DeSantis seeks more control over Fla. universities, targeting tenure, 'politicized' classes

Skyler Swisher
Orlando Sentinel

Orlando, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Republican allies are seeking more influence in university classrooms, targeting tenure, waging a battle against “politicized” courses and contemplating a significant change in how professors are hired across the state.

DeSantis says he is bringing accountability to higher education and ensuring universities aren’t indoctrinating students with what he and other GOP leaders see as a liberal bias.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves as he arrives to signs a record $109.9 billion state budget Thursday, June, 2, 2022 at The Villages, Fla.

But the governor’s agenda is also prompting a backlash from the United Faculty of Florida, a union that represents more than 25,000 faculty members across the state.

A toxic political climate is hurting the reputation of Florida’s universities and making it harder to recruit the best teachers, said Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida.

“What we clearly see is a shift toward authoritarianism and we are seeing it manifesting in higher education – an assault on tenure and free speech,” he said.

A draft bill recently made public is heightening concern, Gothard said. That proposal would have taken hiring decisions away from university presidents and given them to university boards of trustees that include the governor’s political appointees. The investigative website, Seeking Rents, first reported on the draft bill.

Another provision would have required the Board of Governors, which oversees state universities, and the State Board of Education, which oversees two-year colleges, to conduct new reviews of degree programs.

The governor appoints 14 of the 17 members of the Board of Governors and all seven members of the State Board of Education.

The draft bill also barred general education “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.”

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the proposal.

Even though the draft bill was shelved, it illustrates a desire among politicians to exert even more control over what happens on college campuses, said Robert Cassanello, president of the United Faculty of Florida at the University of Central Florida.

“It definitely says something about intention and shows there is intentionality among the governor and Republican Legislature to control who is being hired and fired at public universities,” he said.

Such a system would be impractical with 80 to 120 faculty members hired by UCF a year, so it’s not surprising the idea was scrapped, Cassanello said.

“Putting all this in the hands of the Board of Trustees is just stupid,” he said. “They are not designed to micromanage a university. They hire the people who manage the university. They don’t do it themselves.”

UCF is administered by a 13-member Board of Trustees that includes six members appointed by the governor and five others appointed by the Board of Governors. The chair of the university’s Faculty Senate and the president of the university’s Student Government Association are also members.

University boards include many of the governor’s allies and political supporters. For instance, the chairman of the University of Florida’s Board of Trustees is Mori Hosseini, a Volusia County developer and major GOP donor and power broker.

In April, DeSantis signed a bill that he called the “most significant” tenure reform in the country, instructing the Florida Board of Governors to adopt a uniform standard for post-tenure reviews that would be done every five years.

That law also requires universities to periodically change accreditors, as well as post information about tuition and fees and course materials.

DeSantis and Republican leaders have criticized Florida’s universities for what they consider to be a progressive bias. Students and faculty received “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity surveys” as part of a 2021 law that aimed to increase the diversity of views on college campuses.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, referred to the state’s universities as “socialism factories” during a June 2021 meeting of the Board of Governors. House Speaker Chris Sprowls said some professors are pushing a “radical political agenda” and “shouldn’t get a lifetime job” in Florida.

Tenure is an indefinite academic appointment that can only be terminated for cause or under extraordinary circumstances. It is intended to protect academic freedom and insulate professors from political whims.

Gothard said students in Florida are exposed to a variety of views on campus, and the narrative that professors are pushing a liberal agenda is untrue.

“This boogeyman, straw man goes all the way back to McCarthyism to scare people that universities are doing something bad to their children,” he said.

DeSantis, who studied history at Yale University and earned a law degree from Harvard, frequently jokes about “Zombie Studies” in speeches. He’s criticized “esoteric” and “politicized” courses and majors, mentioning gender studies as an example.

“Higher education is important, but it needs to be accountable,” he told a crowd in The Villages in April. “We need to have good curriculum. We need to make sure the faculty are held accountable and they just don’t have tenure forever without ways to hold them accountable or evaluate what they’re doing.”

Last month, DeSantis tapped his close ally Richard Corcoran to serve on the Board of Governors, which oversees Florida’s 12 state universities. Corcoran, a former GOP speaker of the Florida House, recently stepped down as education commissioner, a position he held for three years.

Corcoran has been a fierce critic of the teaching of “critical race theory,” which has become a conservative catch-all term for lessons on institutional racism. Speaking at Hillsdale College, Corcoran said his goal was to “keep all of the crazy liberal stuff out” of state classrooms.

Corcoran has been a loyal supporter of DeSantis’ education agenda, which has included rejecting math textbooks with alleged “woke content” and limiting classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade or in a manner that is not “age appropriate.”

Republicans are also prohibiting certain ideas from being discussed in the classroom, passing HB 7, commonly referred to as the “Stop Woke Act.”

The new law could put state funding at risk if universities defy its provisions, which include a prohibition on teaching that a person is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” solely because of their gender or race.

While DeSantis supports banning the discussion of that concept, he has also called for free speech on college campuses. In 2019, he called on universities to champion a free and open exchange of thought, saying “the cure for an idea you disagree with is to point out why that idea is wrong.”

UCF received nearly $33 million in performance funding for the 2022 budget year, which conceivably could be at risk if the university is found to be in violation of HB 7.

In a presentation, University of Florida officials stressed that educators could still discuss issues of race and sex as long as it is done in an “objective manner.” The law bars teaching one race is morally superior to another or that someone’s status as “privileged” or “oppressed” is determined by race or sex.

UCF is evaluating the law, which takes effect on July 1.

“UCF is in the process of getting feedback from faculty members about the types of questions they have, and we plan to provide guidance and resources,” said Chad Binette, a university spokesman.

The law is also being challenged in the courts.

UCF already has a system for post-tenure reviews called “sustained performance evaluation.” UCF professors undergo evaluations every three years.

Higher education has always been subject to political pressure, but the dominance of one party in state government has brought it to the forefront, Cassanello said.

“You don’t have the legislators who are listening to the universities,” he said. “They are safe. They know they will be reelected. They are not worried about that. That is the system that is creating bad government. Bad government creates bad policies, and this is what we are seeing.”