Students walk near the Marshall Student Center on the University of South Florida's Tampa campus. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

The University of South Florida faculty has condemned two bills proposing major changes to the state’s higher education system after a survey of members revealed dire concerns about the legislation.

In a unanimous vote Wednesday, the faculty senate approved a resolution targeting HB 999 and its companion, SB 266. The bills would prohibit state spending on diversity and equity initiatives; ban majors and courses related to critical race theory and gender studies, among other fields; and give all hiring power to university boards of trustees and presidents.

The resolution also urges USF’s top leaders to push back against the measures. Itfollowed a faculty surveyin which more than 86% of respondents expressed concern over the bills. The 705 people who participated represent about 30% of USF’s faculty.

Jenifer Jasinski Schneider, chairperson of the senate, compiled comments from faculty and found their top concerns centered around giving presidents and boards faculty hiring power, banning diversity initiatives and specified content, and allowing for tenure to be reviewed “at any time.”

Jasinski Schneider said several faculty, particularly from the health side of the university, expressed concerns in comments over losing grants. They also worried about their ability to conduct research and connect with underserved populations.

“It’s a basic part of health to focus on social and cultural determinants of health,” she said. “And I don’t know that the people writing these laws understand that — especially in the state of Florida, where health is a pretty big deal.”

Charles Lockwood, executive vice president for USF Health, told faculty members that the legislation, if passed, would still allow universities to advance diversity by targeting certain students for recruitment. He added that federal grants and “all aspects of our admission process, our curriculum and our care” would be protected.

But Jasinski Schneider said the bills would inspire responses similar to what happened after last year’s legislation on K-12 school libraries, with educators censoring materials to avoid parent complaints.

“There’s the reality that’s written in the law, and then the practice that happens,” she said. “The fear, the retaliation, the interpretation that happens at the local level is very different than what the actual law says. And that’s where the damage is going to happen. So, people that are fearful are going to take their grants, they’re not going to come.”

Jerri Edwards, a researcher in the College of Medicine who said she’s brought in more than $70 million in funding to the university, said she relies on her ability to reach minority populations.

“We are not going to be able to attract, hire or retain faculty,” she said. “And, quite frankly, our reputation in this community is going to be irreparable.”

Math professor Greg McColm, a member of the faculty senate and the faculty union, cited language in the bills banning critical race theory and gender studies, along with courses “based on unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content.” Those provisions, he said, would cause problems for courses in science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM.

People in the academic community “have said that this is actually going to make science education impossible,” McColm said, arguing that Albert Einstein’s theory on gravity could be targeted under the bill.

“General relativity is … actually unprovable, as I recall,” he said. “Science is unproven theoretical, exploratory content.”

The resolution states the bills would work “against the climate of inclusive belonging that has been a central principle and research focus of public higher education in the United States and Florida for decades.”

It says the legislation “prescribes a partisan, ideologically constrained and highly misleading version of American history” and gives university trustees and presidents “unchecked authority” in calling for tenure reviews.

“These kinds of bills are going to depreciate the value of liberal arts, but also all degrees at USF,” Jasinski Schneider said. “We’re going to have damage to everyone across … all the universities (in the state). Hiring diverse people and the best faculty will be at risk. This is politically motivated and political meddling.”

Several faculty leaders and student groups across the state have planned to attend next week’s Board of Governors meeting in Tallahassee to express concern over the bills.

Jasinski Schneider, an alumna of Ohio State University, said she was stunned to see alumni of Florida schools supporting the two bills. They “are actually the architects of the demise of their beloved institutions,” she said. “It’s just baffling.”

Divya Kumar is a higher education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

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