Amid a debate about academic freedom in higher education, the Florida Senate on Friday passed a bill that could lead to changes in general education courses and prevent colleges and universities from spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
The Republican-dominated Senate voted 27-12 along near-party lines to pass the bill (SB 266) despite arguments by Democrats that it could hurt the reputation of Florida’s higher education system.
Two of Northeast Florida’s senators — Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and Sen. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville — voted against the bill. Sens. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, and Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, voted in favor.
Students and faculty around the First Coast have protested the bill. A student survey at the University of North Florida found that 68% of students felt that diversity, equity and inclusion programs — known as DEI — had a positive effect on their education.
UNF students participated in statewide walkouts in February over the higher education policies of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has said he believes college and university administrations are using DEI initiatives to push leftist ideology on students.
Much of the debate in the Legislature centered on the bill’s potential effect on curriculum. The measure approved in the Senate would require the State Board of Education and state university system’s Board of Governors to appoint faculty committees that would review general education core courses.
Those reviews could lead to the “removal, alignment, realignment, or addition” of courses based on various criteria in the bill.
“General education core courses may not distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics” or violate a state law that restricts the way certain race-based concepts can be taught, the bill says.
Such courses also could not be “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 inequities.”
Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said the bill is an effort to “legislate our culture.” She argued that the bill and other recent moves by the Legislature will cause universities to hemorrhage faculty and students.
“I think all of that just puts sort of an authoritarian feel to our really well-respected, very highly ranked public universities,” Polsky said, noting that she has a son who attends one of the schools. “So it’s very concerning to me to see the direction that we’re taking.”
But bill sponsor Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, said the legislation would not shut down discussions.
“There’s nothing in this bill that prohibits facts from being talked about. There’s nothing in this bill that prohibits theories from being discussed,” Grall said.
Information from Jacksonville Today was used in this report.