Senators revise contentious higher ed bill after uproar over the state of FL’s public universities

University faculty still fear limitations on teaching certain topics that involve race and history

By: - April 12, 2023 6:57 pm

Florida State University. Credit: Diane Rado

State senators on Wednesday did an overhaul on a higher education bill that has been under scrutiny by university communities in Florida and nationwide over academic freedom, tenure provisions, limits on class instruction and the DeSantis administration’s overreach into Florida’s university system.

One of the major changes in the document removed a provision related to tenure protections for professors. Those professors would have been subjected to a review of their work at any time for cause, which could lead to job terminations.

But on Wednesday, State Sen. Erin Grall, the sponsor of the higher education bill, SB 266, in the Senate, removed that provision.

Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat who represents part of Miami-Dade County, appreciated the change in the language on tenure on Wednesday.

“Thank you for some of the changes that were made…particularly on the post-tenure review with cause,” he said to Grall.

But for Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, the change is not much to celebrate.

J. Andrew Gothard, president of United Faculty of Florida. Credit: UFF.

“It’s an improvement over the previous iteration of the bill, which had tenure (review) at any time with cause, so that would have been very bad. This is a return to the status quo,” Gothard told the Phoenix, referring to Florida’s current 5-year review process that was signed into law in 2022.  The faculty union is still opposed on that issue.

The removal of at-will tenure reviews was just one portion of the Wednesday changes in SB 266.

Another aspect of the overhaul that Gothard says is a “slight improvement” involves the hiring process of fulltime faculty. In the previous version of the bill, the board of trustees, who are often appointed by the governor, would have been responsible for hiring decisions.

But in the changed language, the final hiring decision goes to the university president, who can delegate the hiring process to other administrators such as college deans. Gothard said that deans are often former faculty members and have experience in specific areas of study.

That said, there are still overarching concerns about the bill’s potential impact on academic freedom and the ability to teach certain topics, particularly regarding race and history. Professors and faculty members claim these concerns are driving away potential new hires and students.

SB 266 requires that the Board of Governors, which oversees the states university system, to “periodically review the mission of each constituent university and make updates or revisions as needed.”

But language added Wednesday to SB 266 now calls on the Board of Governors to include directions for each state university to examine any curriculum that “is based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities” or other curriculum that violates Florida’s so-called “Stop WOKE Act.”

This language leads some faculty members to be concerned that various courses and even student-led organizations may be prohibited or removed if SB 266 becomes law.

‘We’re losing our teachers’

S. Kathleen Krach, who is an assistant professor at Florida State University in school psychology, indicated that the political sphere surrounding higher education in Florida is reaching across the nation.

“When I was at my national conference couple of months back, they all had heard what’s going on in Florida — and the other faculty came in with: ‘when are you leaving?’” Krach told the Senate committee during public testimony.

Some faculty members who are involved in recruiting future hires have heard similar hesitation.

“We’re already starting to see a brain drain from our state institutions,” said Matthew Lota, faculty for Florida State University. “As an example, in the Florida State College of Arts and Sciences, the number of faculty members who have indicated that they are leaving after 2023 is about double what it was in 2022.”

“More and more often, we’re hearing ‘I don’t think this is a good time to be an educator in the state of Florida’…they want to be assured that their tenure process will be about academics and not politics,” he said. “They want to know that they can speak freely in their classrooms without having their words distorted and censored for political reasons. They want to know that when they speak truth they can speak the whole truth and not an edited version of the truth.”

Republican supporters of the legislation argue that the bill doesn’t infringe on a professor’s ability to teach history.

Erin Grall. Credit: Florida Senate

Sen. Grall, who represents Central Florida counties, said that the bill is not meant to prohibit speech and claims that the legislation is creating “a clear policy that will be easy to understand, and use, and not create more confusion.”

This is not the first time that Grall removed provisions. The original filing had numerous prohibitions on majors and minors related to so-called Critical Race Theory and other fields of studies.

But Sen. Tracie Davis, a Democrat who represents part of Duval County, said that putting limitations on academic freedoms in university settings creates a chilling effect on professors and academic freedom.

“What we’re doing is we’re losing our teachers, because we’re holding them hostage. We’re losing our students, because they can’t learn freely.” Sen. Tracy Davis said Wednesday.

The bill was approved on party lines in the Senate appropriations committee on education. It has another committee stop before the full Senate considers the measure.

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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.