Florida International University professor Besiki Luka Kutateladze joined a group of students, staff and community members during a Feb. 23, 2023, protest over efforts to eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion programs in the state's higher-education system. [ PEDRO PORTAL | El Nuevo Herald ]

TALLAHASSEE — In January, Gov. Ron DeSantis called on Florida lawmakers to overhaul the state’s higher education system with a clear target in mind: diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

Shortly after, Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate introduced bills that would have barred state universities and colleges from spending any money on programs that promote “diversity, equity and inclusion or critical race theory.”

But on Wednesday, a key Senate panel approved a complete rewrite of one of those bills — SB 266, the companion to HB 999 — and scrubbed any references to “diversity, equity and inclusion.” One of the concerns was that the restrictions on those initiatives could potentially endanger accreditation of certain higher-education courses and programs.

Now, the Senate bill limits spending on a broader set of themes, and universities would be required to ensure programs do not delve into “theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political and economic inequities.”

While DeSantis and his Republican allies have placed much of the focus on diversity and equity programs, the proposed legislation is sweeping and also makes changes to state universities’ hiring practices and accreditation protocols, and could make it harder for faculty members to maintain tenure or reverse a termination.

The proposed changes were approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Education on a party-line vote during a two-hour hearing that included dozens of students, faculty and union representatives speaking in opposition to the bill.

A key provision in the proposal, for example, would give university presidents the authority to fire and hire faculty. While they would be allowed to delegate those decisions to deans, the bill specifies that they would not be required to take into account others’ opinions. Currently, deans, department chairpersons and faculty committees make most of those hiring decisions.

Initially, the proposal sought to largely leave all hiring decisions to each university’s politically appointed board of trustees. But lawmakers voted to shift that authority.

The measure, however, adds more hurdles for faculty members. If they are stripped of tenure or fired, they would not be allowed to appeal the decision beyond the level of the university president, and there would be no arbitration option.

“There’s going to be some question of whether that’s legal and how well that would hold up in court,” said Andrew Gothard, president of the statewide union, United Faculty of Florida. “But even beyond the sort of technicalities of that, what we’re seeing is the continued efforts of the Legislature to enforce Governor DeSantis’ big government version of how Florida should operate.”

Diversity, equity, inclusion is no longer included

DeSantis and Republican allies earlier this year sought to eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion programs in higher education because they say those programs “force exclusion and division.”

But the reference to that terminology was removed because there were concerns that restricting diversity, equity and inclusion measures at universities could potentially endanger the accreditation of some courses and programs, explained the bill sponsor, Sen. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach.

Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, raised concerns about education accreditation courses for mental health professions that require curriculum on diversity, equity and inclusion.

“We can’t make any more hurdles for them,” Book said. “I have a lot of emails and a lot of letters from people that think that it does [impact their courses], and we have a responsibility to listen to that.”

Grall maintained that the bill would not impact their accreditation, in part, because the bill “does not specifically address DEI.”

She added that accreditation concerns were part of the reasons why the “specific terminology” was no longer used in the bill — and why she instead opted to talk about “theories that undermine institutions in the United States.”

“It is encouraging to see the Legislature taking up this important topic and joining the conversation that the governor began with his legislative proposals for higher education reform in Florida. The governor is committed to ensuring that the DEI and CRT (critical race theory) bureaucracies are cut off and wither on the vine,” said Jeremy Redfern, a spokesman for the governor. “This legislation is still part of the legislative process, but we look forward to it reaching the governor’s desk in final form.”

Under the proposed legislation, universities would be required to review curriculum and ensure their programs align with the state’s mission of not teaching about “theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political and economic inequities.”

While the term DEI is not mentioned in the bill anymore, some worried the proposal is now even broader and in practice, could have a greater impact. That’s because the new phrasing leaves room for interpretation.

Worries about consequences

Martha Schoolman, an associate professor of English at Florida International University, worries the goal of the proposal aims to turn all of the state’s public universities into New College of Florida, which DeSantis and his allies are spearheading a conservative takeover.

“As a professor, I find it upsetting that the state Legislature is using the state university system as a political plaything with so little regard to its long-term consequences,” Schoolman said.

Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, worried the state is moving backward. She reminded the committee of George Starke, the University of Florida’s first Black student, who was accompanied to classes by police and had to sit rows away from other students. He stayed for two years but left.

In 2009, UF honored him with a distinguished alumni award. And in 2021, Thompson successfully passed a resolution in the Legislature to honor Stark as a “trailblazer in bringing diversity, equity and inclusion in the state of Florida.”

“We’re going backwards here,” Thompson said. “This would ignore 100 years of history. It would ignore what George Starke experienced at the University of Florida. We are confusing theory and fact.”

More than a dozen speakers argued against the bill. Many of them were young students who said they worried about the direction of the state, from book bans to name-calling of transgender individuals. They worried about what they would be able to study.

Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, however, argued that the “word inclusion by default means there’s an exclusion.”

Others questioned what an “evidence-based” approach to history was. Grall said one that had documentation, evidence of the historical event and a “reliable methodology for putting it as part of the conversation.”

Majors no longer targeted

In March, the House bill was amended to say universities should remove “any major or minor that is based on or otherwise utilizes pedagogical methodology associated with Critical Theory, including, but not limited to, Critical Race Theory, Critical Race Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, Radical Feminist Theory, Radical Gender Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Social Justice, or Intersectionality.”

While none of the listed topics are offered as majors or minors at Florida’s public universities, Gothard said the new wording made it much worse. Gothard said by including “methodology associated with,” the wording could get rid of majors including English, criminal justice, education and pre-law.

“It’s so much farther reaching,” he said. “This is bad policy. This is trying to address something they don’t understand. This is the kid throwing rocks from across the railroad tracks because they know they want to hurt people.”

The proposed legislation has been criticized by several national academic groups from the American Historical Association to the American Association of University Professors.

But that bill’s sponsor Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, said the intent was simply to improve rigor by removing concepts that have “not undergone the same amount of peer review, debate and scrutiny.”

“The bill is far simpler than opponents want to give it credit for,” Andrade said in an interview. “The same folks saying ‘Stop Woke’ banned teaching of Black history are the same folks lying about this bill.”

Joseph Cohn, the legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said he opposed the measure “not for ideological reasons but because it will chill and censor pedagogically relevant speech.”

“There’s over 60 years of Supreme Court precedent saying that laws to cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom are unconstitutional,” Cohn said. “That case law does not differentiate between whether or not it’s in majors or minors or whether it’s in required classes or general ed classes. You cannot as the government decide that a particular idea is not welcome in the classroom, period, end of analysis.”

Miami Herald reporter Sarah Blaskey contributed to this report.

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.