Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Tuesday called for diversity programs to be dismantled at the state’s colleges and universities, escalating efforts by the governor and many conservatives to root out what they see as liberalism and indoctrination in higher education.
In addition to defunding diversity offices, the governor said at a news conference, tenured professors should be subject to employment review at any time, a proposal that stirred immediate concerns about academic freedom. DeSantis said that his proposals would serve as a countermeasure to the “dominant view” that higher education is designed to “impose ideological conformity” and to “provoke political activism.”
The governor’s proposals feed into a larger culture war he is waging across Florida. Recently, DeSantis has signed a law limiting what professors can teach about race and has blocked high schools from offering a new advanced placement course on African American history.
Under DeSantis’s plan, which he will ask the legislature to take up in March, the state would defund diversity, equity and inclusion programs, which are common in higher education and often described by the abbreviation DEI. Proponents of DEI say the programs provide critical training to combat implicit bias against specific groups, and support for students and employees of different beliefs, races, genders and sexual orientations.
The governor said he wants to see DEI “wither on the vine.” “These bureaucracies are hostile to academic freedom,” he said during Tuesday’s news conference, which was held in Bradenton at the State College of Florida at Manatee-Sarasota.
The actions come weeks after DeSantis, as he was inaugurated for a second term, doubled down on a pledge to reshape colleges in the state.
DeSantis recently signed a law that would require tenured faculty to undergo a review every five years. But there may be a need to “more aggressively” examine faculty performance, DeSantis said, touting a plan for college governing boards to review tenured faculty members “at any time.”
In the same vein, DeSantis proposed giving college presidents more authority in hiring decisions, over which he said faculty committees have too much influence.
The proposals are sure to invite pushback from faculty, who view the protections of tenure as fundamental to a professor’s ability to pursue ideas that may be unpopular or controversial.
Danaya Wright, a law professor at the University of Florida, said DeSantis’s proposals could have deleterious consequences. Strong tenure protections are vital to recruiting faculty, she said, and there’s a good reason professors have a say in hiring decisions.
“It’s one of the fundamental aspects of the academic mission that those who are experts in the field are deciding who has expertise and whose qualifications meet the standard we expect,” said Wright, chair-elect of the university’s faculty senate. Sidelining faculty in these decisions, she said, would “destroy the academic integrity of the institution.”
DeSantis’s efforts to root out what he sees as liberalism in higher education have already met resistance. In November, a federal judge ordered a temporary injunction against portions of a law commonly called the “Stop Woke Act.” The law, which prohibits certain classroom discussions of sex and race, is “positively dystopian,” said Judge Mark E. Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.
DeSantis was joined at his news conference Tuesday by Ray Rodrigues, chancellor of the State University System of Florida and a former Republican state senator. As a lawmaker, Rodrigues sponsored legislation requiring universities to survey students about the level of “intellectual diversity” on their campuses.
Spokespeople at the University of Florida and Florida State University declined to comment, deferring instead to the a statement from the university system’s board of governors.
“The State University System of Florida is committed to providing our students with a high-quality, affordable education that focuses on academic excellence,” the system said in a release. “ … We look forward to working with the Governor and Legislature on their policy initiatives to further elevate civil discourse and intellectual freedom in higher education.”
Earlier this month, the presidents from 28 state colleges signed a letter stating they would “ensure that all initiatives, instruction, and activities do not promote any ideology that suppresses intellectual and academic freedom, freedom of expression, viewpoint diversity, and the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning.”
Also in attendance at Tuesday’s news conference was Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who is among the recent New College of Florida board appointees.
Rufo has called for an end to DEI programs, arguing that they stifle free speech and force people to adopt liberal positions on matters of race and gender. A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Rufo has played a lead role in galvanizing public opposition to critical race theory, an academic framework that argues racism is systemic and embedded in laws and policies.
In December, DeSantis’s administration asked public colleges to report on all spending related to DEI and critical race theory. The state’s 12 public universities reported a combined $34.5 million in spending on such programs. None of the universities spent more than 1 percent of their budgets on such activities, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported. The reported expenses included money for diversity officers, courses related to race and gender, and recruitment and retention programs focused on diversity goals.
DeSantis laid out his plans just a few miles from New College, where the newly constituted board of trustees held its first formal meeting since DeSantis made his appointments. The meeting delivered on some trustees’ promise of swift change, as the board replaced President Patricia Okker. While the board said it intends to name Corcoran as its interim leader, Bradley Thiessen, New College’s chief of staff, will hold the position until Corcoran is available and appointed by the university system’s board of governors.
Okker, who had only been on the job for a year-and-a-half, said she had been told she would be forced out before the vote on her job status took place. (She did not disclose who told her.)
“I understand that there is a new mandate for this college,” Okker said. “I have been informed that the plan includes the termination of my employment as president.”
But she pushed back on a key critique of the college. “I do not believe that students are being indoctrinated at New College,” Okker said, adding that she could not sell to donors a story about the college she does not think is true.
The board’s meeting was preceded by a campus rally to “Defend New College,” as students and supporters pushed back against what they expect to be a conservative overhaul of the institution. Later, during a public comment period at the meeting, one speaker described the appointments as an “obvious political power play,” and another accused the board of carrying out a “racist, sexist, anti-gay agenda.”
The state’s education commissioner has said that New College could become something akin to “a Hillsdale of the South,” referencing the private college in southern Michigan.
Before the board voted to remove her, Okker told the crowd the college confronted “a hard reality” and “a sad reality.” The vision they had created together, she said, is not the mandate going forward.
Lori Rozsa contributed to this report.