As Senate advances higher-ed bill, debate stirs over free speech and curriculum

by | Apr 13, 2023

  • A Senate committee advanced SB 266, which contains parts of Governor Ron DeSantis’ higher-education agenda aimed at combating ideologically-driven curriculum and programs.
  • The bill has drawn criticism from some university professors and advocates for classroom free speech, who argue it is better to let college campuses express themselves and explore ideologically relevant ideas.
  • The bill’s changes include a proposal to give university presidents final authority for hiring all full-time faculty members, and removing specific references to diversity, equity, and inclusion, among other alterations. 

TALLAHASSEE — A measure designed to carry out parts of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ higher-education agenda moved forward Wednesday in the Senate, after changes that included a proposal to give university presidents ultimate hiring authority at their schools.

The Republican-controlled Senate Education Appropriations Committee voted 8-4 along party lines to approve the bill (SB 266).

The bill addresses some of the most controversial education-related issues of this year’s legislative session, including making changes related to academic programs and courses that can be offered at universities and colleges.

For example, the bill would direct the state university system’s Board of Governors to “periodically review the mission” of each school, including looking at academic programs. The reviews would “examine” the programs for violations of part of state law dealing with discrimination against students and employees in the education system.

That part of law is tied to a controversial measure, known as the “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act,” or Stop WOKE Act, that lawmakers passed last year. The Stop WOKE Act restricts the way race-related issues can be taught in schools.

The reviews also would be required to take into account any curriculum “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.”

Several university professors and advocates for classroom free speech pushed back against the bill Wednesday.

Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director for the non-profit Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said the bill would “chill and censor pedagogically relevant speech” on campuses.

“There’s over 60 years of Supreme Court precedent saying that laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom are unconstitutional,” Cohn told the Senate panel.

The measure also would require the Board of Governors and the State Board of Education to appoint faculty committees to review general-education core courses at colleges and universities, potentially leading to the “removal, alignment, realignment, or addition” of courses.

For instance, courses would not be able to “distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics,” or 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.”

Senate Democrats criticized the proposed curriculum-related issues in the bill.

“I do believe that we’re allowing political rhetoric and the trade winds here to dictate where we’re going. I believe our institutions of higher learning should be a place where we are thinking freely,” Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, said.

But bill sponsor Erin Grall, a Vero Beach Republican who chairs the Senate Education Postsecondary Committee, defended the measure.

“Nothing in this bill is meant to prohibit speech,” Grall said, “and one of the purposes of this bill is to guard against compelling speech.”

Changes made to the bill Wednesday included a proposal to give university presidents “final authority” for hiring all full-time faculty members, provosts and deans. Several of the 12 state universities have seen leadership changes in recent years, with at least two new presidents drawing opposition from students and faculty members.

For example, the University of Florida Board of Trustees last year selected then-U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., to become the school’s president. This year, the New College of Florida Board of Trustees — after an overhaul by DeSantis — named Richard Corcoran, a former Republican state House speaker and education commissioner, as interim president.

Other changes made to the bill removed specific references to diversity, equity and inclusion. DeSantis has sought to weed out so-called “DEI” programs from the higher-education system.

An earlier version of the bill would have prohibited universities from using “diversity, equity, and inclusion statements, critical race theory, or other forms of political identity filters” in hiring practices.

After Wednesday’s changes, the bill would prohibit universities from requiring “any statement, pledge, or oath other than to uphold general and federal law, the United States Constitution, and the State Constitution” as a condition of admission or hiring.

The changes also removed a controversial part of the bill that would have allowed the Board of Governors to adopt a regulation for universities to conduct post-tenure reviews of faculty members “at any time, with cause.” The Board of Governors last month approved a rule that would require faculty members to undergo post-tenure reviews every five years.

The bill and last year’s Stop WOKE Act have drawn criticism from many faculty members. One professor warned the Senate panel that policies in the bill could cause the university system to hemorrhage educators.

Matthew Lata, a professor at Florida State University, said schools are “starting to see a brain drain.”

“As an example, in the Florida State College of Arts and Sciences, the number of faculty members who have indicated that they are leaving after 2023 is about double what it was in 2022,” Lata said.

But Education Appropriations Chairman Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, took issue with the opponents’ assertion that lawmakers should not make changes proposed in the bill.

“We’re not talking about private schools. We’re talking about public institutions, which are paid for by the taxpayers,” Perry said.

The bill would need approval from the Fiscal Policy Committee before it could go to the full Senate. A Similar House bill (HB 999) is ready to go to the House Education and Employment Committee.


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