Florida bill increases regulations on faculty, sparks concern from USF professors

USF faculty members are unsupportive of the changes to tenure evaluations brought on by House Bill 999. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

Faculty senate member and USF faculty union leader Steve Lang said House Bill (H.B.) 999, which focuses on removing critical theory, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives and increasing post-tenure reviews for professors, will limit academic freedom and control what faculty say in the classroom.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law on April 19, 2022 that implemented reviews every five years for tenured faculty at public universities. In this year’s H.B. 999, there is an added factor to the review process. 

The bill states that “each state university Board of Trustees (BOT) may, at the request of its chair, review any faculty member’s tenure status based on the considerations adopted in the Board of Governors (BOG).”

This would enable each university’s BOT to request a tenure evaluation at any time, along with adding regulations to when the Board can make such requests. As stated in the bill, these regulations would include performing poorly, negligence, inability to perform duties, resisting authority, misconduct and violation of the law. 

Lang, president of the USF chapter of the United Faculty of Florida union, said this increase in evaluation is an attempt to control what professors say in the classroom. 

“The only reason to have this in there is to go after people you don’t like,”  Lang said. “The legislature is trying to make the Board of Governors do their dirty work.”

Florida’s BOG  is the governing body of Florida’s University system. They work with each university’s BOT to dictate how each university is run and consist of 17 members, with 14 appointed by DeSantis directly. Six of the 13 members of the BOT are also appointed by DeSantis, with another five of them being appointed by the BOG. 

Lang believes increased reviews for faculty members show the strengthening control of the BOG and BOT on the employment processes for university faculty. 

“You have political appointees who don’t like something professors say, it’s an attack on academic freedom, and it’s an attack on faculty who [have] performed well,” Lang said. “In other words, USF has the opportunity to do this.”

Another professor, who requested anonymity, criticized the BOG and the method they seek to conduct these extensive reviews. 

“It’s also changing the appeal of public universities because I don’t think that someone that is very good [at their job] would like to be subject to review by someone that hasn’t the competencies to do that,” they said. 

The evaluation itself is not the problem, but more so the possible misinterpretation of reviewing faculty’s jobs and what this may mean for their futures, according to the professor. People might see evaluations as an attempt to blackmail or fire professors, they said. 

Faculty may not be willing to communicate grievances due to personal outlooks, the professor said. 

“I don’t think everybody would feel that [way]. Some people are ready to take the stage and fight because they are confident with what they are saying,” they said. “But others are maybe more vulnerable, intellectually speaking or also for personal reasons.”

Lang also said the main priority for this increase in evaluations is to go after those who oppose the removal of critical theory and DEI. 

“They’re trying to force people to teach certain things and avoid teaching other things,” he said.

The amount of tenured faculty in Florida is slowly dropping. The percentage of non-tenured and part time faculty has risen from 48% in 2002 to over 56% in 2021, according to the Tampa Bay Times

“My bottom line is it would definitely be hard for the higher ed system,” Lang said. “I just don’t have any doubt that we will lose good people. People will refuse to come here.” 

Fear of being reprimanded by the BOT is the faculty’s real problem, according to the anonymous professor. 

“The worst thing is that it’s already creating panic, which is causing a situation in which some professors will limit themselves when they also limit the content of what they are saying,” they said. 

They also said that students and faculty will be hesitant to attend or work for USF due to questions surrounding academic expression and free speech in Florida. 

“Legally I don’t think you can limit the freedom of speech and freedom of speech of a scholar in his class”, they said. “So my major concern for what I see is that this sort of banning will have the effect of self  limiting expression [for] professors because they feel like they’re all concerned about each word that they are using.”

A Forbes survey released on March 31 stated that 1 in 8 incoming college freshmen plan to leave Florida due to its education policies implemented under DeSantis. The survey also found that 1 in 20 current college students in the state plan to transfer because of those policies.

Lang said he believes that not only will students leave, but faculty will too. He knows faculty members who have already left Florida because of its policies. 

“You pay us these crazy laws and you have a nutty evaluation system,” he said. “And what you end up with then is that people will not come to Florida, students will not come to Florida, if they have a choice.“

Union contracts and the potential passing of the bill may not lead to an immediate influx of evaluations of their performance, according to Lang. The last faculty contract was ratified by the UFF and BOT in June of 2022, and lasts until June 2024. 

“The current contract is in what we call status quo, which means that it doesn’t just go away, it stays the way it is,” he said. “Will the faculty vote to ratify a crazy contract like that? I doubt it.”

He said 80-90% of the faculty are opposed to the changes, and will vote against ratification. 

“I’m coming up on 31 years and so I can promise you that that faculty will vote it down if it’s really onerous and stupid,” he said. 

Negotiating a contract can go on for up to multiple years if the UFF and the BOT can’t agree on terms and agreements, according to Lang. 

The anonymous faculty member said evaluations are not out of the ordinary. They said they happen frequently for all faculty members.

“What is important is to know that evaluations are happening every year [already],” they said. “We are evaluated every year. The point is always the same.”

They said there is a larger battle being fought between the legislation and university faculty around the state. 

“Who guards the guardians, someone would say when it comes to the authority exercising the power.”