A lot can change in 12 months, and it’s been a whirlwind year for Florida’s higher education system.
The Individual Freedom Act took effect in July 2022, leaving educators to determine what subjects were off limits in their classrooms that fall. Students were empowered to take out their cellphones and record any lectures that might violate the law, also known as the Stop Woke act. Faculty faced a new level of scrutiny.
But Gov. Ron DeSantis, who pushed the legislation, was far from done. The months that followed brought another round of laws.
The governor has put Florida’s universities and colleges front and center in his war on “woke,” a campaign that has highlighted his unyielding method of governing. To do it, he leaned on his influence in Tallahassee and his direct authority over appointments at state institutions, reshaping the system at breakneck speed.
As the latest legislation takes effect this month, here is a look at how the changes came about and what comes next:
Stop Woke bill
When House Bill 7 — also known as the Stop Woke or Individual Freedom Act — was signed into law in 2022, a series of lawsuits followed. Among other things, the law prohibits instruction that makes anyone feel “guilt, anguish or other psychological distress” related to race, color, national origin or sex because of actions “committed in the past.”
The plaintiffs have argued that faculty are “hired to engage in the robust exchange of views and ideas,” even those the state doesn’t like. DeSantis’ office contends the new law protects that free exchange by prohibiting schools from “forcing discriminatory concepts” on students and employees.
After the act went into effect in July 2022, a federal judge issued an injunction in November, striking the law down as it applies to higher education.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker called the measure “positively dystopian” and quoted from George Orwell’s novel “1984.” A federal appellate court later ruled that the injunction must be followed until a final decision is made in the case.
In June, several professors filed a brief to the appeals court, arguing the vagueness of the law would have a “chilling effect” in their classrooms and infringe on First Amendment rights.
Several universities, including the University of South Florida, have policies ready to implement in the event that the appeals court sides with the state. A status update on the case is expected in August.
Last year, DeSantis signed a bill taking aim at “lifetime appointments” for university professors. It required tenured faculty at Florida’s public universities to undergo a review every five years.
Professors and their supporters claimed the legislation jeopardizes academic freedom, leaving faculty exposed to political pressure over their teaching and research that could affect their tenure status.
Weakening tenure also makes it harder to attract and retain faculty who place considerable value on the job security that tenure offers, opponents of the bill said.
Another bill that took effect this week initially proposed curbing faculty protections even more. It would have allowed tenure to be reviewed “at any time” by a school’s board of trustees, but that provision was eliminated late in the legislative session.
New College takeover
While DeSantis displayed his influence over state lawmakers with Stop Woke and tenure review, he also has used the power of appointments to effect change.
In January, he appointed six new trustees at New College of Florida with a mandate to overhaul the small liberal arts school in Sarasota. The move sparked protests, attracted national attention and put other schools on notice that the governor was serious about pressing his higher education agenda.
New College had long struggled with flagging enrollment and years of deferred maintenance on campus buildings, but the new trustees had a larger goal in mind.
“Under the leadership of Gov. DeSantis, our all-star board will demonstrate that the public universities, which have been corrupted by woke nihilism, can be recaptured, restructured, and reformed,” wrote Christopher Rufo, one of the new trustees, who is known for his online activism against critical race theory.
In their first meeting, the new trustees fired the sitting president, Patricia Okker, and appointed former education commissioner Richard Corcoran to serve in the interim. They later voted to disband the school’s office of diversity and deny tenure to five faculty members.
Diversity and more
Less than three months after New College trustees voted to eliminate the school’s office of diversity, equity and inclusion, DeSantis visited the Sarasota campus to sign into law a bill eliminating such offices across the State University System.
Borrowing language from last year’s Stop Woke act, SB 266 prohibits public institutions from spending any public money on programs or activities that “advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion; or promote or engage in political or social activism.”
Diversity, equity and inclusion offices have long existed on college campuses, but became a focal point in 2020 as university campuses grappled with the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. The term soon took on a different connotation after being co-opted by conservative activists as a stand-in for campus censorship and cancel culture.
The new law also restricts the teaching of topics like systemic racism and white privilege in general education courses, the lower-level classes that all students must take for their degrees.
In the same sitting, DeSantis signed HB 931, which prohibits universities and colleges from requiring “political litmus tests” in hiring, admission and promotion decisions. It’s a reference to diversity statements, which have been long derided by free speech activists but are commonplace at public and private workplaces.
Rather than promoting free speech, however, the American Association of University Professors said the new law “cements the decline of Florida’s higher education system by enshrining into law culture-war-inspired censorship.”
What comes next
At a June meeting, State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues said the Board of Governors, which oversees the system, will be drafting regulations to implement the bevy of laws passed this year.
Staff will have to work through more than 30 pieces of legislation that touch higher education, according to Rodrigues.
Their first priority, he said, will be SB 266. Beyond banning spending on diversity, the law widens the hiring and firing powers of boards of trustees and requires each board to ensure that general education courses do not “distort significant historical events or teach identity politics.”
The law also requires all universities to change accreditation bodies, and prohibits accreditation requirements that would violate state law. The state government recently filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration over accreditation bodies.
Other laws impacting higher education in Florida include HB 379, which bans the use of TikTok on school-owned devices and internet, and SB 846, which prohibits college and university employees from accepting gifts from “foreign countries of concern,” including Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Russia.
Ian Hodgson is an education data reporter and Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.
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