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Politics / Issues
Get the latest coverage of the 2022 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Senate tries to soften a university accreditation bill, but now requires a review of tenured faculty

Erich Martin
/

The Senate proposed a change that schools must now make a “good faith” effort to find a new accreditor and choose from a predetermined list of organizations.

The Florida Senate is attempting to water down a bill that would have required the state’s public universities to get a new accreditor, effectively forcing them out from under the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. High-profile lawmakers and higher ed leaders have clashed with SACS recently. Now, under a change introduced by the Senate, the schools must now make a “good faith” effort to find a new accreditor and choose from a predetermined list of organizations.

Florida’s political class has often clashed with the leadership of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Most recently, tensions flared up over education commissioner Richard Corcoran’s failed bid for the Florida State University presidency. The accreditor also admonished the University of Florida over that school’s refusal to allow three tenured professors to testify as expert witnesses in a voting rights trial. It’s against that backdrop that lawmakers like Democratic Senator Annette Taddeo are suspicious:

"Can you understand why some would now be concerned about having this review process put in place?" Taddeo asked bill and amendment sponsor, Republican Sen. Manny Diaz.

"I get your point but this is not directed at that, this is directed at the actual performance of the professor in their job," he said.

Diaz has introduced an amendment to the bill that would largely duplicate — and standardize — tenure review systems already in place at many of the state’s public universities. It requires five-year reviews of each tenured professor, but there are concerns that members of the Florida Board of Governors, who are politically appointed and oversee the public universities, could get involved. And that worries Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes.

“I’m shocked by the things we don’t know right now. We don’t know where the United Faculty stands on this. We haven’t talked to the provosts, we haven’t heard from the university presidents. We haven’t heard from any faculty members and we haven’t had any additional information," he said.

Brandes noted Florida has one of the top public university systems in the United States—something lawmakers worked hard for more than 10 years to accomplish. Despite Diaz’s assurances that BOG members won’t be involved in the evaluation process, Brandes and Senate Democrats remain unconvinced about the need for the amendment and question the motives behind it, given how Republicans have worked hard this year to place additional restrictions on how classroom materials and textbooks are approved, and race and history are taught. Last year, the legislature required public universities to conduct annual surveys on intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity amid accusations that the schools stifle conservative voices.

"We haven’t had any public comment, no additional thoughts…we don’t know the structure of this … there are words that are broadly undefined, like ‘consequences for under performance’ we don’t know anything about what this amendment actually does," Brandes continued.

The broader bill lays out a requirement that public universities switch accreditors every few years. But going through accreditation is a tedious process; schools can’t just jump in and out of agencies at will. Each accreditor has different standards schools have to meet. And to NOT be accredited, means a school is no longer eligible for federal financial aid — the consequences of losing one’s accreditation are so dire, it’s been called a “death sentence” in higher education. Democratic Senator Jason Pizzo’s amendment tried to ease some of those jitters through a second bill amendment that softens language around switching accreditors. Yet in a response to Brandes, about whether the new language changes anything, Pizzo called his amendment a Hobson’s choice — take the amendment or nothing at all.

“The presumption is that there would be other accrediting agencies available but in the chance there are not, and you’ve exhausted a good-faith attempt [to switch], you could still end up back with SACS.” 

The proposal requires schools to post textbook and instructional materials online and keep them up for five years. The information would also have to be posted 45 days before classes start. Yet the bulk of the bill focuses on the issue of accreditation and now teacher tenure. Pizzo’s amendment on the accreditation issue is not the outcome wanted by the people who actually handle the day-to-day duties of running a university. But it might be the best they can get.

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