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In Florida, DeSantis’s plans for colleges rattle some academics

Some experts say the changes affecting state universities are a sign of things to come nationally

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/AP)
7 min

In his efforts to remake higher education in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed laws that alter the tenure system, remove Florida universities from commonly accepted accreditation practices, and mandate annual “viewpoint diversity surveys” from students and faculty.

DeSantis (R) also pushed through legislation he dubbed the “Stop WOKE Act” that regulates what schools, including universities, and workplaces can teach about race and identity. The legislation — which went into effect Friday — already faces a legal challenge.

The lawsuit argues that the act violates constitutional rights and would have a dangerous chilling effect on academic freedom. A judge is expected to rule soon on a request by University of Central Florida associate professor Robert Cassanello to block the law. This week, the judge denied similar requests from other plaintiffs, saying they lacked standing. The state has asked a judge to dismiss the suit.

Cassanello, who teaches classes in civil rights movements, Jim Crow America, and emancipation and Reconstruction argued that the law “restricts his ability to accurately and fully teach these subjects.”

Meanwhile, the board of governors for Florida’s public university system took initial steps Thursday to approve regulations for enforcing the law, with potential penalties including discipline and termination for employees who do not comply. The law also ties some university funding to compliance.

DeSantis has said he wants to prevent the state’s colleges and universities from becoming “hotbeds for stale ideologies” and from developing “intellectually repressive environments.”

Some welcome his plans. But the measures have other faculty and academic leaders concerned. They also worry that Republicans intend to go even further to exert political control over public higher education — and that the conflicts roiling Florida signal fights to come in other states.

Critics of DeSantis’s efforts pointed to draft legislation that would have given to political appointees the power to hire and fire, and to veto school budgets. The proposals for the most part never made it into bills but were disclosed for a public-records request and published in the newsletter Seeking Rents.

“It is no exaggeration to say that the DeSantis administration represents an existential threat to higher education in the state of Florida,” said J. Andrew Gothard, the statewide president of the United Faculty of Florida and an instructor in the English department at Florida Atlantic University.

DeSantis’s office did not respond to questions about the draft legislation and whether the governor planned to propose the measures again.

State Rep. Fentrice Driskell, the leader of the Florida House Democratic caucus, said the proposals floated by DeSantis would be “a gross misstep” and would damage the state’s reputation and rankings in higher education.

“This would erode the autonomy of our public universities and colleges. It would be so far out of alignment with the entire purpose of people attending college in the first place, to prepare them to be free thinkers and to compete in this dynamic and globalized world,” Driskell said.

Other experts welcomed the suggestions as long-overdue pushback on liberal universities and saw the effort as an indicator of a more urgent need to rethink higher education nationally.

“It is not hard to preserve academic freedom while introducing genuine intellectual diversity to campus,” Adam Kissel, a former Education Department official and Heritage Foundation visiting fellow, wrote in an email. “In general this is by adding voices rather than restricting them.”

Kissel, whose focus at Heritage is on higher education, also praised the “individual freedom” act that took effect Friday. “It permits full classroom discussion of any issue, using any material, only so long as the professor does not say officially that for the purposes of the class, a certain position is to be deemed true.”

But Cassanello, who is president of United Faculty of Florida at the University of Central Florida, said faculty members are worried. “People are really concerned about their freedom in the classroom,” he said. “A lot of this legislation is unclear about where the lines are.”

College faculty are fighting back against state bills on critical race theory

DeSantis, who attended Yale and also graduated from Harvard Law School, has been a staunch supporter of technical training and certification programs in Florida, noting the need for people who learn trades or skills in industries such as trucking logistics and medical assistance.

In June, DeSantis lauded work experience over “a magic piece of paper which likely would have cost too much anyway” when he signed a law allowing state agencies to substitute work experience, including military experience, for college degrees in hiring.

“Give me somebody that served eight years in the Navy or the Marine Corps. That education is going to be much more beneficial and pertinent than someone that went $100,000 in debt to get a degree in zombie studies,” DeSantis said.

He has also pledged to keep tuition at public colleges and universities low, and this week, he changed rules for the state’s Bright Future scholarships to allow work experience by high school students to count toward required community service.

Judge rules for professors in University of Florida academic freedom case

Still, his proposals to rein in the independence of those schools have alarmed some academics in Florida and beyond. In other parts of the country, some legislators and governors are pushing for more autonomy over hiring and firing state employees. Tenure is coming under increasing criticism. And a number of states have passed bills to prevent colleges from teaching “divisive concepts.”

College faculty are fighting back against state bills on critical race theory

Florida may be leading the charge, said Fairfield University mathematics professor Irene Mulvey, the president of the American Association of University Professors, adding that Texas is not far behind and that many other states are following suit. “It’s a trend in the larger culture wars … where you see these politicians trying to throw red meat to the base and stir people up.”

University of Tennessee education professor Robert Kelchen said the most startling change in Florida is the recent legislation that will require universities periodically to change accreditors. No other state has done anything remotely similar, he said. Much is at stake; if a college is not properly accredited, its students cannot get federal financial aid.

Some higher-education scholars and faculty critics said lawmakers appeared not to understand the accreditation process, in which institutions undergo lengthy voluntary reviews, and that requiring schools to seek new accreditors would waste time and money.

Accreditation does not typically rise to this sort of public awareness, said Kevin Kinser, a professor of education policy studies at Pennsylvania State University. When it does, he said, it is often because politicians say, “ ‘Wait a minute. Who are these people telling me what I need to do with my colleges and universities?’ ”

But Kissel said the Florida law is common sense. “Just as companies should change financial auditors so that they do not get too cozy with one firm, universities should regularly change accreditors,” he said.

The legislation was passed after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges raised concerns about academic freedom at the University of Florida. Three professors sued the university after they initially were told they could not testify in a lawsuit challenging a voting-restrictions law that DeSantis had championed. Three additional faculty members who wanted to speak out against other DeSantis policies, such as a ban on mask mandates, later joined the case. A judge ruled in favor of the professors this year.

Professors sue University of Florida, claiming free speech restraints

Last month, the accrediting agency announced that it would take no further action after a committee visited the University of Florida to evaluate whether the school was in compliance with standards requiring integrity and academic freedom and reviewed new procedures. School officials said in a statement that the outcome “affirms the university’s commitment to the academic freedom of its faculty members and the First Amendment’s guarantees of the right of free speech.”

It remains to be seen whether other jurisdictions follow Florida’s example on accreditation, Kelchen said. But he noted DeSantis’s significant national clout and said scrutiny of higher education sends a clear “message to the political base during an election year that ‘we care about your priorities.’ ”