FSU professors and others warn of a brain drain as lawmakers weigh a controversial higher ed bill
A backlash is brewing in Florida higher education over a bill that could alter the way certain subjects are taught and discussed. It hasn't yet passed the legislature but is already roiling academia.
Emily Stewart is a geologist at Florida State University. She goes to conferences all over the country. Recently, she says the conversation has shifted from her work to state politics.
“They don’t want to talk to me about my science or my students, they want to talk to me about what’s happening politically at the university which should not be the conversation we want to have," Stewart said before a Senate education appropriations committee.
At FSU, some faculty members have already announced their departures, either taking jobs at out-of-state institutions or going on sabbaticals. Others, says FSU professor Matthew Lata, are rethinking their decisions to come to teach in Florida.
“When we recruit…more often than not now, we’re hearing ‘ I don’t think this is a good time to be an educator in Florida,' because what they [potential faculty] want is to make sure their tenure process is about academics, not politics.”
The proposal calls for a review of the mission of each school and its academic programs for any violations of state law—including last year's “STOP WOKE” act, which restricts the way aspects of race, gender, and other issues are taught and discussed in classrooms. A federal judge has blocked the law from going into effect.
The Senate bill also restructures the way professors are hired, placing that authority into the hands of university presidents, politically appointed boards of trustees, and—under a revision—school deans.
Democratic State Sen. Shevrin Jones is a former public school teacher with a Ph.D. in educational leadership.
“I spoke with an HR director at a university and she said ‘Shev, we just had 300 reconsiderations for our fall term of professors….if you think this won’t have a chilling effect…you are sadly mistaken.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis and the GOP have targeted higher education in his battle against “woke ideology," and "indoctrination." The issue has already rocked the New College of Florida, which recently underwent significant administrative changes that have given the school a more conservative bent. Students and professors are or have threatened to leave, and the school is now offering students up to $10,000 in scholarships to go there after its reputation took a massive hit.
Senate Bill 266 and its counterpart, House Bill 999, haven’t even passed the legislature yet, but the outcome appears certain. And they're shaking higher education in Florida, to the point there are even rumblings that the future of the institutions’ accreditation could be at risk, as noted by FSU Professor Michael Buckler. Buckler shared a warning letter written by an influential higher ed group.
“When the ACLS [American Council of Learned Societies] comes out against this, everyone is going to notice, especially the accrediting bodies, no matter which accrediting body it is. This threatens the entirety of academia in Florida," said Buckler.
Jones, the Miami Democratic Senator, warns the same.
"I would really recommend we put things in this legislation, cause we know it’s going to pass, that ensure our accrediting bodies don’t pull out of our colleges and universities.”
Many accrediting agencies require schools to have certain programs in the subjects and areas the legislation seeks to defund or remove. Losing accreditation is considered a death knell for institutions and cuts them off from federal financial aid.
For Republican Sen. Keith Perry, the warnings of an impending catastrophe in higher ed, are overblown.
“I’ve heard that government shouldn’t tell us what to teach. This is government telling government—we’re not talking about private schools—we’re talking about public institutions paid for by the taxpayers.”
Yet Joe Cohn policy director for the research group FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, notes there are more than 60 years of case law that’s not on Florida’s side on this one. In prior interviews with WFSU, Cohn acknowledged that courts have generally agreed with Perry’s take on K-12 public schools. But the same isn’t true for colleges and universities. The difference is that higher ed deals with adults, not children, who are able to make decisions for themselves.