FL university system under siege as state lawmakers convene for 2023 legislative session
Students from FSU, FAMU and TCC gathered at the Westcott Fountain to protest DeSantis Administration policies on higher education on Feb. 23, 2023. Credit: Danielle J. Brown
Two years ago, a GOP Florida lawmaker wanted to discourage students from pursuing liberal arts degrees to promote more lucrative careers. It didn’t pan out, but there was far more to come:
University of Florida professors were told they couldn’t testify in a federal court case. Lawmakers pushed through a bill to undercut tenure protections. Universities had to show, financially, whether their programs promoted critical race theory, a precursor for eliminating certain courses. The DeSantis administration overhauled an entire public university, New College of Florida, into a conservative-leaning institution.
Those actions and several more have accelerated to a “draconian” and “hostile takeover” of Florida’s higher education system that could chill free speech on college campuses, according to the university community.
The latest effort is a bill, HB 999, that will be considered during the 2023 legislation session, which begins Tuesday.
“I think it’s (HB 999) much more extreme,” LeRoy Pernell, a professor of law at Florida A&M University’s Orlando campus, told the Phoenix. “It’s a continuation of some of those themes, but it’s become much more divisive, much more driven by political dogma now than in the past.”
The legislation would eliminate entire majors and courses at the state’s publicly funded universities, prohibit universities from supporting programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion among other topics, and allow university boards of trustees to evaluate tenured professors at any time.
The bill was filed in late February by GOP Rep. Alex Andrade, who represents parts of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties in the Panhandle. Its Senate version is SB 266, sponsored by Republican Sen. Erin Grall.
Jackie Azis, staff attorney of the ACLU of Florida, believes that measures within the bill are “antithetical to a free society that believes in the freedom of speech and the freedom of sharing information and ideas.”
“It isn’t typical for a free society to limit what people can discuss and learn about in these ways in public institutions,” she told the Phoenix.
Threats to majors and minors
It was state Sen. Dennis Baxley of Central Florida who initially proposed a bill in 2021 that would have limited which students could utilize a popular merit-based scholarship called Bright Futures, based on which major the student decided to pursue.
Baxley wanted to limit scholarship funds that students earned to go towards only certain majors, and it was heavily speculated that liberal arts majors would be on the chopping block.
But after immense backlash from students, parents and college and university faculty, Baxley backed off.
But for the 2023 legislative session, the Legislature wants to ban certain majors all together.
HB 999 prompts the Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, to give “direction to each constituent university on removing from its programs any major or minor in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems,” according to the legislation.
This means that a wide range of majors and minors could be phased out, leaving Florida students without those options at a public university.
The legislation comes weeks after the state’s community college system presidents released a joint statement affirming that they will follow in the footsteps of the DeSantis administration’s crusade against critical race theory or other academic lenses such as intersectionality.
However, the presidents of the public universities in Florida, overseen by the Board of Governors, did not release such a statement at that time. The Phoenix has reached out to the board to see if there is a such a statement or if there are plans to issue one, but has not yet received a response.
In addition, the bill prohibits the Florida colleges and universities from promoting, supporting or maintaining any program that “espouse diversity, equity, and inclusion or Critical Race Theory rhetoric.”
Pernell, with the FAMU College of Law, said that “talking about tough issues, talking about imaginative solutions, is to the benefit of all who participates.”
“One of the things that, in my field, in law, we try to train people to be society problem solvers,” he noted. “And the insanity of laws like this is: how can you train people to be problem solvers when talking about the law is outlawed? When researching about the law is outlawed? When any discussion of different ideas to reach a solution is un-American?”
Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, compared the bill to propaganda seen out of Soviet Russia or North Korea:
“If we look at HB 999, this is a clear example of what state sponsored indoctrination looks like. When you start banning subject matter, limiting speech, controlling what students are allowed to learn and talk about on higher education campuses — I mean, trying to change the way that we understand history through forcing faculty to only present certain sides of arguments — like, this is indoctrination, and it’s coming directly from Tallahassee,” Gothard said.
HB 999 also has language on how general education courses would function, saying that such courses should “promote values necessary to preserve the constitutional republic through traditional, historically accurate, and high-quality coursework.”
The bill language adds: “Courses with a curriculum based on unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content are best suited as elective or specific program prerequisite credit, not general education credit.”
“Well, you’ve just thrown most of the hard sciences and medicine out the window,” Gothard told the Phoenix.
Gothard added: “Last time I checked, the reason that universities exist, and colleges as well, is to study the cutting edge of ideas and to decide how we feel about them. To ban higher education institutions from that is to essentially say: ‘As a society, you know, we’ve learned everything we need to learn. Let’s stop here.’”
“The whole bill is baffling,” Gothard said.
Tenure protections get worse
After the 2022 legislative session, 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.”
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.
Then, in late January, DeSantis continued to deride faculty members, saying that “unproductive” tenured professors are the “most significant deadweight costs” at Florida universities.
Now, HB 999 for the 2023 legislative session would add on to the 5-year tenure review language, saying that university professors could be reviewed at any time with cause, though the legislation does not outline what would constitute as “cause.”
Tenure has been a long-standing tenet of Florida’s higher education system and is supposed to protect professors’ academic freedom, but Pernell with FAMU calls the at-will tenure review a “direct threat” to academic freedom and the expression of differing viewpoints.
“Tenure is designed to allow for freedom of expression in our learning process. Once people have become tenured, historically, that’s not subject to political judgement that’s being imposed in the future,” Pernell told the Phoenix.
“This bill is one of those attempts to not only assert the notion that our activity, our intellectual activities in higher education, should be subject to political control, but also use these methods to actually try to suppress and outlaw any topic that does not fit your political agenda,” he added.
The bill also gives power to the university presidents final say in hiring a new faculty member, saying that the Board of Trustees at a state university “must approve or deny any selection by the president.” In addition, the bill says that a university president and board of trustees are not required to consider “recommendations or opinions of faculty of the university or other individuals or groups” in the hiring process.
National groups speak out
Shortly after HB 999 was filed for the 2023 legislative session, three national organizations filed a joint statement calling the legislation “draconian,” saying that the bill would chill the speech of faculty and students and “purge whole fields of study from public universities.”
The American Association of University Professors, The American Federation of Teachers and the National Coalition Against Censorship believes that HB 999 would “would make Florida’s colleges and universities into an arm of the DeSantis political operation,” according to a joint statement released on Feb. 27.
“Historically, autocratic regimes have set their sights on cultural centers, the arts, and colleges and universities, because they see these places as threats to their power and control,” the joint statement reads, in part. “The events unfolding in Florida are state-sponsored efforts to stifle ideas, silence debate, and limit the autonomy of educational institutions whose faculty, staff, students, or administrators may disagree with the party in power. Faculty, advocates of academic freedom and anyone interested in preserving our democracy must fight these draconian measures with everything we have—in Florida and in every other state where they appear.”
“If anyone’s shocked by these events, they shouldn’t be,” said Jeremy Young, senior manager of PEN America, who wrote recently in an opinion piece for the Daily Beast. “They’re merely the most recent efforts in an intensifying campaign by some conservative state lawmakers to undermine the autonomy of public colleges and universities through viewpoint-based government restrictions on speech.”
Just Friday, the American Historical Association located in Washington, D.C., released a statement voicing their opposition of the bill.
“What has previously best been characterized as unwarranted political intervention into public education has now escalated to an attempt at a hostile takeover of a state’s system of higher education,” according to a Friday written statement.
The AHA continues: “We express horror (not our usual “concern”) at the assumptions that lie at the heart of this bill and its blatant and frontal attack on principles of academic freedom and shared governance central to higher education in the United States. Florida’s legislature has on its agenda a dagger to the heart of an American institutional framework that has long been the envy of the world (and a source of billions of dollars in revenue from international students).”
The organization is worried that provisions in HB 999 would threaten history education.
“All history teachers ‘suppress’ some events; everything has a history, and no course can include all histories. It is up to the teacher, within reasonable state guidelines, to select what is most important and most useful to students in a particular class.”
The statement ends with:
“This is not only about Florida. It is about the heart and soul of public higher education in the United States and about the role of history, historians, and historical thinking in the lives of the next generation of Americans.”
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