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Get the latest coverage of the 2023 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and 90.7 WMFE.

Black fraternities and sororities are feeling relief after major changes to a Florida higher ed bill

Lee Hall houses administrative offices, including the Office of the President, on the campus of Florida A&M University
Lydell Rawls
/
WFSU Public Media
Lee Hall houses administrative offices, including the Office of the President, on the campus of Florida A&M University

An important higher education reform bill has started moving in the Florida Senate, but with a major change: it no longer bans majors and minors in subjects like gender studies, intersectionality, and critical race theory.   After concerns raised by Black Greek letter groups, lawmakers have also amended the bill to protect more student groups from similar bans, but the proposal is still under fire.

Ivory Gordon is a Florida A&M University graduate and pharmacist in Tampa. She first caught wind that the higher ed bill could lead to a ban of Black Greek letter organizations via an email from the NAACP:

“I was devastated because it’s not just the bill that’s eradicating race and gender studies, it's eradicating a culture," she said when reading the bill's original language that would have prevented university spending on issues like Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and related subjects, which also could have included fraternities and sororities.

Gordon is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.

The new version of the Senate Bill 266 stripped the major ban language. It also no longer includes the language that concerned the NAACP and Gordon. That language barred funding for any diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, including campus activities, unless mandated by the federal government. The inclusion of "campus activities" is what raised concerns among fraternities and sororities. The amended bill removed "campus activities" from the list.

During a Wednesday Senate committee hearing on the bill, Sen. Shevrin Jones asked bill sponsor Erin Grall to further clarify the student group exemption.

“There is nothing in the PCS that speaks to student organizations at all," said Grall.

The House took up its bill earlier this week. Bill sponsor, Republican Rep. Alex Andrade amended it to also clarify that student groups would be protected. The House bill does maintain the ban on certain majors and minors, though.

In addition to concerns over the Black fraternities and sororities, a new worry has emerged—that the bill could pose a threat to the state's lone, public Historically Black College: Florida A&M University. That's due to the bill's relative vagueness about what constitutes banned subject matter. When asked whether FAMU is in jeopardy, Rep. Andrade responded via text with two letters: "NO."

Despite the Senate’s changes, many people are still fretting.

“While we appreciate the committee substitute that omits a few of the controversial topics that are contained in the House’s version of the bill such as the banning of certain majors, the weakening of autonomy for Greek letter organizations and culturally specific student organizations, on whole we believe the bill is unnecessary and impinges on free speech and free thought," said Genesis Robinson, the political director of Equal Ground.

In addition, professors are concerned about changes to tenure. Both bills retain a provision allowing a university's Board of Trustees to review a professor’s tenure at any time, with cause. United Faculty of Florida President Andrew Gothard notes tenure is there to protect faculty of all political stripes—and he noted conservative faculty voices that recently spoke out against new rules by the state university governing board on tenure changes.

“And what they said was they’re very concerned with the way the board and legislature are tinkering with tenure, because historically, tenure has been a protection for our rights as conservative faculty to teach and research in the areas we believe are best," said Gothard.

Despite the changes, Gordon, the pharmacist, remains skeptical. She says the damage has already been done.

“You can’t just make a general statement and say we’re getting rid of racial education in the classroom, exactly what are you talking about? African American Studies, Are you going to keep Asian studies? Does this also impact Latino studies? This just as greatly impacts them as much as it does us.”  

The measure is part of Gov. Ron DeSantis' efforts to crack down on what he sees as a "woke ideology" in both K-12 and public higher education. The administration has maintained that its effort is not aimed at erasing Black history, but to eliminate what it views as extreme discourse on other aspects of gender and sexual identity and identity politics that it believes have gone too far.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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