I’m a professor at the University of South Florida, and the fire hose of proposed legislation targeting hiring practices, curriculum and even student health at our public universities has been dispiriting for those of us who want to focus on our roles as educators and researchers.
Efforts to disrupt the state’s higher education system are troubling but also puzzling because by most measures, our universities serve our state extremely well.
Perhaps the opening salvo came when the University of Florida tried to keep three faculty members from offering expert testimony in an area of their expertise, an infringement that brought a reprimand from the regional accreditation agency. The state reacted by instructing the university system to find a different accreditor.
Then there is last year’s HB 7, currently stayed by the courts, which, with vague wording, banned the teaching of “critical race theory.” There is a new policy requiring five-year post-tenure faculty reviews in which reviewers consider “student complaints” alongside teaching and research accomplishments. Tenure that can be withdrawn every five years is, in fact, no longer tenure.
This year, the governor turned his attention to New College of Florida, putting ideologues on the Board of Trustees, firing the president and seeking to change the mission of this prestigious small liberal arts college. Next, the Florida Department of Education demanded that all universities identify and eliminate any programs aimed at “diversity, equity and inclusion” and have now required data on all health services provided to trans students, no doubt with an eye to eliminating those services.
A recently filed bill, HB 999, goes even farther. If this bill passes, tenured faculty could be reviewed at any time by their Board of Trustees. Those boards, which are dominated by businesspeople and campaign donors, not scholars or educators, would have full control over faculty retention and hiring.
The reform efforts are based on claims that Florida’s universities need a top-down overhaul. In the eyes of those proposing these bills, our campuses are hotbeds of leftist indoctrination too busy pushing intersectionality to teach workforce-ready skills. The evidence for such claims, however, is hard to find.
One might look at Florida’s leadership: There are 93 Republican state House and Senate members who list postsecondary education details, and 50 of them have attended a Florida public college or university. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ staff and donor lists are filled with our state university graduates. If our schools really are trying to mold students into progressive cadres, we’re doing a terrible job.
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More directly, in a survey of Florida students and staff (whose low response rate reflects some understandable skepticism about the purpose of the survey) the large majority did not express concerns about speaking their views on campus.
DeSantis and his supporters further maintain that they must disrupt the university mission because our higher education system is failing to educate students for the workforce. But universities’ own data contradict that assertion. Surveys of students who have received bachelor’s degrees show that 92% are working within a year, and one-third go on for further study within 10 years.
Florida’s universities are vibrant and effective. With students and faculty from different backgrounds, pursuing different areas of interest, our diversity underpins these strengths. Florida universities have secured top rankings for high level academic programs, while also remaining accessible, with affordable tuition. In fall 2020, 35.5% of state system undergraduates received Pell grants. Five of our universities are listed among the top 50, nationally, for “social mobility,” meaning we offer affordable and high quality educations for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Florida faculty worry that these attacks on diversity, on LGBTQ students and on academic freedom will have long-term consequences, not merely for our own careers but for our state. The changes in university policy will not solely affect small groups of faculty and students — the ability of our universities to provide high quality education impacts everyone.
If promising faculty job candidates go elsewhere, Florida students miss out on having the best teachers, and our government and business community can’t benefit from high level research that leads to improvements in the economy, health or the environment. Businesses may have second thoughts about locating in a state whose universities are scaring off researchers or shopping for accreditors — after all, Florida is not the only state with low taxes.
Florida faculty take pride in being good educators and productive researchers. Please let us continue to serve a strong, independent university system and create opportunity in our state.
Elizabeth Strom is an associate professor at the University of South Florida, and the co-leader of the Florida chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network.