A controversial higher education bill that affects tenured faculty and changes the accreditation process for Florida universities is headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk for signing, but not before Democratic lawmakers cautioned it would do more harm than good.
The bill, SB 7044, would allow the state Board of Governors to implement a “comprehensive“ review every five years for tenured faculty, addressing their accomplishments, academic duties, evaluations, ratings and pay. It could also include “consequences for underperformance.”
Tenured faculty at each state university already take part in annual reviews.
The bill also would require universities to change accrediting agencies after an evaluation cycle and enable them to sue an accreditor for damages if they feel they are negatively impacted. Schools could return to a previous accreditor if they don’t meet the requirements of a new accreditor.
The bill is widely seen as a response to an accreditation body that last year launched separate investigations over concerns that the University of Florida and Florida State University were unduly influenced by state politics.
The bill’s other provisions include requiring textbook lists to be posted at least 45 days in advance, and changes in the way universities share information on tuition and fees. It also calls for maintenance of the statewide course numbering system.
The measure passed in the Florida House by a 77-40 vote late Wednesday. Before that, House Democrats with public universities in their districts warned the changes would have consequences.
Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, called the bill “extremely dangerous,” saying it could lead to a loss of federal dollars for students and researchers. He advised lawmakers to have a “nonpolitical” conversation about the impact of the bill.
“I can guarantee you within the next two or three years, we will be back fixing this,” he said.
Rep. Michele Raynor, D-St. Petersburg, warned that the tenure provision, a last-minute addition to the bill, would affect academic freedom.
“It’s concerning to me because I believe we’re now starting to politicize this tenure review,” she said. “The bill sponsor indicated it would be the Board of Governors that would come up with this review. The Board of Governors is appointed by the governor. It’s inherently political. We’re getting to a place in our state and in our nation where if someone says something you don’t like, then we can exert political influence to not allow them to have a job or to silence their voice or to chill their voice.”
Rep. Yvonne Hinson, D-Gainesville, said the bill would impact the national reputation of Florida’s universities.
“As a double Gator, it saddens me this day has come,” Hinson said. “This bill wants to destroy a healthy and protective tenure culture where Florida’s higher education system will no longer be competitive with surrounding states, meaning highly qualified faculty and research grants will no longer come to Florida.”
She also criticized the accreditation changes, warning that, along with the tenure provisions, they could affect the University of Florida, the state’s flagship institution. “You’re going to see the Top 5 university in the state of Florida plunge quicker than you know,” Hinson said.
Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, and Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St.Petersburg, warned of the difficulties that could come in recruiting and retaining faculty, particularly after the recent controversy that raised questions about UF’s independence from Florida’s political leaders.
“This is a poor response by this Legislature to the political turmoil we just lived through at the University of Florida,” Diamond said. “This is just further creating a bad reputation in my opinion that we’re not fully embracing these ideas of academic freedom in this state.”
But bill’s sponsor, Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, dismissed the concerns.
“The criticism of this bill has all revolved around fear,” she said. “I have not heard of one legitimate concern that is not about fear.”
She pointed to Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Harvard, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago and CalTech. Unlike UF and Florida State, they are are not accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the major accrediting body for the Southeastern United States, which has raised questions about political influence at the two Florida schools.
“(Those) all are accredited by other accreditors,” she said. “And what does that mean? That means those accreditors know what they’re doing.”
The Southern Association also accredits 74 other public and private universities and colleges in Florida.