Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives in Tallahassee, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. [ GARY MCCULLOUGH | AP ]

Hours after Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday that Florida would welcome Jewish out-of-state university students “with open arms,” the state’s university system chancellor issued an emergency order waiving various fees and deadlines for potential transfer students.

DeSantis, during his annual State of the State speech, said “many universities outside of Florida have simply failed” at dealing with antisemitism on their campuses amid the Israel-Gaza war. He raised the idea of making it easier for Jewish students to switch to Florida institutions.“This week Jewish students across the country are returning to campuses that have outright condoned antisemitism,” DeSantis said in his speech. “Over the coming months, they’ll have a tough decision to make: Do they pack up and leave? Or do they stay and continue to endure a hostile environment?”

On Tuesday afternoon, DeSantis’ office sent out a news release touting an emergency order signed by university system chancellor Ray Rodrigues.

The order, which points to an increase in antisemitic instances nationwide,waives credit requirements and application deadlines for transfer students. It also grants universities the ability to waive out-of-state tuition and fees.

It says each university must determine whether the student seeking to transfer demonstrates a “wellfounded fear of persecution on the basis of religion.”

“This fear can be established by an applicant who can demonstrate that he or she has suffered, is currently suffering, or credibly fears suffering future discrimination, harassment, intimidation, or violence, either at their current institution or with a substantial nexus to their current institution, on the basis of religion,” the order said.

It says universities may ask for a statement from the prospective student, statements from witnesses, recordings or photographs and official records of complaints.

The executive order also calls for universities to implement an expedited review of applications.

The response to pro-Palestinian campus demonstrations at schools including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania has led to harsh criticism and, in some cases, calls for the removal of university presidents.

In his remarks, DeSantis suggestedFlorida could be a haven for Jewish students who feel unsafe.

“The pro-Hamas activities and rampant antisemitism we’ve witnessed throughout the country on these campuses has exposed the intellectual rot that has developed on so many university campuses over the years,” DeSantis said.

“In Florida, our universities must be dedicated to the pursuit of truth, the promotion of academic rigor and integrity and the preparation of students to be citizens of our republic. We reject the modern trend of universities that subordinate high academic standards in favor of promoting an ideological agenda.”

He then touted his recordof eliminating diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on campuses.

The state is fighting two lawsuits that allege officials violated free speech rights when state university system chancellor Ray Rodrigues issued a memo in October moving to ban pro-Palestinian groups from campus.

Jonathan Ellis, an attorney and chairperson of the Tampa Jewish Community Relations Council, said the invitation was a sign the governor recognizes a problem nationally that Ellis has been hearing about, even locally.

At the University of South Florida, he said, many Jewish students have felt like they’re “under siege” and that administrators aren’t hearing their concerns. Ellis said the Tampa Jewish Community Relations Council has been meeting with USF administrators and expects to come up with solutions.

“I think there is a feeling among a number of Jewish students on campus these days that it’s a problematic place to be,” he said. “That there is a level of vitriol, anti-Israel feeling on campus.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau writer Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report. 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.