A campus walkway at the University of South Florida, where about 1,700 students take an introductory sociology course every year. State officials have proposed removing sociology as one of the options for core courses students must take as part of their studies. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times (2020) ]

Department leaders at 10 of Florida’s public universities say they “strongly object” to a plan that would remove sociology as an option for courses students must take as part of their college studies.

The plan was proposed Nov. 9 by state Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. and advanced by the Board of Governors, which oversees Florida’s university system. It will take a final vote in January.

Introductory sociology courses have been “an integral part of higher education for nearly two centuries,” and thousands of Florida students take them each year, the department heads wrote in a follow-up letter to the Board of Governors.

The subject “is a field of science that seeks to understand the social causes and consequences of human behavior,” they wrote. “It seeks to identify patterns of organization and change in social life.”

A wide range of professions — including law, medicine and public health — have relied on principles of sociology, the letter said. Entrance exams for medical school and law school recommend coursework in the subject, the department leaders wrote, also noting that companies like Apple and Google have said they want recruits with backgrounds in sociology.

The letter was signed by sociology department heads from the University of Florida, Florida State University, the University of South Florida, the University of Central Florida, the University of North Florida, the University of West Florida, Florida A&M University, Florida Atlantic University, Florida International University and Florida Gulf Coast University.

All students entering the state’s colleges and universities are required to take core courses in each of five subject areas: communication, mathematics, social sciences, humanities and natural sciences. These are known as “general education” courses, which provide a foundation for further studies.

Diaz proposed striking out “Principles of Sociology” as a social science option with little explanation. He said a panel of faculty members had introduced a seventh course as a social sciences option — a history class titled Introductory Survey to 1877. By striking sociology as an option, he said, the number of available courses for social sciences would come back down to six, and half of them would satisfy a new requirement for civics education.

The change is due to a new state law, Senate Bill 266, that calls for a review of general education courses every four years. It requires that courses should “provide broad foundational knowledge” and not include “curriculum based on unproven, speculative, or exploratory content.”

It also says the courses should, “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.”

Diaz did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Despite concerns raised by students and faculty at the Board of Governors’ Nov. 9 meeting, board members voted for a new list of general education course options that excluded sociology, noting that another vote is set for January.

Annual enrollment in the introductory sociology course averages about 2,000 at the University of Central Florida, 1,700 at the University of South Florida, 1,600 at the University of Florida, 1,200 at Florida State University, 1,000 at Florida Atlantic University, and 850 at Florida International University, the department heads wrote.

While schools still would offer the course, they said, removing it as an option for a requirement could cut their resources and hurt their ability to recruit faculty who bring in research dollars. They said it would also lead to an “impoverishment of the general education curriculum overall.”

“Students have long gravitated to introductory sociology courses because they understand that they will gain a broad perspective on the social forces that influence their lives and life chances,” the letter said. “This is the intrinsic benefit that introductory sociology brings to the core of general education, and it is also what makes it an important component of the civic literacy that we have defined as a goal of higher education.”

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

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