November 29, 2023

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Over the past few months, Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has stepped up his attacks on what he sees as a dangerous status quo in public higher education, which he says is beating students with “woke” liberal values.

DeSantis ordered Florida’s public colleges and universities detail their expenses on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, or DEI programs. He did what his critics call conservative takeover public liberal arts institution New College of Florida, where he installed several far-right voices on the board as well as one of his most visible allies, former state education commissioner Richard Corcoran, as president.

It’s not done yet.

DeSantis’ campaign against public postsecondary education peaked at the end of last month promising to take legislative action to destroy the systems that perpetuate “identity politics and indoctrination.”

Proposed legislation DeSantis wanted was introduced on Tuesday. Sponsored by a House Republican who seized some of the governor’s other legislative prioritiesThe bill would overturn some of the longest-standing conventions of American higher education and impose an unprecedented degree of state control, such as forcing institutions to drop gender studies programs.

Supporters of free speech characterized the design as censorious and draconian.

Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, the union representing broad contingents of instructors at Florida institutions, said he would fight the bill with all his might. DeSantis was unable to produce a single example of higher education brainwashing students, Gothard said. But this law instead mandates a state-sponsored form of indoctrination, “fascism in its purest form,” he said.

Some provisions of the Act may also conflict with accreditation standards, such as ensuring the maintenance of shared governance. Accreditors serve as gatekeepers for colleges to access federal Title IV money.

Below, we summarize parts of the bill that is likely to gain support in Florida’s GOP-controlled Legislature.

Dictating instructions on certain topics

Elected officials organizing the curriculum clash with the guiding principles of higher education. The prevailing view among universities is that faculty have responsibility for academics within a tradition of shared governance.

But the bill specifically blocks colleges from offering majors or minors in intersectional studies, gender studies or critical race theory, a decades-old academic concept that originated with lawyers and partly teaches about the systemic nature of racism.

The Republican Party began to fall for the critical race theory toward the end of former President Donald Trump’s term, and the movement against it only grew stronger. Many state Republicans have introduced bills to banish the topic from K-12 schools and college classrooms, though these policymakers often associate critical race theory with any DEI work.

Florida’s proposed legislation also includes requirements for general education courses that students take as foundational work for a combined degree in their chosen field.

It calls on colleges to reserve curricula “based on unproven, theoretical or exploratory content” for electives or specialist subjects.

General education classes must not “suppress or distort significant historical events or include curriculum that teaches identity politics.” Instead, courses should, whenever possible, “promote the philosophical foundations of Western civilization” and teach about key documents in U.S. history, such as the U.S. Constitution, the bill says.

Giving boards more hiring power

High-level administrators and teachers usually decide which instructors to hire.

The bill would delegate that authority to campus boards of trustees, which in Florida’s public university system are partly appointed by the governor and partly elected by the system-level board of trustees. However, Florida’s governor also selects a majority from the board of governors.

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