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DeSantis signs bill limiting tenure at Florida public universities

He takes aim at faculty, saying they develop an “intellectual orthodoxy” if left unchecked.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference Tuesday at The Villages, where he signed Senate Bill 7044, dealing with higher education issues. “We need to make sure the faculty are held accountable and make sure they don’t just have tenure forever without having any type of ways to hold them accountable or evaluate what they’re doing,” DeSantis said. Behind him are Senate President Wilton Simpson, left, and House Speaker Chris Sprowls.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference Tuesday at The Villages, where he signed Senate Bill 7044, dealing with higher education issues. “We need to make sure the faculty are held accountable and make sure they don’t just have tenure forever without having any type of ways to hold them accountable or evaluate what they’re doing,” DeSantis said. Behind him are Senate President Wilton Simpson, left, and House Speaker Chris Sprowls. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published Apr. 19|Updated Apr. 19

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday signed a bill that makes it harder for faculty at state universities to retain tenure, framing the legislation as another way that he and the Legislature are working to prevent educators from bringing their political views into the classroom.

In a wide-ranging news conference at The Villages that took swings at Twitter and alleged that textbook publishers were peddling hidden agendas, DeSantis criticized what he called “lifetime appointments” for university professors.

“We need to make sure the faculty are held accountable and make sure they don’t just have tenure forever without having any type of ways to hold them accountable or evaluate what they’re doing,” DeSantis said. “It’s all about trying to make these institutions more in line with what the state’s priorities are and, frankly, the priorities of the parents throughout the state of Florida.”

Related: Late bill change would weaken tenure at Florida universities, faculty say

Every five years, he said, tenured faculty would be required to go before their university’s board of trustees, which could part ways with them. The text of the bill does not give that level of specificity but rather states a five-year review would take place to be determined by the state Board of Governors. Each state university already requires tenured professors to take part in an annual review.

“Tenure was there to protect people so that they could do ideas that may cause them to lose their job or whatever, academic freedom — I don’t know that’s really the role it plays, quite frankly, anymore,” DeSantis said. “I think what tenure does, if anything, it’s created more of an intellectual orthodoxy. For people that have dissenting views, it becomes harder for them to be tenured in the first place and then, once you’re tenured, your productivity really declines, particularly in certain disciplines.”

House Speaker Chris Sprowls called the legislation a way to prevent “indoctrination.”

He also said it would increase transparency with a provision that would require course syllabuses to be posted online, preventing attempts by professors to “smuggle in ideology and politics.” Sprowls said it would prevent students from signing up for a class on “socialism and communism” when they thought they were signing up for “Western democracy” and classes about “what it means to be an actual American.”

“That’s what this bill is about,” Sprowls said. “Are (students) going to walk into a university system that’s more about indoctrination than it is about getting getting jobs someday and learning skills and the subject matter necessary to get a job? Or is it about some sort of radical political agenda that a particular professor that’s been told they get a lifetime job is going to tell them they have to believe to get an A in their class?”

Andrew Gothard, president of United Faculty of Florida, said the comments by DeSantis and Sprowls reflected a deep misunderstanding of how higher education works.

Currently, the boards of trustees must approve all faculty who receive tenure, Gothard said, adding it is not a lifetime appointment. Faculty can still be fired with cause.

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”Tenure allows for due process and a hearing and has typically protected people from being fired for political reasons,” he said. ”From where we stand, the only indoctrination happening right now is coming from Tallahassee.”

Tim Boaz, president of the University of South Florida’s faculty senate, said he believed the legislation resulted from misconceptions about higher education.

He said the notion that faculty become less productive after getting tenure is flawed and pointed to Florida’s high-ranking universities as the result of faculty’s productivity.

”I think it would be unfortunate if we had tenure in name only,” he said. “Talented faculty across the nation will see this and say that’s not tenure.”

Earlier this spring, when it was unclear what form the bill would take, USF’s newly installed president Rhea Law said she would back faculty members.

“What I have told the faculty is that we absolutely are supportive, we have their backs,” she said.

The measure, Senate Bill 7044, was signed a week after an “intellectual diversity” survey was sent out to all university staff, students and faculty. The survey, required in a bill approved last year, posed questions asking if students felt their professors used their platforms to inject their viewpoint and asked all about their political beliefs. The statewide faculty union called for a boycott of the survey and several faculty leaders expressed fear that it would chill free speech.

The bill signed Tuesday also took on accreditation agencies, requiring state universities to switch accreditors after each cycle. Some faculty leaders have expressed fears that the measure could cause Florida schools to lose research funds and federal student aid.

The provision stems from friction last year between some state leaders and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the accrediting organization for universities in the Southeast. The group had raised questions about political influence at Florida State University and the University of Florida.

At FSU, the issue arose after education commissioner Richard Corcoran made a bid to become the university’s president. Corcoran spoke at Tuesday’s news conference in favor of the bill.

DeSantis said the provision created added accountability.

“It’s going to end this accreditation monopoly,” he said. “The role that these accreditation agencies play, I don’t even know where they come from. They basically are just self-anointed. They have an inordinate amount of power to shape what is going on at these universities.”

Tuesday’s event also featured Taylor Walker, a conservative student from FSU majoring in history. She spoke of bringing conservative commentator Ben Shapiro to campus, sparking applause from residents at The Villages.

“As a conservative on a college campus, sometimes you have to face some hurdles,” Walker said. “There still are some individuals out there who think woke narratives are the only narratives that should be taught on college campuses. As a history major, I can attest to that. As I go into my classes, my professors hold me to high standards, as they should. This bill gives me the opportunity to hold them to the same high standards that they should be held to.”

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