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Florida has launched an “unparalleled” assault on higher education

Ron DeSantis is threatening academic freedom everywhere.

A protester holds a sign reading “Support real education, not DeSantis indoctrination.”
Students and others attend a rally to protest Florida education policies outside Orlando City Hall on April 21, 2023, in Orlando, Florida.
Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency 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.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state’s Republican-led legislature are fighting a political and ideological war with public colleges and universities.

DeSantis first announced plans to drastically overhaul the state’s higher education system in January, floating ideas to defund diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, limit majors like gender studies, remake the small New College of Florida in his conservative vision, expel concepts like critical race theory from the curricula, and limit tenure protections for faculty. Through the bills that DeSantis recently signed this term, SB 266, HB 931 and SB 240, a number of these ideas are now law.

At a recent New College press conference, DeSantis denounced DEI, saying it was best described as “discrimination, exclusion, and indoctrination.” He also expressed his wish to have the state turn away from “niche subjects” to “employable majors.”

“If you want to do things like gender ideology, go to Berkeley. For us with our tax dollars, we want to be on the classical mission of what a university is supposed to be,” DeSantis told the audience, alongside Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist and newly appointed New College trustee leading the attack on critical race theory.

A new report from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the organization that established the nation’s tenure principles back in 1940, argues the state is leading an “assault” that is “unparalleled in US history.” And it’s not just Florida’s students and faculty who stand to be harmed, the organization wrote: “If sustained, this onslaught threatens the very survival of meaningful higher education in the state, with dire implications for the entire country.”

According to a statement, the DeSantis administration believes these bills will bring the state closer to its goal of being the top state for higher education and the top state for workforce education by 2030.

But the scope of the legislation will only weaken the system by undermining academic freedom and shared governance, the AAUP argues. The report also found details about how the governor’s attempt to change higher education has been going. Since DeSantis started announcing his plans, AAUP learned that administrators throughout the state haven’t challenged DeSantis, pushing back neither publicly nor privately. The organization also found that the lawmakers have already produced a chilling effect on academic freedom, with self-censorship and fear “spilling over” into the private institutions, as some faculty look outside of Florida for work.

What’s in SB 266 — the mammoth anti-DEI bill

The heftiest of the three higher education bills is SB 266, which DeSantis signed into law on May 15. It contains broad directives — requiring every state college and university to revise its mission statement and strategic plan — but also some specific ones, limiting the types of courses and majors institutions can offer.

The bill states that an institution’s mission statement and strategic plan must be reviewed and in alignment. Ultimately, the lawmakers want the state’s public colleges and universities to develop goals to “promote the state’s economic development” by attracting tech firms and venture capital to the state. The law prioritizes students who want to solve problems in “life sciences, water, sustainability, energy, and health care.”

The law limits what schools can offer as programs, majors, minors, and curriculum, and what topics can be taught in general education courses, the set of foundational courses students are required to take for a comprehensive liberal arts education.

The general education courses cannot be 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.” Relatedly, the law requires schools to provide students with an “economic security report,” to inform them of which degrees correspond with the highest and lowest annual earnings.

The law bans spending related to diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, beyond what is required by accreditors, stating that funds cannot be used to “promote, support, or maintain any programs or campus activities” that “advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, or promote or engage in political or social activism.” (Ultimately, this was softened from an earlier version of the bill that sought to ban the spending entirely, due to fears that colleges could lose accreditation.)

The bill also limits tenure protections for faculty members. Tenure is a lifetime academic appointment granted to professors who meet designated requirements and can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances. Under the law, there must be a post-tenure review of state university faculty every five years to assess accomplishments and productivity, teaching duties, student evaluations, compensation, and potential improvement plans. Faculty members do not have the right to appeal grievances beyond the university president.

University presidents are now responsible for hiring, disciplining, and firing the school provost, deans, and full-time faculty. The law specifically instructs presidents to not be bound by the recommendations or opinions of faculty members when making hiring decisions. As part of their expanded role, presidents must also present yearly performance evaluations and salaries of any personnel earning more than $200,000 to the board of trustees.

Together, the law strengthens the powers of university leaders and weakens the autonomy of faculty members. The bill threatens academic freedom, according to AAUP, since it limits the teaching of certain topics in the general education curriculum and halts funding for DEI measures, among other limitations. Faculty told the AAUP that the laws are “Orwellian” and that Florida is a “canary in a coal mine.”

What’s in HB 931 (the political viewpoints bill) and SB 240 (the workforce education bill)

HB931, signed by DeSantis on May 15, requires schools to assess their campus’ “intellectual freedom” and “viewpoint diversity” through an annual survey, to determine whether faculty and students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts on campus and in the classroom. Relatedly, schools cannot require personnel to complete a “political loyalty test” or use what Florida Republicans say are political filters during hiring, promotions, and admissions.

The law forbids “preferential consideration” in employment and admissions as a result of someone’s partisan beliefs or based on the person’s race or ethnicity or support for an ideological movement.

The lawmakers also say they want to promote greater dialogue across people with opposing viewpoints. HB 931 requires each state university to establish an Office of Public Policy Events to host speakers from “multiple, divergent, and opposing perspectives” on public policy.

In the bill the lawmakers wrote that “the advancement of knowledge is the fundamental purpose of the state university system and that such advancement is facilitated by the fearless sifting and winnowing of a wide diversity of views and that the open discussion and debate of contested public policy issues from diverse perspectives provides essential preparation for mature citizenship and an informed exercise of the right to vote.”

The law gets granular about how schools should run this office, from requiring that the office run at least four debates about “public policy issues widely discussed” to whom schools should invite as speakers and where they should post a video recording of the event online.

Also known as the Reimagining Education And Career Help (REACH) 2.0 Act, SB 240 seeks to expand workforce education programs and increase access to career and technical education programs for high school and college students.

The legislation is already hurting the state, academic freedom advocates say

Though the laws don’t take effect until July 1, the AAUP’s report states that these new laws, coupled with the restrictive education laws that Florida has already passed in the past two years, are already reshaping public higher education “according to ideological and partisan political standards.” The report states:

All of these bills work together to attack higher education on different fronts and serve to (1) threaten academic freedom as it relates to the teaching and research of certain topics, (2) weaken shared governance and workers’ rights by concentrating power in the hands of the boards of trustees and presidents, and (3) weaken educators’ ability to unionize, thus limiting their ability to fight the abuses of power that are bound to occur after the passage of these bills.

Though courts could overturn some of the new legislation, the report states, the measures have “already done tremendous damage.” For example, some faculty members are looking to leave their positions as filling positions with faculty members of color becomes increasingly difficult.

The president of the United Faculty of Florida told the report’s committee that faculty are turning down job offers in Florida without even having other offers. And for those who don’t depart, they’re self-censoring by changing syllabi and assignments out of caution. One tenured law professor told the committee that the situation is “Kafkaesque,” since “There is literally not a class I teach where I am not somehow violating policies and laws.”

The organization is calling on the rest of the country to be vigilant. According to the report, the laws have already served as a model for legislation introduced and in some cases passed, in Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas. “What is happening in Florida will not stay in Florida,” the report says.

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