 13.

AP African American studies

On Jan. 12, the Board of Education sent a letter to the nonprofit College Board to notify that the state would not be implementing a pilot program for Advanced Placement African American studies for high school students to earn college credit.

“As presented, the content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value,” the Jan. 12 letter said.

Cassie Palelis, the press secretary for the Florida Department of Education, said in a email to the Phoenix. “If the course comes into compliance and incorporates historically accurate content, the department will reopen the discussion.”

That said, the history of African Americans is considered “required instruction” under Florida law.

The AP course has been under development of the College Board for over a decade, according to its website.

“The interdisciplinary course reaches into a variety of fields—literature, the arts and humanities, political science, geography, and science—to explore the vital contributions and experiences of African Americans,” according to the course description.

The DeSantis administration has been trying to counter criticisms of rejecting the African American studies course.

In a Friday Twitter post, Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. shared a graphic to outline what issues the Department of Education had with the African American studies course. The graphic identifies several authors with supposedly problematic content.

State Rep. Dianne Hart. Credit: House of Representatives.

The rejection of African American studies has led to an outpouring of criticism from Black Democratic lawmakers, activists and organizations nationwide.

Rep. Dianne Hart is the chair of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus. In a written statement Tuesday, Hart said that rejecting the AP course was a “purposeful erasure of Black history, people, and culture.”

She added: “This has gone on for far too long, and one must ask the question, what are you afraid of? Are you afraid that by learning the truth about American history that Black children will want revenge? Are you afraid that the truth about what has transpired in America will ruin the vain perspective of American Exceptionalism that we push on the world? Or are you afraid that your children and grandchildren will see you in their textbooks as the direct anthesis of ‘All men are created equal’?”

Community college presidents’ statement

Just last week, the presidents at Florida’s community colleges signed on a collective statement saying that they support the DeSantis administration’s concerns on diversity, equity and inclusion, critical race theory or other academic lenses on college campuses.

“As such, our institutions will not fund or support any institutional practice, policy, or academic requirement that compels belief in critical race theory or related concepts such as intersectionality, or the idea that systems of oppression should be the primary lens through which teaching and learning are analyzed and/or improved upon,” the joint statement says. “Further, if critical race theory or related concepts are taught as part of an appropriate postsecondary subject’s curriculum, our institutions will only deliver instruction that includes critical race theory as one of several theories and in an objective manner.”

But since then, there has not been a similar joint statement from the university presidents and it’s unclear if Florida’s university system will follow suit.

The Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s university system, will meet at Florida International University in Miami Tuesday through Wednesday, with a regular Board meeting scheduled at noon Wednesday.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.

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