BRADENTON — Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded his drive to steer Florida’s public colleges and universities to the political right Tuesday, outlining plans to dismantle campus diversity, equity and inclusion programs and making it easier for his mostly hand-picked boards of trustees to hire and fire tenured professors.
DeSantis rolled out his higher-education proposals just miles from New College of Florida, a liberal-leaning public honors college that he has targeted for change after appointing a roster of conservative trustees.
The new board is set to meet Tuesday for the first time. But it was evident that DeSantis’ appearance at the nearby State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota was intended to reaffirm his drive to overhaul the state’s higher education system.
DEI a problem for rightA detailed look at how much FSU, FAMU spend on diversity, equity and inclusion programs
“There are some people that think you have a right to have some taxpayer institutions with no accountability. That they should just be able to do whatever they want,” DeSantis said. “That is not happening in the state of Florida.”
Without offering specifics, DeSantis accused colleges and universities of advancing programs based on liberal politics and requiring that staff, students and initiatives meet an “ideological litmus test.”
Vows to change atmosphere
The Republican governor, a Yale and Harvard graduate widely expected to seek his party’s presidential nomination next year, vowed to change the atmosphere which he said exists.
“The more we’re centering higher education on the integrity of the academics, excellence, pursuit of truth, teaching kids to think for themselves and not try to impose an orthodoxy, you are going to see people flooding into these institutions,” DeSantis said. “Academia, writ large, across the country has really lost its way.”
Among those joining DeSantis at the event was Chris Rufo, the conservative activist who has stirred up the right’s attack on critical race theory.
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DeSantis appointed Rufo to the New College board of trustees and had turned to the Fox News favorite for counsel in creating last year’s “Stop Woke Act,” which restricts discussion of race, gender and other topics in university classrooms and in the workplace.
The measure has been blocked by federal courts, with one judge terming it “positively dystopian.”
Faculty vow to fight
The United Faculty of Florida, the union representing 25,000 faculty members at public colleges and universities, earlier this week said it opposes “extremist, authoritarian attacks from Florida’s executive and legislative branches.”
“Florida students, families and communities deserve better than the lies and misinformation flowing unstemmed out of Tallahassee,” UFF said in a statement supporting what it called academic freedom.
DeSantis will need legislative approval for many of the changes he’s intending to enact. But with Republican super-majorities in the state House and Senate, that’s not seen as much of a hurdle.
What DeSantis wants
Among his proposals:
Diversity, equity and inclusion: DeSantis said he wants these programs dismantled, along with the “bureaucracies” and staff supporting them. The programs are intended to attract and support faculty and students from a wider range of ethnic, racial and demographic backgrounds, but have emerged as a point of attack for conservative politicians and media.
DeSantis has already demanded that state universities and colleges submit reports on how much they’re spending on DEI, with ranges from $8.6 million at the University of Florida to $8,363 at Florida Polytechnic University, according to documents filed.
“It’s really imposing an agenda on people,” DeSantis said in dismissing the effort.
Tenure: The governor signed legislation last year that requires all tenured professors to undergo a comprehensive review every five years. Tenure has been around since at least the 1940s and was enacted to blunt political interference and give faculty freedom to discuss and research controversial topics without fear of dismissal.
But Tuesday, DeSantis said “you may need to do reviews more aggressively,” so he wants to give schools boards of trustees and presidents authority to review tenure at any time.
“The most significant deadweight cost at universities is typically unproductive tenured faculty,” DeSantis said.
He also called for giving university presidents more authority over the hiring process, saying faculty committees currently are too deeply involved and “if they have a certain world view, they’re looking to promote, that’s who they’re going to bring in.”
Conservative programs: DeSantis touted the state’s specialty civics centers already opened at Florida State University and Florida International University. But he said he wants the newly established Hamilton Center for Classical and Civil Education at UF to become its own college allied with the university by 2024, with its own dorms and classrooms.
He said it will help attract like-minded conservative faculty and students.
“You want these things to be different from what the orthodoxy is,” DeSantis said.
Preeminent universities: DeSantis wants to increase the standards to require that FSU, UF and the University of South Florida, the state’s preeminent research universities, conduct at least $50 million in research in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs, or with business partnerships, to “directly increase the ability of Florida students to be gainfully employed,” DeSantis said.
At the college event in Bradenton, just over a hundred people attended, most sitting with others standing. Many had been turned away at the door for lack of space, officials said.
While DeSantis spoke, heads in the crowd bobbed and laughed in agreement, when the governor hit one of his oft-used taglines, calling for a ban on “Zombie studies” as a degree.
A sparse number of college students walked outside the building where DeSantis outlined his proposed changes, with most seemingly unaware of the press conference inside.
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport