Woke-up call: UF president sends video to faculty to deal with DeSantis-backed bill

Union vows to fight new legislation on free speech but warns that morale among professors is sinking across the state, with some reconsidering their positions.
By: | May 6, 2022
Photo by Chris Burt

The power struggle over instruction at public higher education institutions in Florida is intensifying and getting serious for faculty members.

University of Florida President Kent Fuchs sent professors a video earlier this week outlining how they must adhere to the state’s new guidelines on House Bill 7 —the Stop WOKE Act—or they and UF might face sanctions. According to Andrew Gothard, President of the United Faculty of Florida, state public institutions that don’t comply could lose future performance funding—potentially hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

As Florida and other colleges scramble to impart guidance on the confusing HB7 bill, battle lines are being drawn. Faculty and civil rights organizations are drafting statements or expressing outrage on social media, including the ACLU in Florida, which wrote on Twitter that “banning speech in classrooms on systemic racism is systemic racism.” The Foundation for Individual Rights has sent a letter to 34 state institutions, including Florida State University calling on presidents including FSU’s Richard McCullough “to publicly pledge to interpret HB7 as narrowly as possible.”

Gothard says the legislation has led to low morale among faculty at all of Florida’s institutions as they stare down the possibility of Big Brother watching their every lecture in classrooms in the fall. He said the union will be there to back them if they are challenged. “We’re exploring our options. Nothing is off the table,” he said. “We are at the point of encroaching authoritarianism. We are telling our faculty to do what’s right to support democracy, support their students, teach honestly and accurately, and stick to the evidence. We will have a larger strategic plan in place in the coming months. We are very concerned about the long-term damage Governor DeSantis and certain members of the Florida legislature are going to do to the higher education system, and we’re going to do everything we can to stop them.”

The Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act, or Stop WOKE, was signed by DeSantis on April 22 to “prevent indoctrination or discrimination in Florida” but specifically aims to halt critical race theory from being taught at K-12 schools and institutions of higher education. It doesn’t go into effect until July 1, but UF got a jump-start addressing the law head-on with faculty.

The slide presentation includes a short intro from Fuchs, the outgoing president, who simply states that only three points affect faculty—“the law as it relates to instruction; recommendations on how to remain within the laws; and [that] you may continue to address important academic issues in your classes”–before key points of the bill are addressed. The slides try to break down the wording of HB7 into palatable bytes for faculty, noting that instructors cannot be subjective when addressing issues of race, color, national origin or sex, but its complexities are apparent. The slides state that UF faculty cannot say:

  • “One group is morally superior to another when groups are defined by race, color, national origin or sex.
  • A person by simple virtue of his/her race, color, national origin or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive.
  • Someone’s status as privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his/her race, color, national origin or sex.
  • An individual, by virtue of race, color, origin or sex, bears responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of, actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, origin or sex.
  • Virtues such as merit, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity and racial colorblindness are racist or sexist or were created to oppress members of another race, color, national origin or sex.”

UF notes that the bill’s theme is this: “No one likes to be told what to think. And that includes students. Instructors should not present personal beliefs about a topic as the ‘right’ point of view or compel or encourage students to adopt a specific belief.” UF also tells instructors to be teachers and mentors and “treat students with respect,” warning they cannot give their personal view on controversial topics or let classroom talks “become heated.” Those who have further questions can consult a few links UF provides at the end on difficult dialogues.

“We were really disappointed in that video for two reasons,” Gothard said. “We’re seeing administration serving as a mouthpiece for legislators and the governor, instead of defending the rights and the great work of the faculty. We were also disappointed by some of the content of the slideshow. It seems to be repeating false narratives we keep hearing from Tallahassee without examples of faculty who are supposedly inserting personal opinions into the classroom. Before the University of Florida administration starts telling faculty how to have difficult dialogue, maybe they should learn how to do it themselves and start doing it with the Florida legislature.”

University Business reached out to the University of Florida asking for comment on the video and its support for faculty members, but UF officials said they “did not have anything to add beyond the presentation.”

Will challenging faculty backfire?

The state’s universities and community colleges are all working on versions of guidance to tell their faculty in response to the law, which was given a green light by DeSantis and blessed by Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, who said, “These dangerous concepts seek to divide Americans rather than unite them.” Gothard said it is unclear what those are and how that is happening in Florida’s higher education system.

“We know what critical race theory is; it’s one specific way of interpreting evidence and a way of viewing the world. It’s taught in very specific classes. It’s really not a widespread issue,” he said. “If you look at HB7, it seems to be lumping in gender and sexuality, as well. It’s becoming a catch-all for anything that conservative political leaders don’t like. It’s politicians who are attempting to do the indoctrinating. That should ring huge alarm bells for anybody paying attention in Florida right now.”

While the state is nearly divided 50-50 between liberals and conservatives, the majority of power lies with the latter. DeSantis has flexed his executive muscle on everything from redistricting to redefining The Walt Disney Company’s special status. He also has weighed in often on education and especially school reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic, mask-wearing, book bans and critical race theory.

“Stories about indoctrination that we keep hearing from the governor’s office and from certain legislators, they never come with examples,” Gothard says, referring to the clamps on free speech in higher ed. “Who is this mysterious faculty member indoctrinating students? What are these classes where this is happening? We have a disciplinary system in place on campuses to deal with unethical behavior, and those situations are dealt with.”

Instead, Gothard says the chilling effect of the new laws might actually drive them out of the classrooms. “Something the governor doesn’t seem to understand is that the reason we have one of the best, if not the best, public higher education system in the world is because we have some of the best faculty in the world,” he says. “When you start limiting freedom of speech, association and right to privacy on campus, those high quality, world-class faculty go somewhere else. We’re already hearing from many faculty that they are looking for jobs elsewhere because they want to live in a state that actually helps its citizens.”

That would be tragic, Gothard says, especially in light of the sacrifices made by professors, adjuncts and academic leaders over the past two years. “Our faculty turned their homes into classrooms. They flipped university courses fully online overnight. They spent the last two years working overtime to help students succeed in learning conditions that were less than ideal. In Florida, many people were forced back into the classroom before it was safe. To be attacked repeatedly by Florida’s legislators and governor, it’s a real blow to higher education.”

If faculty members do stand in and teach the way they want, addressing controversial topics without crossing ethical lines, what will happen?

“It’s hard to know how doggedly it will be enforced,” Gothard says, pointing to two other recent bills (SB 7044 and HB 233) that also impact higher ed in Florida. “The campus can lose future performance funding, though it isn’t clear who would bring the claim or how it would be proven. But what we see is time and again, Gov. DeSantis and certain legislators are passing legislation relating to higher ed that has no other purpose other than to harm students and faculty in Florida.”