Mixed Message

University of Florida seemingly endorses state’s new anti-CRT law and warns professors that violating the law risks state funding. Some $106 million could be on the line.

May 9, 2022
 
University of Florida president Kent Fuchs, a white man in a gray suit wearing glasses.
University of Florida
University of Florida president Kent Fuchs introduces a slideshow that links adherence to the state’s new anti-CRT law to performance-based funding.

The University of Florida is telling faculty members not to run afoul of the state’s so-called Stop WOKE Act, lest UF face “large financial penalties.”

“Thank you for devoting your time to learning about this legislation and for your important role as an objective educator and teacher,” UF president Kent Fuchs says in a slideshow-style introduction to the law that was sent to all instructors last week. Fuchs notes that Florida passed multiple laws impacting higher education this legislative session, but he focuses on legislation known as HB 7, which he says governs “instructional topics and practices.”

HB 7 is better known among its supporters as the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act. Republican governor Ron DeSantis introduced the legislation in December as a bulwark against the “state-sanctioned racism that is critical race theory.”

Another slide in UF’s presentation says, “At its core, the bill’s message is: ‘No one likes to be told what to think. And that includes students.’ The theme of the bill is that 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.”

Core message: At its core, the bill's message is: "No one likes to be told what to think. And that includes students." The theme of the bill is that 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.Yet another slide in UF’s presentation says that HB 7 “declares certain types of employee and student training and instruction to be discriminatory as a matter of state law,” and that Florida’s SB 2524—also passed during the 2022 legislative session—“imposes large financial penalties on any university that violates the HB 7 requirements.”

For the UF, this penalty could be upward of $106 million in performance-based funding.

Signed into law in April, HB 7 includes strict provisions for how K-12 schools teach U.S. history and the history of racism. Regarding college and university instruction, the law resembles bills in many others states that seek to limit how such “divisive concepts” as race and gender are taught (these bills are all based on a Trump administration executive order on federally funded training that has since been rescinded).

Specifically, on higher education, HB 7 prohibits instruction that “espouses,” “advances” or “compels” students (or employees) to believe concepts including:

  • A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.
  • A person’s moral character or status as either privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, national origin or sex.
  • A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national 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, national origin or sex.
  • A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin or sex, should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity or inclusion.
  • A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin or sex.
  • Such virtues as merit, excellence, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity and racial colorblindness are racist or sexist, or were created by members of a particular race, color, national origin or sex to oppress members of another race, color, national origin or sex.

PEN America, among other critics of HB 7 and bills like it elsewhere, has called them “educational gag orders,” purposely designed to chill classroom discussions about race and gender. In this sense, critics say, such bills don’t ensure individual freedoms in the classroom like they purport to do but rather seek to replace an alleged “woke” ideology with another state-sanctioned one.

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Florida has been particularly aggressive in proscribing certain concepts from the classroom of late, including via a new law that bans any discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation from kindergarten through third-grade classrooms.

Another new state law allows college and university students to secretly film their professors for the purpose of lodging a speech-based complaint against them. This same law created a controversial survey of the campus climate for ideological diversity.

Despite the increasingly fraught environment for teachers and professors in Florida, the new UF guidance says that “instructors may continue to address important academic subjects that reflect the core values of the university.”

“Indeed, UF encourages robust educational environments,” the slideshow continues. “Every student should be afforded the opportunity for exposure to a full spectrum of ideas, opinions and beliefs. In that process students will confront challenging concepts that lead to deeper insights and foster maturity.”

Ultimately, UF says, “HB 7 says instructors may discuss issues of race, color, national origin or sex but must do so in an objective manner.”

Fuchs, who has already been accused of violating faculty rights to appease DeSantis and other lawmakers multiple times this year, also says in his introduction to the guidance that “you may continue to address important academic issues in your classes.”

UF declined comment on the guidance.

‘Deeply Disappointed’

All state institutions are subject to both HB 7 and SB 2524, but UF is the only institution to offer this kind of guidance to faculty members thus far, according to information from the statewide faculty union.

UF does stand to lose the most of any Florida university, in terms of dollars, over any violation of HB 7, because it receives the most in performance-based funding from the state—some $106 million in 2021–22. SB 2524 says that any institution “found to have a substantiated violation” of HB 7 will be ineligible for performance funding during the next fiscal year. (Substantiated findings are determined by a court of law, a committee of the Legislature or the State University System of Florida Board of Governors.)

Andrew Gothard, an instructor of English at Florida Atlantic University and president of the United Faculty of Florida, the National Education Association– and American Federation of Teachers–affiliated statewide faculty union, said that while UF is the first to release such guidance, he believes some institutions are working on their own, to be published over the summer.

Regarding the UF information, Gothard said the union is “deeply disappointed” in it.

“Not only does it editorialize around the law and continue to perpetrate the falsehood that higher ed faculty are inserting their personal views into classroom lectures, but it also shows once again that UF administration is more comfortable aligning itself with Tallahassee than it is defending the rights of its own faculty and student bodies,” Gothard said via email. “Moreover, it is clear that the university either does not understand or refuses to acknowledge the difference between an instructor sharing a personal view in class and an instructor supporting a theory or perspective because it has compelling evidence and scholarly consensus.”

Before UF administrators give further advice to faculty members about how to have difficult conversations with students, Gothard continued, “they should take a dose of their own medicine and start having challenging conversations with officials in Tallahassee—conversations about the importance of free speech, academic freedom and honesty in education.”

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