Students walk through Turlington Plaza on the University of Florida campus on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Gainesville. [ LAUREN WITTE | Special to the Times ]

Officials overseeing Florida’s public universities voted Wednesday to stop offering sociology as a core course, despite strong support for the subject from professors, alumni, students and others.

The Board of Governors removed sociology as an option for students when they choose from a menu of introductory courses to fulfill state graduation requirements. The decision followed a vote last week by the State Board of Education to do the same at Florida’s 28 state colleges.Sociology will be replaced by an introductory course on American history prior to 1877.Both votes “are indicative of a state that does not want to listen to its communities or experts,” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association.

But the Board of Governors issued a statement calling the replacement an “opportunity to take a factual history course” about “the forces that shaped America.” It said the course “teaches students a historically accurate account of America’s founding, the horrors of slavery, the resulting Civil War, and the Reconstruction era.”

In other action, the board approved a rule that prohibits public spending on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at Florida’s 12 state universities, and on activities involving political or social activism. But it clarified that the restrictions will not apply to student-led organizations.

The move to downgrade sociology started in November, when Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. proposed striking it from a list of potential core or general education courses. The list had been reviewed by a group of faculty commissioned as part of a new state law that prohibits “curriculum based on unproven, speculative, or exploratory content.”

Diaz gave his reasoning at last week’s State Board meeting, saying in reference to sociology: “Students should be focused on learning the truth about our country instead of being radicalized by woke ideology.”

The Board of Governors received emails and comments about the change, including from 10 sociology department heads, in opposition to the move.

On Wednesday, the American Sociological Association issued a statement saying it was “outraged” by the board’s vote.

“This decision seems to be coming not from an informed perspective, but rather from a gross misunderstanding of sociology as an illegitimate discipline driven by ‘radical’ and ‘woke’ ideology,” the statement said. “To the contrary, sociology is the scientific study of social life, social change, and the social causes and consequences of human behavior, which are at the core of civic literacy and are essential to a broad range of careers.”

While the State Board was unanimous in last week’s vote, the Board of Governors was more divided.

Board member Ashley Bell Barnett said her university courses in sociology and the humanities helped her become more well-rounded after she came to campus from a small town.

“There is a difference between exposure and indoctrination on how beliefs in the sociology courses are taught,” said Barnett, who was recently appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. “Secondly, it’s important to look and reflect back on the history of some of the various movements, and Marxism and all that are important to look at society today.”

Jack Hitchcock, the board member representing students, said there was no data to support dropping sociology as a core course.

Board member Amanda Phalin, who represents faculty, said she supported adding the history course but saw no need to remove sociology as an option. Several majors use it to fulfill multiple requirements, she said, and changing that would create an unknown impact, potentially disrupting thousands of students’ schedules.

Phalin, along with Hitchcock and Barnett, voted against the change.

Anne Barrett, a sociology professor at Florida State University and a parent in the Florida prepaid tuition system, argued that the faculty panel that reviewed the issue “said nothing — nothing — about deleting any course.”

The board’s action was “a momentous decision that ignores the advice of educational experts,” she said. “Florida students deserve the right to an education guided by the experience and the wisdom of educational experts.”

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said she took the introductory sociology course and her sister majored in the field.

“The skills you learn in sociology are transferable to any field that you go into,” she said. “You have a better understanding of just how humans work, understanding of conflict resolution. We are in huge demand for social work and social work professionals, and many of our sociology majors go into that field.”

Board member Tim Cerio countered some of the criticism, saying sociology will still be available as an option for students to take, just not as a core course. It would be up to provosts to make it available based on the demand, he said.

Also arguing for the change, board member Alan Levine pulled up a syllabus for a sociology course.

“It’s not something I would want to take,” he said. “There’s other things I would want to take. By swapping it out on the general core requirement, students can still take it if they want to take it. But we’re prioritizing other things that we think are more relevant to what Florida needs right now.”

Diaz said the number of sociology majors has declined in Florida over the past five years.

“When you look at the concepts that are discussed in sociology, they’re very theoretical,” he said. “While that field was very scientific, at one point, it has moved away from that. Not to say that it shouldn’t be offered.”

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