A bill that would alter accreditation requirements for Florida’s public universities and colleges cleared the Senate in a 22-15 vote Monday morning, sending it to the House.
The measure (SPB 7044), sponsored by Hialeah Republican Sen. Manny Diaz, would restrict state colleges and universities from being accredited by the same agency for consecutive accreditation cycles. It also would require additional information about textbooks and instructional materials from state universities and colleges, mandating such information be posted at least 45 days before the start of class and kept public for five years.
The proposal passed the upper chamber along a near-party line vote, with support from Republican lawmakers and disapproval from Democratic legislators despite a silent debate. St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes dissented from his party, voting down on the bill.
The goal of the legislation, according to Diaz, is to increase transparency and make materials more accessible for students. As for the new accreditation guidelines, Diaz has said that the change would embrace a recent federal measure that expanded accreditation in the nation.
Opponents of the bill, on the other hand, have questioned the true intention of the bill, including if the expanded publishing of course materials is related to censorship.
However, the most controversial portion of the bill was tacked on Friday during its second hearing before the Senate, when Diaz put forth a last-minute amendment that led to more than an hour of debate as the Session approached its last week. The amendment, filed by Diaz Thursday, was adopted into the bill in a 23-15 vote.
The amendment allows for the Florida Board of Governors (BOG) to adopt a uniform standard for post-tenure reviews to be conducted every five years.
“The board may include other considerations in the regulation, but the regulation must address: accomplishments and productivity; assigned duties in research, teaching, and service; performance metrics, evaluations, and ratings; and recognition and compensation considerations, as well as improvement plans and consequences for underperformance,” the amendment reads.
Diaz fumbled through questions on the late-filed amendment, struggling to cite substantive information on the issue as well as input from stakeholders — details critics were quick to lay into.
Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo inquired about the current state of post-tenure review processes, to which Diaz said, “I imagine it varies.” Pizzo later cited guidelines of post-tenure reviews already performed by state universities.
Other lawmakers questioned Diaz on the impact of these reviews, citing a line in the amendment of “consequences for underperformance.” Brandes even quipped, “So what prevents us from becoming the Spanish Inquisition?”
“I have no idea what you’re referring to,” Diaz replied. “Just like the process of when they receive tenure, this would be no different. It would be a five-year review of that tenure. … These are tenured professors already, and in their contract they have the process by who they answer to and who evaluates them.”
The amendment also was criticized for being brought up at the last minute, with a week left in Session and lacking committee review and public testimony. The United Faculty of Florida were not consulted about the amendment, Diaz said, which also led to scrutiny.
The broad language led some opponents to point to the recent complication at the University of Florida when university officials barred three professors from testifying in a lawsuit on a new state statute dealing with voting rights.
“Let’s be honest, and we know what’s gone on this past year with (the) University of Florida, among other schools, with political issues. And that is exactly why we are concerned here,” said Boca Raton Democratic Sen. Tina Polsky. “There’s a sneakiness to this. There’s a political component. There are political appointees who are going to be involved in these decisions and our schools have had a serious problem with politicization for their faculty and their students.”
Diaz, however, maintained the point of the amendment was to provide feedback to professors and their work, just like a normal job review. Diaz added such reviews can encourage employees to improve job performance.
Another amendment brought forth by Pizzo also was adopted Friday night. That amendment would require the BOG or State Board of Education to identify and maintain a database of eligible accrediting agencies a school could go to.
Now, it will be up to the House to decide the fate of the legislation.