Gov. DeSantis lambastes ‘ideology’ in FL’s university system and threatens tenure for profs

By: - January 31, 2023 12:39 pm

Gov. Ron DeSantis discusses higher education proposals at State College of Florida on Jan. 31, 2023. Credit: screenshot/Florida Channel

In a list of higher education proposals Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said that “unproductive” tenured professors are the “most significant deadweight costs” at Florida universities. That’s why the governor wants those professors to face evaluations, at risk of their jobs, at any point of their tenure.

State College of Florida/Manatee-Sarasota. Credit: SCF

That’s not a traditional approach in the world of higher education, raising questions about undermining the role of tenure in Florida and limiting academic freedoms in classrooms and on campuses.

DeSantis made the remarks at a press conference at State College of Florida in Bradenton, including removing ‘ideology’ from college campuses, prohibiting state funds from going towards critical race theory programs and diversity initiatives, and having university presidents be more involved in faculty hiring.

The announcement on tenure evaluations builds off of legislation from the 2021 session that requires tenured professors to undergo an evaluation every five years.

“Yes, we have the five-year review of all the tenured faculty, which is, which is good…and the board of trustees have to determine whether they stay or go. But you may need to do review more aggressively than just five,” DeSantis said at the Tuesday press conference.

“So we’re going to give the boards of trustees and the presidents of the universities the power to call a post-tenure review at any time. And so maybe you’re in year three, but there’s a need to do it, so we want to do that,” he added.

DeSantis continued: “And I’ve talked with folks around the country who’ve been involved in higher ed reform, and the most significant deadweight cost at universities is typically unproductive tenured faculty. And so why would we want to saddle you as taxpayers with that cost if we don’t have to do that?”

Quickly, Democrats responded to the proposals.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando described the press conference as “unhinged,” and once again attacking higher education in Florida.

The press conference Tuesday came after a statement from community college presidents in Florida saying that they support DeSantis’ views against critical race theory and other related academic topics that have been controversial under DeSantis’ administration.

At this time, the four-year university system’s presidents have not issued a similar statement.

In addition to the potential changes surrounding tenure, DeSantis said he wanted university presidents to have an active role in hiring new faculty members.

“We also want to empower university presidents to make hiring decisions for their university by reestablishing their authority over the hiring process,” DeSantis said. “A lot of this is done by faculty committees and, you know, they have a certain worldview that they want to promote. Those are the candidates that they’re going to bring in, and if you don’t toe that line, you’re not going to get hired, to be able to go through that process.”

He continued: “That’s going to make a huge, huge difference in terms of making sure not only we have high quality faculty, but we’re not employing some type of ideological litmus test to be able to be hired in the first place.”

He did not explain how university presidents would be more involved in the hiring process of faculty members at the press conference, but a follow-up press release said that the proposed legislation would require “institutions’ presidents and boards of trustees to take ownership of hiring and retention decisions, without interference from unions and faculty committees.”

He also discussed efforts to prohibit funding from going to a variety of programs that his administration finds problematic, including critical race theory as well as diversity, equity and inclusion programs. But he did not get into the specifics on how that legislation would work.

“We’re also going to eliminate all DEI and CRT bureaucracies in the state of Florida. No funding, and that will wither on the vine. And I think that that’s very important, because it really serves as an ideological filter, a political filter. You’ve seen different things.

A follow-up press release added that the legislation would prohibit “higher education institutions from using any funding, regardless of source, to support DEI, CRT, and other discriminatory initiatives.”

Critical race theory was originally coined decades ago as an academic term to “interrogate the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship,” according to the American Bar Association. But over the past few years, the term has been used by right-wing politicians to criticize a variety of progressive-leaning politics and initiatives.

On the other hand, diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives describe a wide variety of programs implemented at higher education institutions. DEI programs are also being targeted by right-wing politicians like DeSantis.

A follow-up press release from the governor’s office Tuesday outlined the additional measures DeSantis would like to see in the upcoming 2023 legislative session regarding higher education.

That includes, among other measures, requiring state agencies that oversee Florida’s higher education system to “review and realign general education core courses to make sure they provide historically accurate, foundational and career relevant education, not suppress or distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics.”

The proposals also allude to changes in three civic-based institutions in some of Florida’s universities – Florida State University’s Institute of Politics, Florida International University’s Adam Smith Center for the Study of Economic Freedom and University of Florida’s future Hamilton Center – though the specifics are not yet clear.

The Tuesday press release says that FSU’s Institute of Politics would be provided “additional responsibilities and clarifications” as well as a name change to “Florida Institute for Governance and Civics.”

All of the above legislative proposals would need approval by the Florida legislature in the 2023 session which starts March 7.

In a statement released Tuesday, Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, said that Floridians should be “outraged” by DeSantis’ efforts to “curtail speech, belief and association in our state’s higher education system.”

In a scathing written response to DeSantis’ higher education agenda, Gothard said:

“Unfortunately, we see that once again Gov. DeSantis and his cronies in Tallahassee are focused on spreading lies and misinformation about Florida’s colleges and universities, when they instead could be focused on helping,” Gothard said in a scathing written statement.

“The United Faculty of Florida stand in lock-step opposition to any and all so-called ‘reforms’ that will actually destroy our state’s world-class degree programs and their ability to serve our students. We will not allow Florida’s future to be sacrificed for cheap political points.”

Gothard’s written statement also addressed the governor’s attack on DEI programs:

“And here’s a healthy dose of truth — defunding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs will make it more difficult for first-generation college students, veterans, students with disabilities, and more to enroll in classes and complete degrees in Florida… The words themselves, ‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,’ show that these programs are not just about race; they are about ensuring that everyone has fair and equal access to Florida’s higher education classrooms.”

The ACLU of Florida tweeted Tuesday following DeSantis’ press conference:

“The governor’s latest attempt to restrict free speech and erase the history and legacy of discrimination in America by impeding the right to share ideas and receive information in classrooms is dangerous for our democracy and future generations.”

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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.