In recent months, Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has laid out a comprehensive vision that would place public higher education under extraordinary state control. A bill introduced this week would write that vision into law.
House Bill 999 takes up almost every bullet-pointed goal that DeSantis included for public higher education in a press release last month. It would prohibit public colleges from funding any projects that “espouse diversity, equity, and inclusion or Critical Race Theory rhetoric,” no matter the funding source; allow boards of trustees to conduct a post-tenure review of faculty members at any time for cause; and put faculty hiring into the hands of trustees. It also has new specifics DeSantis hadn’t proposed, such as a ban on gender studies as a major or minor.
“This bill will be a gut punch to anyone who cares about public education in a democracy or academic freedom or the fact that our system of higher education is the envy of the world,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors. “Because higher ed in America is organized around the fact that research and teaching and decisions involving research and teaching are best made by experts and scholars in the field.”
“We need to protest, we need to vote, we need to make our voices heard,” Mulvey added, acknowledging a student protest on Thursday. “I’ve never seen anything like it. The future of higher education is at stake. If it works in Florida, you know it’ll spread to other red states.”
In a news conference in January, DeSantis said his proposals would help Florida “continue to lead in the area of higher education,” and the governor has expressed a desire to rein in public spending on campus initiatives related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Neither DeSantis nor Robert Alexander “Alex” Andrade, HB 999’s sponsor, returned requests for comment.
The bill is very early in the legislative process. Andrade, a Republican representative in the Florida House who has filed other bills closely aligned with DeSantis’s agenda, filed HB 999 on Tuesday, and the legislative session doesn’t start until March 7. HB 999 may yet change before it passes, if it passes at all, but at least one politics expert in Florida saw it as a sign of what’s to come.
“My hope is that we get at least some of the more alarming things that are in these bills toned down a little bit, but, at the same time, I think there’s definitely a lot of momentum among Florida Republicans to do something here,” said Nicholas R. Seabrook, a professor of political science at the University of North Florida who has been critical of DeSantis’s posture on higher ed. “We’re definitely going to see something come out of this legislative session.”
Although he expects legal challenges to HB 999 if it passes, Seabrook also thought it could better pass legal muster than last year’s “Stop WOKE” Act, which has its higher-ed portions under injunction. HB 999 takes aim at funding for programs, curriculum, and hiring, issues in which the state “legitimately has a greater role,” Seabrook said.
Among the specifics of the bill: It directs trustees to remove from their universities majors and minors “in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems.” It’s not clear whether any public Florida university has a critical race theory or intersectionality major or minor, but a majority of the 12 institutions offer gender studies as either a major or a minor or both.
(Critical race theory refers to a set of ideas that arose from legal scholars decades ago that, among other things, positions racism as a structural force. Intersectionality is a theory that refers to “the idea that forms of prejudice overlap.” Both resist simple definition.)
HB 999 would make boards of trustees responsible for hiring faculty members, and while it would allow boards to delegate that task to the college president, it prohibits the president from further delegating hiring to, say, faculty members. It clarifies that while “diversity” programs are banned, that doesn’t include support for “military veterans, Pell Grant recipients, first generation college students, nontraditional students, ‘2+2’ transfer students from the Florida College System, students from low-income families, or students with unique abilities.”
The bill would create new rules around general-education courses. For example, they may not teach “American history as contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” It continues: “Whenever applicable,” gen-ed courses are to “promote the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization and include studies of this nation’s historical documents, including the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments thereto, and the Federalist Papers.”
But teaching history well does include some realities that are contrary to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, according to James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, who has written books about 20th-century African American history. Inviting students to wrestle with colonialism and slavery in early American history is both truthful and helps with “students learning how to think historically and students learning how no ideas exist outside of context. Their ideas, their parents’ ideas, their teachers’ ideas, no ideas exist outside of a context,” Grossman said.
There are some parts of HB 999 that Seabrook, the University of North Florida professor, agrees with. The bill adds language to Florida law about how a part of public universities’ mission is to prepare students “for citizenship of the constitutional republic.” He also thinks colleges could do more to foster intellectual diversity on campus, but HB 999 is not the way to go about it.
“It’s identifying that there’s perhaps a problem with academia leaning one way on the ideological spectrum, and then you see what they’re doing at New College,” he said. “They’re just replacing it with an even worse model that goes in the opposite direction.”