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Some faculty concerned by potential curriculum changes Individual Freedom bill would bring

The Individual Freedom bill has caused some USF faculty to worry about how the bill could potentially negatively impact their academic curriculums. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

Introduced to the Florida Senate floor Jan. 18, SB 168 — formally titled the Individual Freedom bill — has raised concerns among some members of USF faculty and administration over the impact the bill may have on curriculum and diversity training at USF, if passed.

Republican Florida Sen. Manny Diaz sponsored the bill and said the objective of it is to limit discrimination within schools and workplaces.

The bill’s text said individuals that believe they have been made to feel responsible for historical wrongs on the basis of their race, sex and national origin in assigned teachings can seek legal compensation from individuals or businesses in violation with the support of the Florida Legislature.

Associate professor in the Department of Philosophy Richard Manning said he firmly disagreed with the proposed legislation.

“I think [the Individual Freedom bill] is a pernicious intrusion of the state into curricular matters in which the legislature lacks any expertise,” he said.

“It is a manifest attempt to control curriculum in a way that prevents teachers from teaching the actual history of the United States and the actual current conditions of race, gender and other relations in a historically sensitive and accurate way.”

Following in line with the Senate’s proposal, the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee approved a similar bill, HB 7, on Jan. 26 in a 14-7 vote. Similar to the Senate’s draft of the Individual Freedom bill, the goal of the accompanying piece of House legislation is to reduce bias within instructional materials, which would be regulated by the Department of Education, if passed.

Both the Florida House and Senate would have to mutually approve of a final draft of the bill before it can formally be signed into law by the Florida Legislature, according to standard legal procedure. If passed, supporters of the bill have said it would stand to counteract a socially liberal bias within academic institutions and workplaces.

However, some say it would be difficult to implement curriculum changes in accordance with the legislation due to the ambiguous nature of the bill’s text, as well as the role of subjective interpretation in determining which teachings would qualify as discriminatory.

Certain stipulations outlined in the bill, such as regulating the use of bias in educational frameworks, have sparked criticism from some professors and deans. They claim the teachings addressed in the bill are not inherently discriminatory.

As to whether the passage of the bill would contribute to any changes in his course material, Manning said he would not personally alter his curriculum.

“I do not think I, or anyone else, tries in fact to do anything the act prohibits … to make someone realize that they have been unfairly advantaged by historical wrongs is not to make them feel responsible for it,” he said.

“It might make them feel they ought to do their best to nullify those advantages and redress the wrongs, a very different thing than feeling personal responsibility, and a righteous one at that.”

Lines 22-26 of the bill state that classroom instruction and curriculum can’t be used to “indoctrinate” or “persuade” students in a manner inconsistent with principles established by the state of Florida.

Some professors claim it stands as an attempt by the Florida Legislature to mitigate the presence of discrimination within schools and workplaces.

Dana Thompson-Dorsey, associate professor and endowed chair in education innovation, said the passage of the Individual Freedom bill has the potential to limit educational diversity among students and faculty at USF.

“We read and write and constantly study articles and books of authors and scholars that we may not necessarily agree with, and that is how we learn about what is out there,” she said.

“We teach and come in with all of these different perspectives with the hopes of students also sharing their different perspectives, and that is what the beauty is of higher education — the educational diversity that comes from our different knowledge bases.”

Concerns have been raised by some faculty members on the damage the bill could have upon interpersonal relations and discussions of race and discrimination, both for students looking to enter the workplace in the future and on USF campuses.

“I think that any of us can see how divided our country is,” said Thompson-Dorsey. “The gulf is bigger than ever that separates us. What racial diversity and equity training does is help us see each other’s humanity.

“It is not about bashing the United States of America. It is not about hating each other or pitting people against each other because of differences. It is about recognizing, accepting and loving those differences and appreciating what others bring to the table because of them.”

For those in university administration tasked with implementing curriculum changes for students and instructors, the vagueness of the bill’s text could serve to inhibit their ability to follow the objectives of the bill accurately, in accordance with the Legislature.

A stipulation of the bill outlines that individuals should “not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological discrimination on account of race.”

The process of distinguishing what legally constitutes distress to an individual on account of their race within academic discussions could prove to be a problem in itself, according to Manning.

USF Faculty Senate President Timothy Boaz said descriptions in the bill can easily be misunderstood.

“The wording of this legislation was pretty careful and the things that were prohibited … are largely things that I don’t believe are being taught,” said Boaz.

“I don’t think that people are being indoctrinated to believe the things that are being prohibited. But these are complex issues subject to a lot of interpretation.”

In assessing the increasing polarization of politics over the span of the pandemic, supporters of the Individual Freedom bill have praised it as an attempt to remedy divisions deriving from discussions of critical race theory and other anti-racist educational frameworks.

However, as to whether the bill’s passage would stand as a suitable solution to eliminating racism on USF campuses, some faculty members said removing education on race may serve to only worsen issues of racism.

Kyaien Conner, associate professor in the Department of Mental Health Law and Policy and counsel chair to the USF Faculty Senate’s council on racial justice, said she was concerned about the implications of the Individual Freedom bill upon instructors’ abilities to teach about racism.

“Placing high levels of scrutiny and oversight on [instructors’] ability to talk about and address these critical issues only serves to inhibit our ability to teach effectively in these areas, perpetuating racism and not mitigating it,” said Conner.

“What we should be doing, in my opinion, is requiring diversity, equity and inclusion trainings, requiring anti-racism trainings [and] encouraging critical conversations about race and racism so that we can identify collective solutions to address these issues.”

Having passed in the Florida Senate’s Education Committee in a party-line vote, the fate of the Individual Freedom bill currently lies in the hands of the Senate’s Rules Committee.

To address discomfort that may arise within such situations, Conner said she sees the necessity in having honest conversations on race to prevent repeating the same mistakes.

“Have we not all felt uncomfortable at some point during our tenure and higher education?” said Conner. “To me, that feeling really means that we are asking the right questions and having the important … dialogues that can create positive change in our society.”