Bills in this year’s legislative session represent an ‘overreach,’ faculty senate president says

Faculty senate president Jenifer Jasinski Schneider said the new pieces of legislation ranging from abortion to critical theory are a part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “presidential campaign at the state level.” SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

As the Florida legislative session continues to hear legislation concerning highly divisive topics such as critical race theory, abortion and gender-affirming care, faculty senate president Jenifer Jasinski Schneider said these bills represent an overreach in a range of different issues. 

Though not each bill is extremely broad, when considering all the bills it becomes “very far-reaching,” according to Schneider. She said the impact of the recently introduced legislation will also have an impact on students, faculty and staff. 

“You have bills about guns. You have bills about abortion and health care. You have bills about content and curriculum and censorship,” Schneider said. “So even if one bill doesn’t seem relevant to you, another one is going to be so I think they’re very broad.”

The legislation that seems to have the most considerable impact on higher education and is of most concern for faculty is House Bill (H.B.) 999  – along with its companion bill, Senate Bill (S.B.) 266 – according to Schneider. She said the bill targets critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs by prohibiting expenditures in that area, as well as sets new requirements for post-tenure reviews for faculty. 

In its original form, the proposal would have also eliminated critical race theory and gender and women’s studies majors and minors. However, under the revised March 15 version of the bill, critical theory – including critical race, feminist and queer theory – would be banned. The newer version also specifies under which criteria a post-tenure review might be initiated, such as negligence, poor performance, insubordination and violation of the law, among others.

The source of concern regarding H.B. 999 is that DEI content exists in a wide range of programs, according to Schneider. She said DEI is “a non-negotiable,” regardless of whether a student is in S.T.E.M., humanities or social sciences fields. The restrictions in content that will follow H.B. 999, she said, will also impact courses that are offered and whether the university will meet accreditation standards. 

“If you have certain courses and programs where content is limited, then we are not meeting accreditation standards, then we’re going to lose special accreditation for different programs. If you lose accreditation, your degrees are worthless,” Schneider said. 

Though Schneider said she did not know which courses could be eliminated or face restrictions if the law was put into effect, she said a survey carried out by the faculty senate for professors in all USF colleges showed the proposal’s unpopularity. A total of 705 faculty were surveyed, and all answered that the removal or censorship of DEI would affect the quality of a degree, according to Schneider. 

USF is currently monitoring bills that have been introduced which could impact the university, according to Director of Media Relations Althea Johnson.

“If any laws are passed, we’ll analyze how they may affect the university and we’ll communicate updates as needed,” Johnson wrote. 

Other legislations, such as the newly passed six-week abortion ban and gender-affirming care ban, will have some impacts on higher education institutions. S.B. 300 would ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy with only some exceptions for women facing life-threatening harm and exemptions for victims of sexual assault and incest, according to an April 4 Associated Press article. The bill, however, is not currently in effect due to legal challenges to Florida’s already standing 15-week abortion ban.

The gender-affirming care ban, also known as S.B. 254 which passed in the Senate on Tuesday, prohibits offering treatments such as sex reassignment surgeries or hormone therapies to transgender minors, according to an April 4 Politico article. It would also prohibit universities, local governments and health insurance plans for state workers and providers using the state’s Medicaid Managed Care program from using public dollars to pay for treatments. 

These bans will indirectly impact higher education by affecting health clinics on campus and the faculty that work in these spaces, according to Schneider. 

Effects of proposed legislation are already being felt throughout state universities, Schneider said, as searches for faculty continue to fail. The university has already seen less people in candidate pools for faculty positions, but the effects will become exacerbated next fall as the hiring season begins again, according to Schneider. 

In her own department, Schneider said rather than drawing the usual candidates from New York, California and New England, the candidate pool is composed mostly of Floridians. This is because, with all of the bills introduced this legislative session, many people have been alienated and therefore do not want to come to the state, according to Schneider. 

“Maybe not one particular bill will catch everyone, but across all of these bills, you pretty much have targeted everybody that would be interested in being a learning and thinking person and that lives in a state where you want to be free over your body and free over your mind,” Schneider said. 

As the university loses people, they will also lose the research, expertise and prestige that follows those individuals, according to Schneider. She said this can mean that the university will also lose out on the funding dollars faculty might bring to the university. 

“The other problem that is on the horizon are some of these people, not all of them, but some of them have high levels of funding. And, funding can go with the individual to another university. So, we don’t just lose expertise. We also lose the funding dollars that have been coming into the university,” she said. 

This effect is not limited to faculty and staff, but also students. A Forbes survey released on March 31 showed that, in a pool of 1,000 Florida high school and undergraduate students, 91% do not agree with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ policies and one in eight graduating high school students will not attend university in Florida due to the new proposals and policies. Many of these students said their concern was on the negative impact the policies will have on their education, according to Forbes. 

Schneider said though the rhetoric of the bill is focused on disenfranchised communities such as people of color and LGBTQ communities, everyone will be affected if the new policies take effect. 

“It’s all going to be affected. You know, people think this is just about stop woke and Black or gay issues. Because that’s what it’s intended to be. That’s what the rhetoric has been around it – it’s intended to target certain marginalized groups. And it’s a broad sweep of everyone. It’s just so disturbing… the damage that could happen here. And it’s already happening,” she said.