ABOVE: Florida State University Campus © iStock.com, DenisTangneyJr

Last Tuesday (April 26), Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that may make it harder for faculty at universities there to retain tenure. The bill gives the Board of Governors of the Florida State University System the authority to impose a five-year review of tenured faculty, in addition to the yearly reviews they already undergo. Of the seventeen seats on the Board of Governors, fourteen of the seats are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Florida legislature. DeSantis framed the legislation as a way to keep faculty members’ political views out of the classroom and increase accountability. 

In press conference held the day of the bill’s signing, DeSantis stated that, per the new law, the new five-year reviews will be performed by each university’s board of trustees, The Tampa Bay Times reports. Typically, many of the seats on the board of trustees at public universities are appointed by the governor. However, the text of the bill itself doesn’t specify that boards of trustees will conduct the additional tenure review process. Instead, it only specifies that the university system’s Board of Governors can instate an additional five-year tenure review of tenured professors at Florida state universities, based on metrics such as accomplishments, productivity, evaluations, and ratings. 

Irene Mulvey, the president of the American Association of University Professors, tells The Scientist that the problem with the legislation is that “this new five-year review for tenured faculty includes the possibility of dismissal without academic due process,” and calls the bill “a clear attack on academic freedom.” Tenure, which has been a standard for educational institutions in North America since 1940, was originally designed to block political influence and give faculty the freedom to research and discuss controversial topics without fear of dismissal, Mulvey says.

See “Hawai‘i Legislature Terminates Tenured Professor’s Position

At the press conference, DeSantis criticized what he called “lifetime appointments” for university professors. “We need to make sure the faculty are held accountable and make sure they don’t just have tenure forever without having any type of ways to hold them accountable or evaluate what they’re doing,” DeSantis said. “It’s all about trying to make these institutions more in line with what the state’s priorities are and, frankly, the priorities of the parents throughout the state of Florida.”

During the same press conference, House Speaker Chris Sprowls said that the legislation is a way to prevent “indoctrination” and keep professors from pushing their “radical agenda.”

Sprowls also stated that the bill also includes a provision that will increase transparency by requiring course syllabi to be posted online 45 days before the first course, preventing university professors from incorporating “ideology and politics.” Sprowls said it would also prevent students from being surprised by a class about “socialism and communism” when they thought they were enrolling in one focused on “Western democracy.” The bill also requires Florida universities to switch accreditors every five- to ten-year cycle. The Tampa Bay Times reports that faculty in Florida have expressed concerns that the bill may cause universities to lose accreditation, resulting in a loss of research funds and federal student aid. 

Andrew Gothard, the president of United Faculty of Florida (UFF)—the union representing both tenure track and non-tenure-track faculty at dozens of Florida colleges and universities—says that the law is “intended to make faculty think twice” about contradicting the governor’s political stances. He recalls that “at Florida Atlantic University, where I’m a faculty member . . . one of our Board of Trustees members said openly that political affiliation, political donations, and other sorts of issues like that should become part of the tenure portfolio, and should be a reason . . . for the awarding of tenure . . . at our institution.” He also states that DeSantis seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of how higher education works and that DeSantis’s “suggestion that tenured faculty are not reviewed is completely false.” 

The UFF and administrators at Florida public universities aren’t yet certain how this new law will affect tenured faculty. 

Gothard says that he doesn’t expect the law’s passage to affect tenure retention, given that tenure is negotiated in local employment contracts at the level of Florida university campuses. However, he says that it’s still possible that the Board of Governors will try and institute changes to the tenure review process, and the UFF’s policy is to challenge any such changes. He adds that the law’s language is vague, perhaps making such a challenge unnecessary in this case. Faculty in Florida’s public university system already receive yearly tenure reviews, he says, which are performed by a committee of the academic’s peers and administrators, and the law does not force the Board of Governors to create a new policy at all. The union’s next steps will therefore be determined by whether the Board of Governors change the existing tenure review policy. The Board of Governors has not announced any decisions on the matter and did not respond to a request for comment from The Scientist. 

People in STEM disciplines might think that this doesn’t affect us as much as other fields. But I would argue that it affects us as well . . . Our ethical, cultural, and historical contexts are uncomfortable to grapple with and they’re important for people to know.

—Emilio Bruna, University of Florida

Gothard also says that the new policy is likely an intimidation tactic to “keep students and staff . . . silent on campus, or . . . only talking about conservative viewpoints.”

Mulvey says that even before the bill was signed, faculty “were reporting pressure not to criticize the governor.” Late last year, a University of Florida faculty report alleged that faculty felt pressured to destroy COVID-19 data and experienced “barriers” to accessing data related to the pandemic. A week before the tenure bill was passed, an “intellectual” survey was sent out to faculty, students, and staff at Florida universities, asking students if they felt that professors used their positions to inject ideological stances into their curricula and about respondents’ political beliefs. The UFF encouraged faculty to boycott the survey. 

Gothard says he suspects that the new law will make Florida a less appealing place for faculty to work, and that the union has heard from “quite a number” of “faculty who are saying they want to leave Florida.”

Emilio Bruna, a plant biologist in the department of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida, says that “people in STEM disciplines might think that this doesn’t affect us as much as other fields. But I would argue that it affects us as well . . . Our ethical, cultural, and historical contexts are uncomfortable to grapple with and they’re important for people to know.”  He adds that the faculty who grapple with these issues are the most at risk of leaving Florida institutions or pausing their work.

Mulvey says she anticipates the law will “have a very negative impact on recruitment and retention of faculty and graduate students.” She adds, “The immediate consequence is that faculty will self-censor . . . and that is a chilling, dangerous chilling effect on teaching and research.”