National organizations condemn Florida bill that would bring major higher ed changes

The statement against HB 999 came from the American Association of University Presidents, American Federation of Teachers and National Coalition Against Censorship.
Students and faculty in Florida have protested Gov. Ron DeSantis' education policies. Now, three national organizations are also speaking out against one bill that would have big higher education implications.
Students and faculty in Florida have protested Gov. Ron DeSantis' education policies. Now, three national organizations are also speaking out against one bill that would have big higher education implications. [ IVY CEBALLO | AP ]
Published Feb. 28, 2023|Updated Feb. 28, 2023

Three national organizations on Monday condemned a Florida bill that would bring major changes to higher education.

House Bill 999, introduced last week by Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, tackles many of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposals for the state’s colleges and universities. It would expand the powers of university boards of trustees — largely appointed by the governor or Board of Governors — and crack down on curriculum and programs related to critical race theory, gender studies and diversity, equity and inclusion, among other things.

On Monday, the American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Coalition Against Censorship released a statement saying the bill would “destroy higher education as we know it.”

“Florida’s HB 999 would destroy academic freedom, tenure, shared governance, and university independence in the state’s public higher education system,” the statement said. “… Simply put, it would make Florida’s colleges and universities into an arm of the DeSantis political operation.”

The bill allows for a professor’s tenure to be called for review at any time for cause. It prohibits diversity, equity and inclusion spending, including through grants and contracts. It calls for the removal of majors and minors like critical race theory and gender studies, and calls for general education courses that “promote the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization” whenever applicable.

It would also give boards of trustees power over all faculty hiring and curriculum review matters. (Hiring could be delegated to a president, but only the president.)

Andrade said his bill does not threaten academic freedom, but is meant to bring the focus of universities back to scholarship and research.

The state should not subsidize fields of studies that “are not based in fact,” he said. And he said the boards of trustees should be tasked with hiring and curriculum — something he believes falls under their mandate of setting standards for the university.

Andrade added that reviews of professors’ tenure would only be invoked for cause. (University faculty have contended existing annual reviews and other procedures exist within universities to terminate faculty with cause.)

But Chris Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said in an interview that Florida schools would wear a “badge of infamy” to employers and other universities if the legislation passed.

“This is truly shocking legislation that strikes at the freedom that is at the very heart of democracy,” Finan said. “That is not an exaggeration.”

Finan compared the provisions of the bill to Nazi book burnings. He said while he believes much of the bill is unconstitutional and will be challenged, the damage to the reputation of the schools will be severe.

“This is going to wreck higher education in Florida. Period.”

Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, said in an interview that the proposed policy should be of concern to people outside Florida, too. Mulvey said parts of the bill, like shifting hiring power, are unprecedented and undermine the structures of universities.

“It’s going to be a gut punch to anyone who values academic freedom or higher education’s role in democracy,” she said.

Her organization is currently in the process of investigating academic freedom and political interference in the state.

The groups’ statement joins a growing chorus of opposition to the proposed bill.

Last week, a lawyer for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression said the bill’s proposals would result in “a dangerous expansion of the unconstitutional ‘Stop Woke Act.’”

“House Bill 999 is laden with unconstitutional provisions hostile to freedom of expression and academic freedom,” Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney with the foundation, wrote on the group’s website. “If passed, it would represent another retreat from the open exchange of ideas that Florida’s leaders embraced just four years ago.”

University of Florida Faculty Senate chairperson Amanda Phalin tweeted over the weekend that the bill would “upend the successful model” of higher education in Florida and could threaten universities’ accreditation, which would result in a loss of federal funds used for student scholarships and faculty grants. Several accreditation agencies have requirements for compliance with diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.