DeSantis college plan would cut diversity programs, review tenured faculty

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Tuesday called for diversity programs to be dismantled on the state’s college campuses and suggested that tenured professors should be subject to employment review at any time, as he laid out a multipronged agenda on higher education.

At a news conference, DeSantis said his plan is a countermeasure to what he described as the “dominant view” that higher education is designed to “impose ideological conformity” and to “provoke political activism.”

The governor’s proposals feed into a larger culture war he is waging across Florida, where DeSantis has signed a law limiting what professors can teach about race and blocked high schools from offering a new advanced placement course on African American history. He recently appointed six trustees at New College of Florida, a small state institution where, DeSantis suggested, enrollment has suffered because of liberal programs.

Under DeSantis’s plan, which he will ask the legislature to take up in March, the state would defund diversity, equity and inclusion programs, which are common in higher education and often described by the acronym DEI. Proponents of DEI say the programs provide critical training to combat implicit bias against specific groups, and support for students and employees of different beliefs, races, genders and sexual orientations.

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The governor said he wants to see DEI “wither on the vine.” “These bureaucracies are hostile to academic freedom,” he said during Tuesday’s news conference, which was held in Bradenton at the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota.

DeSantis recently signed a law that would require tenured faculty to undergo a review every five years. But there may be a need to “more aggressively” examine faculty performance, DeSantis said, touting a plan for college governing boards to review tenured faculty members “at any time.”

In the same vein, DeSantis proposed giving college presidents more authority in hiring decisions, over which he said faculty committees have too much influence.

The proposals are sure to invite pushback from faculty, who view the protections of tenure as fundamental to a professor’s ability to pursue ideas that may be unpopular or controversial.

Danaya Wright, a law professor at the University of Florida, said DeSantis’s proposals could have deleterious consequences. Strong tenure protections are vital to recruiting faculty, she said, and there’s a good reason professors have a say in hiring decisions.

“It’s one of the fundamental aspects of the academic mission that those who are experts in the field are deciding who has expertise and whose qualifications meet the standard we expect,” said Wright, chair-elect of the university’s faculty senate. Sidelining faculty in these decisions, she said, would “destroy the academic integrity of the institution.”

DeSantis’s efforts to root out what he sees as liberalism in higher education have already met resistance. In November, a federal judge ordered a temporary injunction against portions of a law commonly called the “Stop Woke Act.” The law, which prohibits certain classroom discussions of sex and race, is “positively dystopian,” said Judge Mark E. Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

DeSantis was joined at his news conference Tuesday by Ray Rodrigues, chancellor of the State University System of Florida and a former Republican state senator. As a lawmaker, Rodrigues sponsored legislation requiring universities to survey students about the level of “intellectual diversity” on their campuses.

Also in attendance was Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who is among six people the governor recently appointed to the board of New College of Florida, a public liberal arts college in Sarasota. The board is slated to meet later in the day on campus, where students have planned protests against an expected conservative overhaul of the curriculum and culture.

DeSantis said the meeting should be “very, very interesting.”

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Rufo has called for an end to DEI programs, arguing that they stifle free speech and force people to adopt liberal positions on matters of race and gender. A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Rufo has played a lead role in galvanizing public opposition to critical race theory, an academic framework that argues racism is systemic and embedded in laws and policies.

In December, DeSantis’s administration asked public colleges to report on all spending related to DEI and critical race theory. The state’s 12 public universities reported a combined $34.5 million in spending on such programs. None of the universities spent more than 1 percent of their budgets on such activities, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported. The reported expenses included money for diversity officers, courses related to race and gender, and recruitment and retention programs focused on diversity goals.

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