DeSantis’ Plan to Reconstruct Higher Education in Florida, Explained

Here are some of the ways the DeSantis administration has shaken up higher education in Florida in 2023.
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Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
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Updated on August 7, 2023
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  • Florida's higher education system continues to face new mandates put in place by the governor.
  • Some speculate that he is targeting higher education to chill faculty speech and control conversations in the classroom.
  • Although the governor has a clear plan in mind to restructure higher education in Florida, it might not be as easy to execute as he expects.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has made his 2023 goals abundantly clear: remake the state's higher education system.

DeSantis, the state's 46th governor and a 2024 presidential candidate, set his sights on Florida's colleges and universities early on in 2023. Beyond extending his previous attacks on academic freedom, DeSantis has extended his reach into individual schools through spending requests and installing new boards of trustees to carry out his mandate.

Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida and a staunch critic of DeSantis' attacks on academic freedom, told BestColleges that although DeSantis claims to be a great defender of freedom, he is strongly restricting it. He added that Florida's predicament is unique, since DeSantis' actions have placed higher education on the frontlines of the culture war.

Here are some of the ways the DeSantis administration has shaken up higher education in Florida in the first half of 2023.

DeSantis Sues Biden Over Accrediting System

On June 21, DeSantis and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration and the U.S. Department of Education over accreditation agencies, which the state claims hold colleges and universities hostage.

According to the Department of Education, accrediting agencies are private associations that "develop evaluation criteria" and assess whether or not those criteria are being met at institutions. The agencies help decide whether an institution's students can receive federal financial aid.

The role of accrediting agencies is cemented in the Higher Education Act, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Florida's lawsuit aims to strip private, unaccountable accreditors of their authority to stand in the way of Florida's higher education reforms, according to a press release.

This is a mischaracterization of accrediting agencies, as the Department of Education must recognize individual accrediting agencies. The department regularly reviews agencies to determine whether they are properly overseeing their institutions and programs.

This isn't DeSantis' first shot at accrediting agencies.

He enacted a law in April 2022 that forbids the state's public institutions from using the same accrediting agency for consecutive accrediting cycles. That will force schools to find a new accreditor every five years. Critics of the law said it adds undue burden on institutions.

DEI Programs, Offices Officially Defunded

Senate Bill 266 — the controversial higher education bill that prohibits public institutions in Florida from using any federal or state funds on DEI programming and offices — was officially signed into law on May 15.

In a press conference at the New College of Florida, where the Governor signed the bill, DeSantis said that in signing the bill, institutions in the state of Florida will continue to encourage diversity of thought, civil discourse, and the pursuit of truth for generations to come.

The law additionally bans any majors, minors, curriculum, or general education courses based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequity.

The restrictions laid out in the bill will go into effect on July 1.

A Hostile Takeover at New College

New College of Florida in Sarasota is under new management.

DeSantis installed six new appointees to New College's board of trustees on Jan. 6, a move, many believe, is meant to turn the small liberal arts college into the Hillsdale of the South. Hillsdale College is a Michigan college popular among conservatives.

The six new trustees wasted little time installing a new mandate at New College.

The board of trustees gathered for its first meeting with the new board members on Jan. 31. In that meeting, the board passed motions to:

  • Terminate the sitting president, Patricia Okker
  • Name former state Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran, a Republican, the interim president effective in March
  • Direct staff to create a plan to dissolve the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence, which houses the school's diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives
  • Direct staff to create a plan to remove diversity, equity, and inclusion training
  • Deny a finalized labor contract with the United Faculty of Florida
  • Install Debra Jenks, a DeSantis appointee, as the new chair of the board of trustees

Trustee Grace Keenan, the board's student representative, was the sole trustee to vote against appointing Corcoran as interim president. She was also one of three trustees — joined by Lance Karp and Matthew Lepinski — who voted against terminating Okker's contract.

During the meeting, Okker stood steadfast against the attacks new trustees levied against New College.

I do not believe that students are being indoctrinated at New College, she said. This is a hostile takeover.

Before the official vote to terminate her contract, Okker made it clear that the new mandate for the school did not match her vision for New College. She expressed gratitude for the support she received — particularly from students and staff — through tearful closing remarks.

The Jan. 31 meeting was just a sign of what's to come. Republican interim president Richard Corcoran's deep ties to the state Capitol, plus control of the board of trustees, will likely spell more sweeping changes at New College over the next year.

Tensions escalated again during an April 26 board of trustees meeting. It was then that the board denied tenure for five professors with Corcoran's urging. These professors will be up for tenure review again next year.

At the end of the meeting, Trustee Lepinski announced this was his last meeting on the board, said he would be leaving New College, and walked away from the meeting before it was adjourned.

New College fired Helene Gold, associate dean for academic engagement at the Jane Bancroft Cook, on May 4. According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, this made her the second LGBTQ+ staff member to be fired this year.

DeSantis' 2023-24 budget called for $15 million for New College's faculty and student recruitment, with $10 million recurring annually. The legislature ultimately approved more than $34 million for the institution in the state's final budget.

And it looks like installing new leaders worked — New College saw record enrollment this fall, but it came at a cost. According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the incoming students' SAT and ACT scores and GPAs are lower than last year.

Requests for DEI and Gender-Affirming Healthcare Spending

DeSantis requested that public universities across the state report their spending on DEI programs. He asked for similar information regarding gender-affirming treatment and care.

DEI Programs and Critical Race Theory

In the days leading into 2023, DeSantis sent a memo to the 28 universities in the Florida College System and the 12 State University System schools. He demanded that they list their spending on all staff, programs, and campus activities related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and critical race theory.

Just a few weeks later, the universities from the State University System reported spending just under $35 million total, according to the 35-page summary released by the Florida Department of Education.

The University of South Florida was the highest spender on DEI programs, spending $8.7 million, $2.5 million of which was state-funded.

The itemized list ranged from $63 spent at Florida Gulf Coast University for a Lavender Graduation ceremony to honor LGBTQ+ students and their allies to $4.12 million spent by the University of South Florida on Upward Bound, a program to support low-income, first-generation prospective students.

On Jan. 12, the Florida House requested information about DEI employees, their salaries, and all communications between them, from the University of Florida, due back to the House by Feb. 13.

The request considers communications to include all written or electronic communications, including email, text messages, and social media messages.

Gender-Affirming Healthcare

Just weeks after the administration's initial request on Jan. 11, Chris Spencer, director of the Governor's Budget Office, sent out a second memo to the State University System chairs. In this letter, he asked them to detail information on all gender-affirming healthcare provided since Jan. 1, 2018.

The request asks universities to provide information about:

  • The number of encounters when patients sought sex-reassignment
  • The number of first-time encounters
  • The number of patients referred to another facility for treatment
  • A list of facilities patients were referred to

It also asks for the universities to disclose the number of students diagnosed with ICD-10 Code F64, the International Classification of Diseases' code for gender identity disorders. According to the Tampa Bay Times, the latest versions of the ICD will now classify the code as gender incongruence to destigmatize care.

Lastly, the Budget Office wants to know the number and age of individuals who were prescribed treatments such as puberty blockers, hormones, hormone antagonists, and medical procedures such as mastectomies.

The memo notes that the universities should not report any personally identifiable information. All of this information was due to the Budget Office by Feb. 10.

Beyond referencing the governor's constitutional duties and sharing that the budget office has learned that several state universities provide services to persons suffering from gender dysphoria, the memo provides no clear indication of why the governor is requesting this information.

Alex Noon, a second-year law student at the University of Florida and president of OUTLaw, the law school's LGBTQ organization, told the Independent Florida Alligator, This possibility could be dangerous for transgender students who come from unsafe home situations where they are denied treatment. University health care services may be the first opportunity for many transgender people to receive the treatment they need.

According to Gothard, this request is particularly disgusting and inappropriate. Gothard said he believes there is no practical point in requesting this information other than intimidation.

Academic Freedom Under Attack

A state judge struck down the part of Florida's Stop WOKE Act that listed divisive topics that professors could not teach last year. While it was a win for academic freedom, DeSantis doesn't seem to be backing down from trying to regulate college classrooms.

The governor unveiled his vision for higher education on Jan. 31.

He highlighted that education administrators must realign courses to provide historically accurate information and not include identity politics, The Associated Press reported. His address included an attack on critical race theory, saying courses that touch on this topic would get no funding.

I think people want to see true academics, and they want to get rid of some of the political window dressing that seems to accompany all this, DeSantis said.

The governor wants to install programs that emphasize the study of Western civilization and economics.

His plan includes giving boards of trustees and university presidents the power to call a post-tenure review of professors at any time. Tenure is largely considered by faculty to be a way to protect academic freedom by ensuring they can pursue research without fear of retaliation.

The Florida Board of Governors approved a plan on March 29 that states professors must undergo a tenure review every five years. The review will evaluate a professor's productivity, ability to meet expectations, and compliance with state laws, the board's regulations, and university policies, according to the Florida Phoenix.

Each institution's provost will then determine whether to renew a professor's tenure status.

The governor's vision came to life in a recently signed bill that will erase any diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at state institutions. It would also scratch gender- or race-related majors and minors from the curriculum.

The bill will slash funding or support for programs or campus activities that espouse diversity, equity, and inclusion or critical race theory.

And it doesn't stop there. Instructors must strip any lessons from core classes that are not based on the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.

New Legislation Could Impact Undocumented College Students

On Feb. 23, DeSantis proposed new legislation to disincentivize illegal immigration into Florida. It would eliminate out-of-state tuition fee waivers for undocumented students, if passed.

Currently, undocumented students who graduate from high school in the state can qualify for in-state tuition. If DeSantis eliminates the waiver, these students would have to pay pricier out-of-state tuition.

At the University of Florida, for example, the difference in tuition between in-state and out-of-state for the 2022-23 academic year was about $22,300.

What's DeSantis' Endgame?

DeSantis' end goal is to intimidate faculty into espousing only the viewpoints that he and his Republican colleagues believe, Gothard said. Like the Stop WOKE Act, the ultimate goal is to chill faculty speech. However, since part of Stop WOKE was struck down, DeSantis has had to resort to Plan B.

That is really his aim and goal, Gothard said. Despite saying he supports freedom, he wants to control not just the actions of people in Florida, but their speech.

Gothard added that these changes are slowly making Florida's colleges and universities a less desirable workplace. He said a recent survey of staff from the University of South Florida found that most faculty would leave the state if offered a position outside of Florida. Gothard added that he recently spoke with a professor outside the state who turned down a job in Florida due to DeSantis' recent actions.

DeSantis has a clear plan, but Gothard contends it won't be easy to execute.

Florida's public colleges and universities stretch across the state, and many state legislators aim to secure funding for the schools they represent. It'll be difficult for DeSantis to sell university budget cuts to these legislators, even for schools that keep programs and courses antithetical to his vision for Florida higher education.