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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

State bill could eliminate gender studies, grant hiring power to trustees

Bill may ban talk of racial discrimination

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A proposed Florida House of Representatives bill containing a widespread conservative outlook on higher education and a reflection of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ vision for Florida universities was filed Feb. 21.

If passed, House Bill 999 would ban the instruction of gender studies and critical race theory, give hiring powers to each state university board of trustees and allow them to call post-tenure review at any time for any purpose. It would also prohibit any campus programs or activities that say people are discriminated against because of their race, sex or national origin.

The contents of the bill reflect a longstanding conservative mission in higher education, said Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, the bill’s sponsor.

Andrade noted there’s a clear distinction between civil rights history and critical race theory. While the bill does oppose critical race theory, it doesn’t seek to erase established American history, like the Civil Rights Act or the Jim Crow era.

“The constant conflating of the two is something that feels a little bit in bad faith and dishonest from my perspective,” Andrade told The Alligator. “There's an obvious distinction between the two.”

The Board of Governors will aid universities in removing majors or minors related to critical race theory, gender studies and intersectionality or any similar studies deriving from those concepts, the bill writes. The universities themselves will be responsible for interpreting the law if the bill passes, Andrade said.

Although the bill draws parallels to DeSantis’ January higher education proposals, the bill wasn’t written in coordination with him, Andrade said. 

DeSantis' administration looks forward to seeing the bill in final form, said Bryan Griffin, press secretary for the governor.

"It is encouraging to see the legislature taking up this important topic and joining the conversation that the governor began with his legislative proposals for higher education reform in Florida," he wrote in an email.

UF spokesperson Cynthia Roldan declined to comment on the bill.

There were 567 undergraduate students enrolled in the women’s studies major as of March 2022, according to UF Institutional Planning and Research. 

Amanda Hiatt, a 19-year-old UF women’s studies and political science freshman, first heard about HB 999 in an email from her women’s studies professor. 

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Immediately, she was in shock that it existed, she said.

If the bill passes, Hiatt will seriously consider transferring to an out-of-state university to pursue her major, she said. 

“I feel like it is extremely hypocritical,” she said. “There's a lot of conversation right now about censorship and what conversations people can and can't have. For them to get rid of these majors that people elect to take is censorship in the most basic and most obvious form.”

When it comes to faculty, as it currently stands, the dean, department chair and provost conduct post-tenure reviews. Under HB 999, a university’s board of trustees may review a faculty member’s tenure at the request of the board chair.

Tenure protects faculty’s ability to research controversial topics, Amanda Phalin, UF Faculty Senate chair and business professor, told The Alligator.

“If somebody can be fired at any time without review by subject matter experts, without recourse or a grievance, that is not tenure,” she said.

Given the success of the state university system — which Phalin said was No. 1 in the country in a Sunday statement — and the status of UF as the No. 5 public university according to U.S. News and World Report, she argued there’s no need to change the way Florida higher education operates.

“I just want people to know that if something like this moves forward, we will no longer have a state university system,” she said. “We will have a government-run training school.”

The bill also assigns exclusive faculty hiring power to each school’s board of trustees. The board may delegate that power to the university president, but the president may not further delegate the task.

Currently, faculty search committees are composed of several members, including current faculty in the department that is hiring. If HB 999 passes, the board and president would not be required to consider the recommendations of faculty or outside groups.

The university may not support any programs, including by providing grants or funding, that promote diversity, equity and inclusion or critical race theory, according to the bill.

Universities would also be prohibited from using diversity statements or political identifiers in the hiring process. The current UF Honors Program director search, for example, required applicants to answer a question on diversity.

Lisa Scott, a tenured UF psychology professor, is worried the erasure of DEI will make the university ineligible for grants. Several grants require diversity training and support for a diverse student body, she said, and the lack of either will lose the university money.

Grant money is used to support research and students on the undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral levels, Scott said.

“Everybody in higher ed should be alarmed,” she said. “We should be enraged.”

After a landslide victory during the 2022 midterm elections, Florida Republicans are emboldened to pursue the political and ideological objectives they’ve discussed for years, Andrade said, including in higher education.

“We have a strong mandate from voters in the state that they believe in the policies we've been espousing,” he said. “It's just a good time to follow the mandates that voters have put us in places of power to implement.”

Contact Alissa at Follow her on Twitter @AlissaGary1.

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Alissa Gary

Alissa is a sophomore journalism major and University Editor at The Alligator. She has previously covered student government, university administration and K-12 education. In her free time, she enjoys showing photos of her cats to strangers.

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