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Florida is slimming down its plan to take on “woke” colleges — but not by much

Though less ambitious, two bills could still dramatically alter higher education in the state if signed into law.

A blue sticker that says We Heart New College.
Demonstrators protest as Gov. DeSantis appoints a new New College of Florida Board of Trustees.
Octavio Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

At the start of the year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced sweeping plans to dismantle major areas of Florida’s higher education system: weakening tenure protections for professors, eliminating majors like gender studies, and prohibiting programming related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The vehicle for those changes was two bills in the state legislature, House Bill 999 and the Senate companion SB 266. But the bills have stalled during the legislative session for concerns of overreach. Lawmakers, led by a Republican supermajority, have pulled back, acknowledging that the bills’ language on diversity, equity, and inclusion could lead some schools and programs to lose their accreditation.

Both bills intended to prevent state colleges and universities from using public funding on initiatives and programs that promote diversity, equity, inclusion, or critical race theory.

But now the bills have been scrubbed of any references to “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Lawmakers have instead opted for broader language against “programs” that support ideas related to “oppression and privilege,” “systemic racism,” and other related concepts. The changes were recently accepted by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Education during a two-hour hearing, where students, educators, and critics testified against the proposals.

The revision, though, is only a small victory for supporters of academic freedom. While the lawmakers decided to pare back the restrictions on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, the bills still seek to change how professors are hired and get tenure and what is taught on college campuses. And Republicans are making it clear that removing critical race theory is still their ultimate aim.

“It is encouraging to see the Legislature taking up this important topic and joining the conversation that the governor began with his legislative proposals for higher education reform in Florida. The governor is committed to ensuring that the DEI and CRT (critical race theory) bureaucracies are cut off and wither on the vine,” Jeremy Redfern, a spokesperson for the governor, told the Tampa Bay Times. “This legislation is still part of the legislative process, but we look forward to it reaching the governor’s desk in final form.”

Critics fear that, while specific bans on diversity, equity, and inclusion were removed, the broadening of the language could also present even more problems since there will be greater room for interpretation. Here’s what’s in the revised higher education legislation.

The bans on diversity, equity, and inclusion have been removed — but the replacement might be more extreme

When DeSantis first announced plans to prohibit the funding of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, he said wanted to do so because they “force exclusion and division” and he wanted to “prevent discrimination in the workplace and public schools.”

But concerns over accreditation for certain programs, raised by Florida Democrats, have halted those restrictions in the bills. Accreditation is, essentially, a stamp of approval in higher education from oversight bodies, which certifies that an institution meets certain educational standards. College and program accreditation allows students to receive federal financial aid, and schools to issue degrees and professional licenses when students graduate.

During the hearing, one lawmaker pointed out that curriculums on diversity, equity, and inclusion are required for certain education courses in the mental health profession. According to the lawmaker, she had received countless emails from students and educators who believe the bans would completely curtail certain programs.

So Republicans pivoted to restricting broader ideas that “undermine institutions in the United States.”

Though the terms diversity, equity, and inclusion are no longer in the bills, the broadening of the language could mean that even more programs and course content are in jeopardy. As the bills originally stated, universities would have to review their curriculums to make sure they’re complying with the new legislation. This includes not teaching “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.”

Hiring procedures and tenure protocol would change

The bills aim to change the state university system’s hiring protocol. Currently, school deans, department chairs, and faculty committees usually control hiring decisions, but both bills would give university presidents the power to hire faculty members — and fire them. When making such decisions, university presidents wouldn’t have to consult others for their opinions, according to the bill.

Before this latest revision, hiring decisions were left to politically appointed boards of trustees. And if a professor is fired or stripped of tenure, they can’t appeal the decision beyond the school’s president.

Experts are already questioning whether this would even be legal. Andrew Gothard, president of the statewide union United Faculty of Florida, told the Tampa Bay Times, “There’s going to be some question of whether that’s legal and how well that would hold up in court. But even beyond the sort of technicalities of that, what we’re seeing is the continued efforts of the Legislature to enforce Governor DeSantis’ big government version of how Florida should operate.”

Though these bills haven’t been signed into law, some schools are already facing challenges around tenure. At the New College of Florida, the school’s interim president Richard Corcoran, whom DeSantis appointed amid what critics have called a hostile takeover of the school, recently told seven faculty members to withdraw their tenure applications ahead of the upcoming April board of trustees meeting.

This request was unprecedented: Professors had been approved by colleagues and administrators at every required stage of the tenure process ahead of final approval at the board meeting. In April 2022, DeSantis signed a law requiring university leaders to review professors’ tenure every five years. Now HB 999 could go further by allowing university trustees to call for tenure review at any moment.

“We will be shutting down low-performing, ideologically-captured academic departments and hiring new faculty,” Christopher Rufo, the DeSantis-appointed trustee behind the anti-critical race theory movement, said in February. Critics say conservatives like Rufo are willfully misinterpreting the purpose of academic tenure. “Its goal is to give professors the freedom to pursue lasting truths without being cowed either by the trustees and presidents who appoint them, or by powerful majorities who might be offended by their teachings or findings,” Amherst College professor Adam Sitze wrote.

The fate of the New College professors won’t be known before the next board meeting on April 26.

The bills no longer target specific majors and minors

The new bills no longer specifically name restrictions on certain majors like “gender studies” but have now broadened their language to state that universities should remove “any major or minor that is based on or otherwise utilizes pedagogical methodology associated with Critical Theory, including, but not limited to, Critical Race Theory, Critical Race Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, Radical Feminist Theory, Radical Gender Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Social Justice, or Intersectionality.”

These topics aren’t offered as majors or minors at Florida’s universities, but this language is broad and open to interpretation, which is alarming to education policy experts who spoke to Vox. A variety of majors, from African American studies to sociology to education, touch on these concepts. For example, the phrases “based on” and “methodology associated with” open the door for lawmakers to dispute a number of majors, including gender studies, which they originally targeted.

According to Sam Sharf, a gender studies major at New College, the earlier versions of the bill wanted to “dismiss gender studies entirely.”

Gender studies “is the study of human social expression, and human social expression is rooted in aspects like gender, race, and ethnicity. So even if you’re against LGBT people, we should still study these things as a form of sociology,” Sharf told Vox. “It’s my freedom to study this. So even if you ‘disagree’ with the framework of gender studies, it’s still my freedom the same way it’s other people’s freedom to go to a Christian school and learn about creationism.”

It’s unclear how lawmakers plan to enforce these restrictions or what kinds of consequences faculty members would face for teaching the topics.

Florida’s proposals are inspiring lawmakers in other states

Florida Republicans have pushed back against the idea that these bills are restrictive. State Rep. Alex Andrade of Pensacola said the intent was to improve rigor by removing concepts that have “not undergone the same amount of peer review, debate and scrutiny.” “The bill is far simpler than opponents want to give it credit for,” Andrade told the Tampa Bay Times. “The same folks saying ‘Stop Woke’ banned teaching of Black history are the same folks lying about this bill.”

Other states are following Florida’s lead. According to an Associated Press analysis, at least a dozen states have introduced more than 30 bills this year that target diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at colleges and universities. Many of the bills mirror language developed by the Manhattan Institute and the Goldwater Institute, conservative think tanks, and seek to limit how administrators consider diversity, equity, and inclusion during hiring decisions and other areas of campus life.

In Texas, for example, a bill filed in March would prevent professors hired after September from being able to seek tenure, a move that would drain the state of talented academics, critics have said. Bills in Missouri and Texas would also ban the mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion curriculum for medical students.

In Florida, the bills may undergo further revisions. Each legislative chamber will vote on them by early May, after which Gov. DeSantis is expected to sign them into law.