DeSantis pushes ban on gender studies at Florida colleges and universities
The University of Central Florida (UCF), one of the state's public universities, has a robust program in Women's and Gender Studies. More than 170 current students have chosen to minor in Women's and Gender Studies, a curriculum that "emphasizes intersectional approaches to the study of gender, race, class, ethnicity, and sexuality in national and transnational contexts." The program's courses include Intro to Gender Studies, Women and Leadership, and Theories on Masculinity.
Under new legislation championed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R), however, UCF's program — and similar programs at other public colleges and universities in Florida — would be banned.
Last week, Florida Representative Alex Andrade (R), introduced HB 999, a sweeping set of restrictions on higher education in Florida. Among other things, the bill would require colleges and universities to "remov[e] from its programs any major or minor" in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, along with "any derivative major or minor of these belief systems." (The prohibited topics are not "belief systems" but areas of academic study.)
Andrade's bill is the vehicle for a proposal announced on January 31 by DeSantis. "We don't want students to go through at taxpayer expense and graduate with a degree in zombie studies," DeSantis said. In a press release, DeSantis claimed his proposal was an effort "further elevate civil discourse and intellectual freedom in higher education, further pushing back against the tactics of liberal elites who suppress free thought in the name of identity politics and indoctrination."
While DeSantis claims his latest proposal supports "intellectual freedom in higher education," groups dedicated to preserving intellectual freedom in education disagree. PEN America, a group dedicated to protecting "free expression in the United States and worldwide," described DeSantis' proposal as "the most draconian and censorious restrictions on public colleges and universities in the country." FIRE, an organization that "defends and promotes the value of free speech for all Americans" on campus and elsewhere, called the proposal "laden with unconstitutional provisions hostile to freedom of expression and academic freedom."
In addition to banning numerous academic majors and minors, Andrade's bill prohibits the expenditure of any funds "to promote, support, or maintain any programs or campus activities" that "espouse diversity, equity, or inclusion" or "Critical Race Theory rhetoric." Further, under the bill, general education courses at public universities and colleges must define "American history" as "based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence." These courses can not include "a curriculum that teaches identity politics." Notably, none of these terms, which would constrain every class and activity on campus, are defined by the legislation.
Julian Davis Mortenson, a law professor at the University of Michigan, said DeSantis was attempting to assert "[b]reathtaking control of viewpoint and content throughout all academic activity in the entire Florida system." DeSantis' proposal, Mortenson argues, is a "road map for wrecking one of our great state systems of higher education."
Centralizing control to align Florida colleges and universities with right-wing ideology
The proposal would also centralize the hiring of faculty, giving political appointees control over the process. Specifically, faculty hiring at each institution is centralized with the board of trustees. These boards are composed of trustees appointed directly by DeSantis and trustees appointed by the Florida Board of Governors, which is composed almost exclusively of DeSantis appointees. The board of trustees can delegate the hiring process to the president, but no further delegation of hiring responsibilities is allowed, and any recommendation of the president must be approved by the board. The bill specifically states that the "president and the board are not required to consider recommendations or opinions of faculty of the university or other individuals or groups."
DeSantis has already demonstrated his intention to force right-wing ideology into Florida higher education through the appointment of trustees. In January, DeSantis appointed six new members to New College of Florida, a small and progressive state institution. DeSantis' chief of staff, James Uthmeier, told the National Review that the purpose of the appointments was to turn New College into a version of Hillsdale College — a right-wing Christian college in Michigan. Hillsdale College does not accept government funding, so it can avoid compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws.
Among the appointees was Chris Rufo, a right-wing activist from Washington State who claims Critical Race Theory has infiltrated the American educational system. Rufo, who describes himself as a "soldier in DeSantis' army," told the New Yorker that he thought that there were too many "druggies" and "weirdos" at New College. Rufo said his goal was to inspire "conservative state legislators… to reconquer public institutions all over the United States."
Rufo and the other new board members have already "fired the college’s president, Patricia Okker, a scholar of nineteenth-century literature, and replaced her with Richard Corcoran, a former Republican speaker of the Florida State House and DeSantis’s first Commissioner of Education."
Ambiguity + fear = control
HB 999 contains a slew of undefined terms with no clear definition, including "Critical Race Theory rhetoric," "identity politics," and "inclusion." At the same time, the bill creates a system where faculty members who violate these restrictions put their careers at risk. The combination of legal ambiguity and the fear of harsh punishments creates an environment of self-censorship and fear. This maximizes the control that DeSantis and his allies can exert over these institutions.
The tenure system is a fundamental part of the American higher education system, assuring that established faculty members cannot be unduly influenced by political considerations. DeSantis, however, views tenure as a problem, calling tenured faculty "the most significant deadweight cost at universities." Andrade's bill would dramatically weaken the tenure system, allowing a politically-controlled board of trustees to "initiate a post-tenure review of a faculty member at any time."
The point of this is to ensure that no faculty members in Florida public colleges and universities feel secure in their jobs. Rather, they must ensure that whatever they are teaching is acceptable to DeSantis and his political allies — or risk losing their position.
Although HB 999 is not yet law, the DeSantis administration and the legislature are seeking to put faculty involved in disfavored activities on notice. In January, Florida House Speaker Paul Renner (R) requested each Florida public college and university provide a list of all employees involved in "diversity, equity, and inclusion," also known as DEI. (DeSantis made a similar request in December.) Renner's request goes further, demanding all "emails, text messages, and social media messages" to or from these employees regarding any DEI activities.
This information could be used to fire faculty members and other employees if HB 999 becomes law. But the request immediately serves to intimidate faculty members that are involved with scholarship that does not align with DeSantis' political ideology. Moving forward, these faculty members know that any discussion of those issues can be used against them by political operatives seeking to remove them from campus.