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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Florida university faculty, students share mixed opinions on 2024 legislative session academic freedom bills

State board of education prohibits public funding for DEI in state colleges

As the legislative session ramps up, newly proposed bills that could alter the higher education landscape have faculty and students bracing themselves after last year’s education regulations. 

Following the state’s 2023 move to defund public universities’ diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, the Florida State Board of Education prohibited the usage of public funds for DEI programs in Florida’s 28 public state colleges, according to a Florida Department of Education news release Jan. 17.

“Higher education must return to its essential foundations of academic integrity and the pursuit of knowledge instead of being corrupted by destructive ideologies,” said Florida Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz, Jr. in the release.

Last year’s law authorized the establishment of the UF Hamilton Center, restricted the use of funds on DEI initiatives and redefined post-tenure review to allow a university’s board of trustees to begin the process at any time.

With the 20 bills currently being reviewed in the Florida Senate and 22 bills in the Florida House, the conversation around academic freedom continues developing.

House Bill 899 is a proposed bill with a goal opposing the State Board of Education’s decision. The bill aims to secure collective bargaining rights for state college and university faculty and protect state universities’ and public colleges’ ability to have DEI programs.

If passed, the bill would remove a section that prohibits the use of funding for DEI among state universities.

Florida Sen. Geraldine Thompson, who sponsored HB 899’s companion bill, said the decision in state colleges makes the bill more important.

“We'll have the best and the brightest who want to come and teach in Florida at every level, from K-12 all the way to our state universities,” Thompson said. “Now you have people who all have wonderful backgrounds of knowledge and their degree, but they look at the policies in place and say ‘Why would I want to teach in Florida?’” 

Those in favor of HB 899 said the bill may struggle amidst a Republican supermajority in the state Senate.

Meera Sitharam, president of United Faculty of Florida’s UF chapter, said she doubts the success of current law making efforts to support academic freedom.

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“If we're so exhausted, and we're trying to keep up with the damages that were being created by the previous round,” Sitharam said. “I know nobody has the energy to go and try to do something that you know ultimately is not going to remain.” 

UFF-UF, which was the Florida union’s first chapter, uses a faculty working condition survey to track member’s opinions on subjects like the efficacy of collective bargaining promises, perceived support from university administration and their college and academic freedom. 

Academic freedom, as detailed in UFF-UF’s 2021-24 collective bargaining agreement with the UF Board of Trustees, involves the faculty’s ability to discuss all relevant matters in the classroom and speak freely on university governance.

Alexander Tsesis, a FSU law professor who teaches free speech theory and constitutional rights, shared concern over the effect of legislation on the expression of education, though he said it hasn’t affected him during his first year teaching.

“There is an interference with academic freedom; it certainly needs to be called out. But certainly with the law school at FSU, there is literally nothing like that,” Tsesis said.

A sociology general education course was also replaced with an American history course in the Jan. 17 decision.

William Maione, a 21-year-old UF political science senior, recalled taking a Cambridge Advanced International Certificate of Education sociology course while in high school. Maione has been keeping up with recent developments around academic freedom and felt open classroom expression is important for a healthy learning environment.

“I think people should be free to explore a lot of different ideas,” he said. “And I know sometimes some of those [sociology] theories aren't the most popular with everyone, but I think it's important to learn them and find your own opinion on them, rather than just blocking it out.”

Maione wants to pursue a career in public interest law, but between living in Florida for too long and its divisive political climate, he doesn’t want to stay in the state after graduation, he said.

Another proposed bill could increase UF tuition around 4.5 times for students who support foreign terrorist organizations, defined in the bill to include Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad. 

Senate Bill 470 does this by changing in-state tuition fees to out-of-state fees, prohibiting federal or state financial aid, eliminating fee waivers for students and reporting involved students to the Department of Homeland Security.

Lauren Carlson, a 20-year-old UF marketing sophomore, said she felt the academic restrictions while helping teach First Year Florida, an introductory course for freshmen.

“It's basically balancing that and recognizing that while there are certain protections in place in this legislation against coming after UF as a university in order to protect our adjudication,” she said. “Unfortunately, targeting student organizations is kind of a workaround.”

Faculty showed fear of retribution through potential email searches related to DEI, Carlson said, so they have been censoring themselves to avoid legal issues. 

Carlson believes the legislation is performative and exists to gain favor among other Republicans for Gov. Ron DeSantis, she said. 

“It's mostly vague wording in order to be a scare tactic,” she said. “To make people do exactly what they just did: change the sociology course curriculum.”

Contact Diego Perdomo at dperdomo@alligator.org. Follow him on X @diegoperdomoaq.

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Diego Perdomo

Diego Perdomo is a senior journalism major and the Summer 2024 Digital Managing Editor. He previously worked as the data reporter, graphic design editor and a graphic designer. Outside of his studies, he enjoys reading comic books and biking, wondering how things would be outside of the car-dominated society.


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