Gov. Ron DeSantis, pictured here at a Las Vegas speech in November, announced a package of sweeping reforms to Florida higher education on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday announced a package of major reforms to Florida’s higher education system, including tighter controls on faculty tenure, the establishment of “civics institutes” at three universities and prohibitions on diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

Speaking at a news conference in Bradenton, the governor praised Florida’s ranking by U.S. News & World Report as the top state for higher education before unveiling a plan that he said would realign universities with their missions.

“There’s really a debate about what is the purpose of higher education, particularly publicly funded higher education systems,” he said. “You have the dominant view, which I think is not the right view, to impose ideological conformity, to provoke political activism. Instead, we need our higher education systems to promote academic excellence.”

The activism is often manifested in “DEI bureaucracies” that impose an agenda, DeSantis argued, referring to diversity, education and inclusion programs.

His proposal would prohibit state schools from supporting those programs, or activities related to critical race theory — both of which DeSantis has described as divisive.

“It’s not the best use of your money,” said the governor, who recently required all state colleges and universities to report how much they spent on such initiatives. He said he plans to have them “wither on the vine” with no funding.

Among those reacting to his announcement was State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, who said on Twitter: “Nothing says you oppose ideology on college campuses…. like pushing your ideology on college campuses.”

The ACLU of Florida tweeted: “The governor’s latest attempt to restrict free speech and erase the history and legacy of discrimination in America by impeding the right to share ideas and receive information in classrooms is dangerous for our democracy and future generations.”

Shawn Frost, a former Indian River County School Board member and conservative activist, said, “I don’t think this is a controversial take to most conservatives.”

He noted DeSantis’ double-digit victory in the November election, adding: “Let the man focus on doing his job without ascribing ulterior motives to leading like a proven conservative.”

DeSantis was accompanied by Christopher Rufo, one of the six trustees he appointed to the New College board of trustees on Jan. 6. Rufo, a 38-year-old conservative journalist and fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has been tweeting recently against diversity, equity and inclusion departments in higher education.

“It’s pretty ugly stuff,” he said at the news conference, mentioning examples of white and Christian students on campuses made to feel shame. He described the term diversity, equity and inclusion as “an Orwellian misuse of language that manipulates you into thinking it’s a good thing,” and praised DeSantis for taking action.

“This is going to be the place where equality, merit and colorblindness are the law of the land,” Rufo said.

DeSantis’ plan also would allow university boards of trustees and presidents to conduct reviews of tenured faculty members “at any time,” in addition to the periodic reviews that already take place.

“They can be let go if they’re not performing to expectations,” DeSantis said to applause from an audience assembled at State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota.

“The most significant deadweight cost to a university is unproductive tenured faculty,” he said. “Why would we want to saddle you the taxpayers with that cost?”

In a related proposal regarding university presidents, DeSantis aims to reestablish “their authority over the hiring process.” Currently, according to a flyer distributed by the governor’s staff, “faculty committees can tie the hands of university presidents and bind them to only consider a small pool of recommended candidates.”

He also proposes changes in standards and course content “to ensure higher education is rooted in the values of liberty and western tradition.”

DeSantis said all students graduating from Florida universities would be required to take general education courses that include “actual history and actual philosophy that has shaped western civilization.”

His plan would require schools to “prioritize graduating students with degrees that lead to high-wage jobs, not degrees designed to further a political agenda.”

In addition, he proposes elevating existing “civics institutes” at the University of Florida, Florida International University and Florida State University. The institutes would be “refocused” to develop courses and curricula “that can be used to educate the next generation on the values of liberty and constitutionalism.”

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.