Culture War Bill Targets Higher Education in Florida

HB 999 bans courses "based on unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content."

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Florida’s State University System is currently ranked number one in the nation. However, big changes in the system are on the way if House Bill 999 becomes law.

Supporters said those changes are necessary because state colleges and universities are too liberal and need a course correction, “further pushing back against the tactics of liberal elites who suppress free thought in the name of identity politics and indoctrination,” according to a news release from the office of Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

“And what the governor wants to see is for students to be able to go to school, learn how to think, pursue the truth, and not have an ideology or a whim ideology imposed on them,” said Education Secretary Manny Diaz.

“My classroom doesn’t take a political point of view,” said Florida International University philosophy professor Eric Scarffe. “Rather it investigates the arguments, so when folks say our institutions are polarizing us or our institutions represent the left or right, I would encourage them to stop listening to what people say about universities, instead, ask the students what their classrooms are actually like.”

HB 999 bans courses “based on unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content,” leading critics to ask if that includes evolution, gravity, theoretical physics, and current research. It also bans majors in women’s studies or gender studies.

“I personally took a course in sociology of gender and I think it was really interesting to finally be able to hear these topics that are so uncommonly talked about and had this kind of taboo around it,” said FIU student Isha Torrisi.

HB 999 would also ban colleges from supporting “any programs or campus activities that espouse diversity, equity, or inclusion.”

“We shouldn’t be judging students for the color of their skin or their ethnic background, we should be judging the individual for their merits, for the hard work they’ve put in,” Diaz said.

The bill would put the boards of trustees in charge of evaluating and hiring faculty. Scarffe says that could cause a brain drain of faculty leaving Florida, and reluctance from academics to apply to Florida’s public universities.

“It sends the message to people who might be interested in coming to any one of our great institutions that they’re not going to be evaluated by their peers, by experts in their field, but rather, they’re going to be evaluated by political appointees,” Scarffe said. “Why fix what isn’t broken and why add more oversight to a system that is already riddled with oversight and bloat?”

Also banned by HB 999 is any use of “Critical Race Theory rhetoric.”

“If they’re trying to block us from learning things that happened, it’s just censorship, if it happened, we need to learn about it, whether it’s bad or good,” said FIU student Camila Colomer.

The bill does not define “Critical Race Theory rhetoric” so critics worry it would have a chilling effect on any classroom discussion of racial issues.

“I have news for the legislature, there is no such thing as teaching history without teaching Critical Race Theory, we’re not making things up here, we’re trying to teach the honest truth about what has happened both here in the United States, here in Florida and around the world,” Scarffe said.

The bill does align with the governor’s priorities for higher education, but DeSantis has not yet said whether he would sign it in its current form.

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