Sen. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, sponsored Senate Bill 266, which cleared the chamber on Friday, April 28, 2023. She said the bill proposing major changes to higher education would allow discussion of topics like race and gender in upper-level courses, subject to a review by state boards. [ Photo courtesy of Florida channel ]

The Florida Senate on Thursday approved a bill proposing major changes at state colleges and universities, but with recently added provisions that make the legislation less dramatic than the House version.

Senate Bill 266, like its House companion, HB 999, would ban certain course material, give boards of trustees and presidents more power to hire and fire school personnel and erode tenure protections for faculty. Itmovedthrough the Senate by a vote of 27-12.

The bill initially sought to ban state spending for diversity, equity and inclusion programs and prohibit majors or minors in topics including critical race theory and gender studies. However, the approved version is less explicit about the prohibited topics and less prescriptive about where in the curriculum they should be banned.

The new language targets “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.” Course material deemed to align with those ideas would be kept out of the general education courses that all students must take for their degrees, but would be allowed — subject to review — in higher-level or elective courses.

The reviews would be conducted by the State Board of Education for colleges and by the Board of Governors for universities.

Other provisions were softened too as the bill made its way through committees.

Where previous language said tenure decisions could not be appealed to an arbitrator, the approved version says schools must allow for grievance procedures laid out in faculty contracts.

While presidents and school trustees would have more power over personnel decisions, the bill says they can also delegate that authority to others in the administration — effectively operating the way they do now.

Regarding diversity, equity and inclusion programs that were a major focus of the legislation, the Senate version allows money to be spent on them if they are required by an accrediting body.

In recent weeks, both the House and Senate higher-education bills drew hundreds of people to committee meetings to oppose the measures — from professors and students to national academic groups.

Fielding dozens of pointed questions from Senate Democrats on Thursday, Sen. Erin Grall, the bill’s sponsor, tried to clarify that the measure would not prohibit any topic or course from being taught, but rather allow the Board of Governors and State Board of Education to review subject matter at each college or university.

“So to be clear, there could be an elective course that’s called ‘Critical Race Theory?’” asked Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton.

“Yes, there is nothing in this bill that prohibits an upper-level course on critical race theory,” responded Grall, a Republican from Vero Beach.

Polsky noted the House version of the bill was different, but Grall indicated she thought the Senate version could prevail.

The House initially considered the bill during a first reading last week. Representatives are expected to take it up for a second reading in the coming days, followed by a third reading and final vote.

Under further questioning, Grall added her overall view of the Senate version.

“The bill is not seeking to sanitize history, or to prohibit topics about race or sex or ethnicity that may be unpleasant, that have ugly facts about our history,” she argued. “It’s also not about ending conversations about diversity. But it is about a narrative that’s existing and what has happened.”

She asserted that the term diversity, equity and inclusion “has been used to institutionalize a particular worldview, and it’s been used to suppress anyone with a dissenting opinion.”

Discussions about racism, sexism or oppression would not be prohibited on college and university campuses, she said.

Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, asked Thursday if reviews of upper-level material by the Board of Governors could result in the elimination of an entire university program, like gender studies.

Grall said the board would be looking to ensure that any program under review presents “multiple viewpoints” to students, and not “one theory as a matter of truth that cannot be challenged.”

Berman pressed her: “So is it possible that the (Board of Governors) could say that a particular major at a particular university has to be eliminated based on this bill?”

“There’s always possibilities,” Grall responded.

She later said people were raising concerns about the legislation that were unfounded, though many Democrats disagreed.

Sen. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, said the bill was about “whitewashing history” by spelling out prohibited theories. Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said even with the changes, he believes a chilling effect will take place.

“Perception might as well be reality in so many of our people’s mind,” he said.

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

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