DeSantis’ support for measures targeting Florida colleges worries some professors

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In his effort to remake higher education in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has signed laws that change the tenure system, remove Florida universities from commonly accepted accreditation practices, and mandate “annual student diversity surveys.” points of view” of students and teachers.

DeSantis (R) too pushed through legislation he dubbed the “Stop WOKE Act” which regulates what schools including universities and workplaces can teach about race and identity. The legislation – which came into force on Friday – is already facing a legal challenge.

The lawsuit argues that the law 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 dismissed similar claims from other plaintiffs, saying they lacked standing. The state asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

Cassanello, who teaches classes on the Civil Rights Movements, Jim Crow America, and Emancipation and Reconstruction argued that the law “restricts his ability to teach these subjects accurately and comprehensively.”

Meanwhile, Florida’s public university system’s board of governors took the first steps Thursday to approve regulations implementing the law, with potential penalties including discipline and dismissal for employees who fail to comply. The law also ties certain university funding to compliance.

DeSantis said he wanted to prevent state colleges and universities from becoming “hotbeds of outdated ideologies” and developing “intellectually repressive environments.”

Some hail his plans. But the measures worry other professors and university leaders. They also worry that Republicans intend to go even further to exert political control over public higher education — and that the conflicts in Florida signal fights to come in other states.

Critics of DeSantis’ efforts have pointed to a bill that would have given political appointees the power to hire and fire, and veto, school budgets. The proposals, for the most part, were never the subject of bills, but were leaked for a public records request and published in the Seeking Rents newsletter.

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

DeSantis’ office did not respond to questions about the bill and whether the governor plans to reintroduce the measures.

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

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

Other specialists welcomed suggestions as a long overdue rollback on liberal universities and saw this effort as an indicator of a more urgent need to rethink higher education nationwide.

“It is not difficult to preserve academic freedom while bringing true intellectual diversity to campus,” Adam Kissel, a former Department of Education official and Heritage Foundation Visiting Scholar, wrote in an email. . “Generally, it’s about adding voices rather than restricting them.”

Kissel, whose Heritage focuses on higher education, also welcomed the “individual liberty” law that came into effect on Friday. “It allows for full class discussion of any issue, using any material, only so long as the teacher does not formally say that for class purposes a certain position is to be taken as true.”

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

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DeSantis, who attended Yale and is also a graduate of Harvard Law School, has been a strong 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 praised work experience on “a magic piece of paper that probably would have cost too much anyway” when he signed legislation allowing state agencies to replace work experience, including including military experience, through university degrees upon hiring.

“Give me someone who served eight years in the Navy or Marine Corps. This education is going to be far more beneficial and relevant than someone who went into $100,000 debt to get a degree in zombie studies,” DeSantis said.

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

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Yet his proposals to curb the independence of these schools have alarmed some scholars in Florida and beyond. In other parts of the country, some lawmakers and governors are pushing for more autonomy in hiring and firing state employees. The tenure is increasingly criticized. And a number of states have passed bills to prevent colleges from teaching “dividing concepts.”

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Florida could lead the charge, said Fairfield University math professor Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Teachers, adding that Texas isn’t far behind and many other states are following suit. not. “It’s a trend in the big culture wars…where you see these politicians trying to throw red meat at the grassroots and agitate people.”

Robert Kelchen, professor of education at the University of Tennessee said the most surprising change in Florida is recent legislation that will require universities to periodically 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 obtain federal financial aid.

Some academics and faculty critics have said lawmakers seem to misunderstand the accreditation process, in which institutions undergo lengthy voluntary reviews, and that requiring schools to seek new accreditors would waste time and money.

Accreditation generally falls short of this kind of public awareness, said Kevin Kinser, professor of education policy studies at Pennsylvania State University. When it does, he says, it’s often because politicians say, “Wait a minute. Who are these people telling me what to do with my colleges and universities? » ”

But Kissel said the Florida law is common sense. “Just as companies should change financial auditors so they don’t get too comfortable with one company, universities should change accreditors regularly,” 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 were initially told they could not testify in a lawsuit challenging a voting restriction law that DeSantis had championed. Three other faculty members who wanted to speak out against other DeSantis policies, such as banning mask mandates, later joined the case. A judge ruled in favor of the professors this year.

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

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

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