How Florida’s ‘anti-woke’ bill could impact public universities

The bill could place new restrictions on race-related instruction.
A view of the University of Florida from the campus entrance at W University Avenue and SW 13th Street in Gainesville.
A view of the University of Florida from the campus entrance at W University Avenue and SW 13th Street in Gainesville. [ Google Maps ]
Published April 15, 2022|Updated April 15, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s cultural clashes over what to teach about race are not isolated to K-12 education. They are also spilling into the state’s higher education system.

For about a year now, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Republicans have been fighting the influence of “critical race theory” and what they call “woke” ideologies in the classroom.

Their latest effort is legislation that would place new restrictions on race-related instruction in public universities and colleges, and would threaten institutions with funding cuts and lawsuits if they violate the new regulations.

These regulations are packaged in House Bill 7, titled “Individual Freedom,” and are tied to the proposed state budget for the upcoming fiscal year. DeSantis, who has championed his own “anti-woke” agenda, is expected to approve both items.

Related: What Florida employers need to know if DeSantis approves new 'anti-woke' law

The proposed legislation is far-reaching, and the state university system’s Board of Governors is working with provosts and general counsels to understand what will need to change at Florida’s 12 public universities if the law is approved. At least one university — the University of Florida — has said it is “developing training” for employees to ensure they follow the anticipated new law. It would take effect July 1.

So what exactly does the bill do?

If approved, public universities and colleges could be accused of and sued for discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin or sex, if a student or employee objects to instructional materials or training sessions that they believe don’t meet a new set of “individual freedom” principles laid out by Republican lawmakers.

For example, school instruction would constitute discrimination if the institution “compels” an individual to believe any of the following:

  1. That virtues such as merit, excellence, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity and racial colorblindness are racist or sexist, or were created by members of a particular race, color, sex or national origin to oppress members of another race, color, sex or national origin.
  2. That members of one race, color, sex or national origin are morally superior to members of another race, color, sex or national origin.
  3. That an individual’s moral character or status as either privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, sex or national origin.
  4. That an individual, by virtue of their race, color, sex or national origin, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.
  5. That members of one race, color, sex or national origin cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race, color, sex or national origin.
  6. That a member of one race, color, sex or national origin cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race, color, sex or national origin.
  7. That an individual, by virtue of their race, color, sex, or national origin, bears responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex or national origin.
  8. That an individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex or national origin, should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity or inclusion.
Related: Florida's 'anti-woke' bills raise concerns for scholars who teach about race

Lawmakers tie funding to compliance

Any violation could put public universities’ funding at risk.

Specifically, universities would be ineligible for what is known as performance funding — money tied to a school based on its performance — in the subsequent fiscal year if there is a “substantiated violation” of the restrictions outlined in the bill.

A violation would be determined by either a court, a legislative committee or the Board of Governors, a body whose members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.

Republican legislative leaders said the threat of funding cuts will serve as an incentive to make sure universities follow the new law. The idea is also to send a message to public universities and colleges: Don’t blame people for the sins of other people.

“I think it is a pretty reasonable thing,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls told reporters in March. “That is the message we are trying to send.”

But opponents see things differently. They see it as an attempt to censor discussions about subjects that make some people uncomfortable and that restricting how to teach history is dismissive of the country’s racist past.

‘This is payback’

At the university level, some view it as retaliation against faculty who in recent months have complained about universities restricting their academic freedom to avoid political backlash.

For example, one University of Florida professor claimed in December that university officials had asked faculty members to not use the words “critical” and “race” in curriculum to protect the university’s relationship with the state. The professor — UF College of Education Associate Professor Chris Busey — claimed university officials did not want to “inflame Tallahassee” as Republicans aimed to crack down on the concept of critical race theory and similar themes.

Related: At UF, someone used 'critical' and 'race' in a sentence. Trouble ensued.

“This is payback for people speaking up. This is payback for people who dissent from Tallahassee at this current moment in time,” said Paul Ortiz, a University of Florida history professor who serves as the president of the United Faculty of Florida’s UF chapter.

UF, which recently attained a long-sought top-five ranking among the nation’s public universities, also came under fire last year when it temporarily barred three political science professors from testifying in litigation against the state. Although UF reversed course, the school’s accrediting agency said it would investigate its actions to determine if “undue political influence” standards were violated.

In response, Republican legislative leaders approved legislation to force all state universities to part ways with their current accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS.

“I think we are getting a little tired of whether it be university administrators hiding behind the shield of an accreditor and letting them sort of do their dirty work or tired of accreditors necessarily trying to dictate how we do things here in Florida,” Sprowls said after the measure was approved.

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