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Florida's public colleges and universities have to try to find new accreditors

 Students lounge on Landis Green on a sunny winter day.
Patrick Sternad
WFSU Public Media
Students lounge on Landis Green on a sunny winter day.

Florida’s public universities and colleges will have to try to find new accreditors, course materials must be posted online and stay up for five years, and tenured faculty members will have to undergo periodic reviews. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the provisions into law Tuesday during a ceremony in the conservative stronghold of the Villages, a retirement community in Central Florida.

“Higher Education is important, but it needs to be accountable," DeSantis said.

"We need to have good curriculum. We need to make sure the faculty are held accountable, and they don’t get tenure forever without having any type of ways to hold them accountable or evaluate what they’re doing."

Critics of the tenure provision in SB 7044 say it largely duplicates what’s already in place.

United Faculty of Florida President Andrew Gothard says faculty members already undergo annual evaluations and tenured faculty have what’s called a post-tenure review. The rules are outlined in collective bargaining agreements between faculty members and their respective institutions.

"Let’s be honest," said Gothard, "our public higher education system is one of the best in the country, if not the world. And you don’t get there by having faculty who are not held accountable for the quality of work they’re producing.”

The law requires schools to post textbook and instructional materials online and keep them up for five years. The plan comes after a number of clashes between the accrediting body and the state over issues like presidential searches, and whether faculty should be allowed to testify as expert witnesses.

The bill initially began as an effort to require schools to switch accreditors, following high-profile spats between the state's current accreditor—the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools—and the boards of Florida State University, and the state university system. That fight saw SACS weigh in on FSU's presidential search and its consideration of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran for the role. SACS noted that consideration could be seen as political interference which is barred under the agency's rules.

SACS also rebuked the University of Florida for its handling of three professors who wanted to testify as expert witnesses in a lawsuit against the state over voting rights. UF initially told the professors no. SACS argued that violated the agency's academic freedom rules and threatened UF's accreditation.

Lawmakers softened the language to require the schools make a "good faith" effort to find a new agency after several schools pointed out that accreditation is a multi-year process and is complex.

Gov. DeSantis has made it a priority to push back on what he sees as a liberal bias on college and university campuses. The state recently sent out a survey to students, faculty and staff at the state's public colleges and universities to gauge whether the schools have a liberal bent. That survey is the subject of a lawsuit.

Copyright 2022 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative.
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