Florida officials have been on a public records binge, hitting state universities with requests for information as they push for major changes to higher education.
First came a late-December demand for details on diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Then universities were told in January to turn over records on any gender-affirming health care they provided over the last four years.
The latest request — for collective bargaining records — has some faculty concerned that their contracts with universities may be the next linchpin of academia to be targeted by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers.
On March 1, State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues sent a request to presidents for details on the last round of negotiations with their two largest unions. He asked for the names of the bargaining units, the date of last the agreement, how long the negotiations lasted, the total cost of the effort and other information.
Renee Fargason, a spokesperson for the State University System, said in an email that the request did not come from the governor’s office, as the previous ones had.
“Under the Florida Constitution, the Board of Governors has an obligation to identify wasteful and duplicative spending,” she said. “This is just one effort to identify if we have excessive costs.”
Andrew Gothard, president of United Faculty of Florida, said the unions are confident their costs will be low. But he added he is concerned about what the request could signal for collective bargaining, which has existed since the union’s inception in the 1960s.
“They’ve really used this request for information, they’ve abused it in many ways, to build their attacks on the higher education system,” Gothard said. “We can only assume they want to gather this information to smear higher education faculty, to try to undermine unions and try to unfairly paint us as using too many state resources to negotiate our union contracts.”
He said the agreements are “incredibly important to the health of our higher education system” and cited New College in Sarasota, where DeSantis appointed a new slate of trustees who are overhauling the university. Bargaining agreements there have protected faculty from being fired on a whim and “not according to some administrator’s personal or political loyalty,” Gothard said.
The contracts also help create stability, Gothard said. In Wisconsin, collective bargaining and unions were weakened by legislation a little over a decade ago, which he said led to an exodus of faculty.
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“Students don’t need faculty constantly rotating in and out of these research programs and out of their labs,” he said. “They need stability so these programs can be maintained as they work through 3-, 4-, 5-, 6-year programs. We don’t need a revolving door of faculty, we need stability.”
The universities’ responses were due on Tuesday.
Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.