Florida Lawmakers Put a Conservative Stamp on Higher Ed


The conservative effort to reshape higher education has dug a deep foothold in Florida. The state’s Republican-controlled legislature on Wednesday approved a bill that requires public colleges to seek new accreditors and allows the Board of Governors to call for post-tenure review every five years.

The legislation follows another bill, passed on Tuesday, that allows public colleges to conceal the names of presidential candidates until finalists are chosen. Both bills will now go to Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, who is expected to sign them into law.

The Florida bills deal with what some consider the minutiae of academe, not the headline-grabbing measures meant to directly bar the instruction of controversial topics on campus, now being considered in other states. Supporters in the Florida Legislature describe the measures as common-sense reforms meant to improve student outcomes, provide more accountability to tenured faculty members, and encourage quality applicants for leadership.

State Rep. Amber Mariano, a Republican, said the state’s public colleges should be able to find the accreditor that best fits their needs — as long as it’s not their current accreditor, the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Colleges.

But national higher-education experts and faculty members in Florida say the legislation is part of an attack on bedrock principles that preserve the academic autonomy of faculty members and institutions.

Post-tenure review “undermines tenure and academic freedom when it can result in faculty members getting fired without normal due process that accompanies tenure,” said Gregory Scholtz, director of the department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance at the American Association of University Professors.

Kevin Carey, vice president for education policy and knowledge management at New America, said the narrow issues of accreditation and tenure in the bill fit with the larger issue of state legislators trying to undermine the core value of academic freedom.

In the past, lawmakers from both parties understood that college faculty might speak about things that elected officials didn’t personally endorse, said Carey. That understanding is crumbling, he said, and the emerging attitude is one that says: “I don’t like what these institutions have to say; I want to control them.”

Policy Clashes

The legislation comes after several contentious clashes between public colleges and state officials. In the fall, news accounts revealed that the University of Florida had prohibited several faculty members from serving as expert witnesses in voting-rights litigation against the state, telling the faculty that such testimony would be “adverse to UF’s interests.”

The emerging attitude is one that says: “I don’t like what these institutions have to say; I want to control them.”

The university quickly reversed its decision, but a federal judge later blasted the institution’s new policy on expert testimony, writing that it contained “myriad constitutional infirmities” and was nothing more than a “dolled-up version” of the previous policy.

Allowing universities to enforce stricter post-tenure reviews — potentially leading to discipline or dismissal — is part of a broader move to chill faculty member’s speech in the classroom, said Kelly Benjamin, a spokesman for the American Association of University Professors.

“It’s no coincidence that this is coming out after the scandal at the University of Florida,” he said.

Several other states have taken on the issue of tenure in recent years, including Iowa, where legislators considered bills over several years to abolish the policy at the state’s three public universities.

Instead of eliminating tenure, Georgia’s Board of Regents, whose members are all appointed by the state’s Republican governor, approved changes in the board’s post-tenure review policy. Those changes, faculty critics say, weaken the protections of tenure. Previously, tenured faculty members who had undergone post-tenure review and had not shown improvement could be fired. But the process for firing said professors closely mirrored what the AAUP recommends.

Now, those faculty members can be terminated “in accordance with the guidelines provided by the chancellor or the chancellor’s designee(s), as well as the institution’s post-tenure-review policies,” the new policy says. That, faculty critics say, opens the door to firing faculty members without appropriate due process.

In Florida, lawmakers’ renewed interest in tenure possibly prompted a proposal by administrators at the state’s public universities.

The system’s provosts have discussed “the essential need of framing a systematic and rigorous periodic review of faculty members who have successfully earned tenure at our universities,” Ralph C. Wilcox, provost of the University of South Florida, wrote in an October 3 email to the president of the faculty senate.

A draft document had been “developed by colleagues at the University of Florida,” Wilcox wrote in the email. It would require tenured faculty members to undergo a comprehensive periodic review every five years.

Faculty members criticized the policy as written, saying it hampered the protections of tenure and ceded too much authority to administrators. Faculty members were already amply reviewed under current procedures, they said.

The proposal seemed to be part of a “general attempt to control academics from outside the university,” Eric Chicken, Florida State University’s Faculty Senate president, told The Chronicle at the time.

During debate on the bill, a half-dozen Democratic lawmakers spoke against the measure, warning that the changes could politicize the tenure-review process and scare away top-quality researchers from the state’s universities. “This is a poor response to the political turmoil we have just lived through at the University of Florida, said Rep. Ben Diamond, a Democrat from Pinellas County.

Accreditor Asks Questions

Requiring the state’s public colleges to seek new accreditation is also seen by higher-education advocates as a response to academic-freedom issues at the University of Florida, as well as to the presidential search at Florida State University.

In November, the accreditor of Florida’s public colleges sent a letter to the University of Florida asking it to respond to reports that it had prevented several faculty members from serving as expert witnesses in a voting-rights trial — a possible violation of the accreditor’s standards for academic freedom.

“Presumably the accreditation language only happened because the accreditor questioned the prohibition of faculty to weigh in” on controversial issues, said Carey of New America.

In May, the accreditor had asked for information about the search for a new president at Florida State University. At the time, Richard Corcoran, Florida’s education commissioner, was a candidate for that position but also a member of the board, which could violate the accreditor’s conflict-of-interest rules.

Accreditation experts have pointed out that other accreditors that would be available for the state’s 12 public universities and 28 state colleges have similar standards and procedures that would have led to similar inquiries.

New rules approved under former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos make it easier for some colleges to seek a new accrediting agency, but the mandate creates practical challenges, said Cynthia Jackson-Hammond, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, a group that represents accredited institutions

“We are concerned that Florida legislators may not be aware that going to a new accreditor will take a lot of time and resources,” she said, and the “cost can be voluminous, especially for a small institution.”

Florida’s legislative analysts concluded that costs “may include an application fee between $5,000 to $12,500; candidacy fee, which is between $5,000 to $6,000 for at least two regional accreditors; and costs associated with site visits conducted by the accreditor, averaging $2,500 plus expenses per evaluator. The candidate institution pays all reasonable and necessary costs per site visit, including travel, lodging, food, and possibly honoraria.”

Rep. Mariano, the only Republican to speak during floor debate, said the criticisms of the legislation were all based on fear, and argued that other accreditors were better because they oversee the nation’s top-ranked universities, such as members of the Ivy League. In fact, accrediting bodies such as the Southern Association developed regionally, essentially forming around the institutions that they oversee. In addition, she said, a provision added to the bill allows colleges to go back to the Southern Association if they cannot find another accreditor.

Edward Meadows, president of Pensacola State College, said the state shouldn’t be in charge of determining which accreditor a college chooses. “Any desire to change institutional accreditation should be made at the local level by the governing board,” he told The Chronicle.

“All the presidents would like to know why someone thought this was a good idea,” Meadows said. “There probably is a better solution to any problem that legislators thought this bill would solve.”


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