Draft legislation shows DeSantis plan to control higher ed

Public higher education in Florida has come under fire in a variety of ways in recent years. The state Legislature has restricted the teaching of certain controversial topics, administered political litmus tests to faculty and subjected professors to additional posttenure scrutiny. Universities themselves have clamped down on faculty free speech to comply with state laws.

But documents show the worst may be yet to come.

Recently uncovered draft legislation from Florida’s spring session reveals plans to consolidate power in state boards run by Governor Ron DeSantis’s political appointmentees, to make colleges more reliant on money controlled by the state Legislature, to impose restrictions on what can be taught in Florida’s colleges and universities, and to strip university presidents of certain hiring powers.

The Florida draft legislation was first reported by Jason Garcia, an independent journalist who uncovered the plans as the result of public record requests seeking communications between DeSantis and state lawmakers from the session, which ran from January to March. Though none of the major proposals materialized during the session, the documents offer a stark picture of how Florida lawmakers envision fundamentally reshaping public higher education in the state.

Critics of the proposal warn that the plan threatens academic freedom and institutional autonomy for Florida’s state universities. Some see it as a dire warning of what’s on the horizon.

The Plan

The draft legislation proposes giving more authority to the Board of Governors to investigate university presidents, veto proposed budgets and fire individual employees. It also seeks to limit the ability of the board to delegate administrative powers.

Though each of the 12 member institutions of the State University System of Florida has its own board, those bodies fall under the Board of Governors, whose 17 members include 14 handpicked by DeSantis.

The draft legislation also aims to limit the ability of boards to raise student fees, by making more universities dependent on state funding controlled by Tallahassee, giving lawmakers a greater say in how that money is used. Another component suggests that universities that run afoul of particular state laws will be financially punished with funding cuts. Garcia reported last week that one version of the draft legislation “specifically ordered cuts to universities and colleges that don’t participate in DeSantis’ ‘intellectual diversity’ surveys” and “another version of the bill would have made the university and college systems submit reports every three months ‘assuring’ the governor and the Legislature that schools aren’t defying” state laws.

According to curricular requirements in the documents Garcia obtained, general education courses “must promote the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization,” including studies of the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights and amendments, and the Federalist Papers.

The draft legislation goes on to state that “general education courses may not suppress or distort historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics, such as Critical Race Theory, or defines American history as contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”

Critical race theory, a once-obscure academic concept, has become a bogeyman for conservatives who accuse colleges of misleading students about American history. Critical race theory, or a distorted version of it, has been under attack by numerous state legislatures.

According to HB 7, or the Stop Woke Act, passed earlier this year, Florida colleges and universities can lose performance-based funding for teaching certain “divisive concepts” such as CRT.

The draft legislation also aims to give boards more power over hiring: “Each university board of trustees is responsible for hiring faculty. The president may provide hiring recommendations to the board; However, the president or the board is not bound by recommendations or opinions of faculty or other individuals or groups,” the documents read. “The board may delegate its hiring authority to the president; However, the board shall approve or deny any selection by the president.”

The Pushback

As the proposals have made the rounds in Florida higher ed circles, reaction has been muted. Of the half dozen universities Inside Higher Ed contacted, none provided a comment. Neither the Florida Board of Governors nor DeSantis’s press office responded to inquiries.

Of the half dozen faculty senates Inside Higher Ed contacted, only two offered statements.

“I find the report deeply concerning. This is my third day as Faculty Senate Chair and, as I begin my term, I remain dedicated to protecting the independence of this institution so that it continues to serve as an important source of knowledge and research for the people of Florida and the world, Amanda Phalin, chair of the University of Florida Faculty Senate, said by email Friday.

Eric Chicken, Faculty Senate president at Florida State University, said by email that “the twelve institutions in the state university system are quite distinct from one another in terms of size, mission, and focus” and that centralized control was neither appropriate nor efficient.

“Hiring is best handled by the academics within each university,” he added. “Departments and colleges in each state university differ significantly from each other in terms of expertise, training, and performance expectations. The faculty in these departments are the most qualified to make hiring recommendations through their deans to their presidents. The members of the Boards of Trustees generally do not possess the specialized academic knowledge needed to make faculty hiring decisions. The presidents of the universities, on the other hand, are immersed in their local academic environment on a daily and intensive basis, and many of them are former faculty themselves with a good understanding of the requirements for hiring new faculty.”

Chicken also noted that “academic freedom is essential to a university’s mission.”

Higher ed observers outside Florida also expressed skepticism about the plan.

Henry Stoever, president and CEO of the Association of Governing Boards, said by email that he was “concerned about the increasing politicization of higher education across the country,” noting that “effective board governance requires board independence from undue external influences.” He added that board members should be committed to the institution—not to outside influences.

“Governing boards must respect the difference between the board’s role to oversee the affairs of the institution and the administration’s role to manage the operations of the institution. Governing boards select and inspire the chief executive, and they work with the administration to determine strategic priorities, policies, and financials of the system or institution. They are accountable for ensuring that desired outcomes are aligned with priorities. In Florida, those responsibilities are shared between the system Board of Governors and the institutional governing boards,” Stoever said. “Boards provide advice and counsel to sharpen strategy, but the chief executive and administrators are responsible for the day-to-day management of the institution. Accreditors keep a close eye on these types of issues, and changing accreditors will not protect institutions from facing scrutiny and the potential loss of accreditation—and therefore federal funding.”

Sondra Barringer, a professor of higher education at Southern Methodist University and an expert on higher ed governing boards, described DeSantis’s proposals as unusual. Barringer was particularly concerned about the way the plans university presidents, who are responsible for day-to-day operations, by elevating boards, which are responsible for long-term strategic planning. Shifting those responsibilities blurs the lines of governance, Barringer said.

“I think it would be unusual for [faculty hiring] to be under the purview of the board,” Barringer added. “And I think that would have potentially chilling implications, for example, with the University of Florida presidential search. That may affect the pool of candidates for that position.”

Barrett Taylor, a counseling and higher education professor at the University of North Texas who studies higher education policy, organization and governance, suggests that these proposals would compromise the institutional independence of members of Florida’s state university system.

Taylor said the draft legislation, even if it isn’t introduced and signed into law, is important because it signals “what a political coalition is considering at any given point in time.”

In Florida, this particular legislation sends the message that higher education is not trusted and needs to be radically reshaped. The draft legislation is just as much of a message to voters, a culture-war rallying cry, as it is an effort to remake higher education, Taylor explained.

“I think sowing that mistrust is itself concerning, even if we don’t yet know what will be enacted,” Taylor said.

Though much of the draft did not become law, some groups are warning that these proposals signal what’s to come for Florida higher education in the next legislation session.

“The particular proposals outlined in the article were not passed this transition session, but similar attempts will certainly be made next year to do so. This gives us insight into their next moves,” United Faculty of Florida, the statewide faculty union, tweeted Thursday.

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