Three members of the Florida Board of Governors are pictured at the board's meeting on Nov. 9, 2023, in Orlando. From left they are Alan Levine, Eric Silagy and Brian Lamb. (The Florida Channel)

The Florida Board of Governors advanced two controversial rules Thursday based on Senate Bill 266, a measure intended to end diversity, equity and inclusion programs at colleges and regulate general education courses.

One aimed to prohibit funding for diversity programs and social activism, while broadly defining what “social issues” could be discussed on campuses.

The other removed a sociology course as a general education core requirement in a last-minute amendment by education commissioner Manny Diaz.

The regulations raised concerns from the public, along with the Board of Governors’ student and faculty representatives and state Rep. Anna Eskamani. Chants from a student-led protest could be heard outside the meeting room.

“Why are you trying to solve imaginary problems rather than focus on the actual needs of students like lowering tuition costs, affordable student housing and diverse faculty?” asked student organizer Grace Castelin, addressing board members during the public comment period. “Many of us are here sacrificing our valuable class time just to defend our rights as students, which is actually quite embarrassing.”

One regulation sought to prohibit university spending on “political or social activism.” It defined that as “any activity organized with a purpose of effecting or preventing change to a government policy, action, or function, or any activity intended to achieve a desired result related to social issues, where the university endorses or promotes a position in communications, advertisements, programs, or campus activities.”

It defined “social issues” as “topics that polarize or divide society among political, ideological, moral, or religious beliefs, positions, or norms.”

On Thursday, student board member Jack Hitchcock sought clarification from the board on how the rule would play out.

He cited recent statements in support of Israel by New College President Richard Corcoran and University of Florida President Ben Sasse, saying he liked them both. He asked if they would be allowed under the rule.

Rachel Kamoustas, general counsel for the board, said it was “difficult in a vacuum to say absolutely,” but added that the policy allowed some exceptions, including for student groups.

Hitchcock said he understood the rule was required because of legislation, “but I did want to make it very clear: The opinion of students in banning diversity, equity and inclusion in our universities is a clear and resounding ‘please do not do that.’”

Faculty board member Amanda Phalin expressed opposition as well, saying it would infringe on free speech. While social issues can be difficult and polarizing, she said, they “are fundamental to a university student’s education.”

The other regulation targeted general education core courses, which students are required to take to meet five subject area requirements in communication, mathematics, social sciences, humanities and natural sciences.

A newly passed law called for a review every four years of general education course options and said they should “provide broad foundational knowledge” and not include “curriculum based on unproven, speculative, or exploratory content.”

It says the courses should also “whenever applicable, provide instruction on the historical background and philosophical foundation of Western civilization and this nation’s historical documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, and the Federalist Papers.”

A committee of faculty members recommended a new course option as one of seven social science options: Introductory Survey to 1877.

As the board prepared to vote on the list, Diaz, the education commissioner, amended it, removing sociology as an option. The reasoning he offered was that there would be six social science options again, and three of the six would be courses that could satisfy the state’s new requirements to promote civic literacy. Sociology courses would still be offered, but would not be counted toward general education requirements.

Board member Alan Levine called the regulations a “starting point” and encouraged the board to listen to the public. Both policies will come back for a vote in January and members of the public have 14 days to weigh in on the board’s website.

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.