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 the first months of 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 New Year's resolution abundantly clear: remake the state's higher education system.

DeSantis, the state's 46th governor and a rumored presidential hopeful in 2024, set his sights on Florida's colleges and universities early on. 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 months of 2023.

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 is likely just a sign of what's to come. An incoming Republican interim president with 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.

DeSantis' 2023-24 budget calls for $15 million for New College's faculty and student recruitment, with $10 million recurring annually.

Requests for DEI and Gender-Affirming Healthcare Spending

DeSantis in the past month has 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.

DeSantis said Jan. 31 that he intends to ban public universities from spending on DEI initiatives in hopes they will "wither on the vine" without funding.

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

Republican state Rep. Alex Andrade filed H.B. 999 on Feb 21. The bill would force state universities and colleges to remove any majors or minors "in critical race theory, gender studies, or intersectionality" if it was passed.

The bill would 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."

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.