A view of red flowering trees and a fountain on the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus.
A view from the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Following a fiery debate, the bill poised to bring massive change to higher education, House Bill 999, has moved through the House Education and Employment committee after it was modified to mirror its companion bill, Senate Bill 266.

The bills, teased by Gov. Ron DeSantis in January, sought to rid state universities of ideals that critics consider indoctrination by expanding the powers of boards of trustees over the hiring and firing of faculty’ and banning specified curriculum. They would also prohibit spending on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and establish three civic institutes at Florida universities.

The new versions of the bills no longer explicitly prohibit spending or instruction in diversity, equity and inclusion, critical race theory or gender studies.

Instead, theyapply the ban to “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” or concepts that violate 1000.05— the statute set in place by the ‘Stop Woke Act,’ which is still being contested in courts.

Some faculty are still concerned about what Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay said remains at the heart of the bill: Who is in control of the state’s public universities?

“This debate reminds me of so many debates that we have,” Fine said Tuesday. “It’s basically about who’s in charge. …Should unelected faculty, who no one voted for, who aren’t accountable to voters in any way, shape or form, be able to run the university?”

The new versions also soften the language around hiring, stating that boards of trustees — who are appointed by the Governor and Board of Governors — could delegate hiring powers to presidents. The presidents, in turn, could delegate those powers to members of their executive teams.

But lawmakers also add language that states decisions related to tenure and termination would not be subject to arbitration or appeal beyond the university president. Meera Sitharam, vice president of the University of Florida’s union chapter, said that provision makes the new bills worse.

The committee voted 15-5 along party lines to advance the bill. Each stop of the bill has seen dozens to hundreds of speakers voicing concerns.

On Tuesday, Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, said she traveled from Connecticut to speak directly to the Legislature. She said the bill would “dismantle the framework that underlies all of American higher ed.”

“This harm done to higher ed will have a devastating impact on hiring, the engine of the economy in the state and derivative and equally devastating effects on all business and industry here,” she said. “… HB 999 will do damage to higher ed in Florida that may take decades to undo.”

Other professors spoke of the brain drain it would lead to, and existing difficulties they are facing in hiring. Florida’s policies being discussed at national conferences, they said.

Ranking member Rep. Patricia Williams, D-Pompano Beach, reminded the committee that no one spoke in favor of the bill.

“If we are listening to the people that voted for us, we will not be voting on 999 as of today,” she said. “Florida is becoming a laughing stock because we want everybody to think in this little box, and we’re all individual people. We all have history. But instead of coming to the table to work together for the good of the people, we want to take it back to years ago, erasing what has happened in the state of Florida instead of learning from what has taken place.”

But Fine, who DeSantis recently said would be a good candidate for Florida Atlantic University’s presidency, took umbrage with some professors opposing the bill.

“They don’t think they’re indoctrinating, they just think they’re right,” he said.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, said he too was “getting fed up with professors who are speaking from positions of authority” who expressed concerns about the ability to teach history accurately under new laws. He said they are either “lying or biased” and that the new versions of the bills scrub specific references to subject names. He read out provisions from the ‘Stop Woke Act,’ that call for teaching Black history.

“If you’re lamenting that our education system might be embarrassing to the country, you’re the problem,” he said. “If you’re going to national conferences and you’re whining about our governor, and the ‘Stop Woke Act,’ read it first. Because you’re obviously lying about our state, and you are the one causing the problem if there even is one.”

Andrew Gothard, president of the statewide chapter of United Faculty of Florida union, said while in some ways the new versions was a slightly “less egregious attack” on higher education, making concessions for accreditation and compliance for federal grants, the impact it will have is still damaging.

He invited members of the public who shared Fine and Andrade’s concerns about indoctrination, or that conservative voices are being silenced, to visit college campuses and determine for themselves.

“Go talk to the students,” he said. “Go talk to the faculty. Sign up for some classes. Go see what’s happening.”

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.