Colleges and universities are usually the places where students get to explore a variety of viewpoints and political beliefs—often for the first time. But one expert says that academic freedom would become scarce at Florida’s public universities if a new bill to regulate higher education in the state passes.
Introduced by Republican Rep. Alex Andrade on Feb. 21, House Bill 999 would ban any funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at Florida state universities, even if they’re privately funded. It would make trustees responsible for hiring decisions on faculty—university presidents would only be allowed to give recommendations—and tenure status could be reviewed at any time. The bill calls for the rewriting of university mission statements. It would ban general education courses that teach “curriculum based on unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content” and that define “American history as contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”
Entire majors would also be banned, specifically, “any major or minor in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems.” African-American studies departments could also be vulnerable at public institutions statewide.
“It is the most draconian bill that we’ve seen in the entire country relating to higher education,” says Jeremy Young, who researches free speech and culture war issues at PEN America. “We are absolutely concerned about copycat bills in other states and about this spreading to be a national movement…I think it is very likely that this bill will pass in something very close to its current form in Florida, but it’s never a sure thing.”
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The bill is right in line with Governor Ron DeSantis’s higher education agenda, which calls for banning “discriminatory” DEI initiatives. In fact, a version of this bill is playing out in real time. Back in January, DeSantis appointed six conservatives to the board of the New College of Florida in Sarasota. They are leading an overhaul of the small public liberal arts college.
DeSantis kicked off his very public fight against “woke indoctrination” last spring when he signed into law the Stop WOKE Act, which aims to regulate how racism is discussed in schools and workplaces (though a federal judge struck down the provision pertaining to private businesses). At the time of publication, DeSantis has not made a public statement on House Bill 999.
But the bill is in a league of its own compared to other measures in Florida, says Young.
If House Bill 999 passes, Young says, Florida’s public colleges and universities could see a brain drain, faculty leaving, and colleagues unwilling to take over their jobs. They could also lose their accreditation status, which would jeopardize federal student financial aid. (Eighty-three percent of college students get some form of financial aid.)
Florida’s major public universities are among the biggest in the nation. The University of Central Florida in Orlando has around 68,000 students enrolled; the University of Florida in Gainesville has some 61,000 students, and Florida International University in Miami boasts about 56,000.
Young worries that if House Bill 999 passes, students at Florida’s public universities and colleges would not be prepared to participate in the global economy. “College is one of the last bastions of free inquiry and open conversation in this country,” he says. “And if you restrict that in the way that this law would do, you’re going to have a citizenry that is unprepared to engage in the democratic process. And so this really is a democracy attack.”
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