The Legislature has passed Hialeah Republican Sen. Manny Diaz’s controversial post-secondary education bill following a near-party-line 77-40 House vote Wednesday night.
The legislation (SPB 7044) 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 Senate cleared the bill in a 22-15 vote on Monday.
The goal of the bill, according to Diaz, is to increase transparency and make materials more accessible for students. As for the new accreditation guidelines, Diaz has said the change would embrace a recent federal measure that expanded accreditation in the country.
However, the provision that has been the main subject of criticism came in a last-minute amendment adopted by the Senate just before sending it to the House. The amendment, filed by Diaz the day before the Senate vote, was adopted 23-15. The measure would allow the Florida Board of Governors (BOG) to adopt a uniform standard for post-tenure reviews to be conducted every five years. Of note, post-tenure reviews are already performed by state universities and colleges by faculty.
“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.
Hudson Republican Rep. Amber Mariano, who sponsored the House version of the bill, presented the amended Senate legislation Wednesday night. During debate, Democratic House members hammered into the amendment, expressing concern it would impact academic freedom.
“I’m afraid it’s going to have a real adverse impact on our institutions of higher education. We are competing to try to get top talent to come to our state university system (from) around the country,” said St. Petersburg Democratic Rep. Ben Diamond. “The tenure review process is the most rigorous process that is going on right now in our state universities. I’m alarmed that this language is in here and we’re going to pass this.”
The amendment also was criticized for lacking a committee review and public testimony, especially with stakeholders like the United Faculty of Florida left out of discussions about the amendment.
“What does this bill do that’s so concerning? First, it includes language that was amended in the Senate that wasn’t vetted or discussed, as I understand it, in our committee process over here. That sets up a process where the Board of Governors, who are the political appointees of or are overseeing our state university system, are now going to be involved in a review for faculty tenure issues every five years,” Diamond continued.
The broad language led some opponents to point to the recent complication at the University of Florida, in which university officials barred three professors from testifying in a lawsuit on a new state statute dealing with voting rights. Gainesville Democratic Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson, a double-Gator, slammed the amendment in light of the recent UF controversy.
“I feel that the Governor and the Board of Governors has totally taken over my beloved university,” she said. “This particular bill, 7044, wants to destroy a healthy and protected tenure culture, where Florida’s higher education system will no longer be competitive with surrounding states, meaning highly qualified faculty and the millions of dollars in research grants will no longer come to Florida.”
“You’re going to see the Top 5 university in the state of Florida plunge quicker than you know,” she warned.
Her warning was echoed by Tallahassee Democratic Rep. Ramon Alexander.
“I can guarantee you within the next two or three years, we will be back fixing this. The accrediting part of this is extremely, extremely dangerous. We’re talking about federal dollars. We’re talking about access to certain things and it literally takes away the core essence of going through the accrediting process,” Alexander said.
The accreditation portion of the bill also drew criticism. An amendment brought forth by Pizzo adopted last Friday would require the BOG or State Board of Education to identify and maintain a database of eligible accrediting agencies a school could use and would provide a little more leeway to allow schools to go to the same accreditor if all other options are not feasible.
“My biggest concern is that the accrediting organizational changes that occur over and over again are going to undermine the accreditors’ historical understanding of the institution it accredits, and that will be lost, which will also impair the student success and the student experience,” said Leon County Democratic Rep. Allison Tant.
While Republican members waived their debate, Mariano pushed back on the criticisms when closing on the bill.
“The criticism of this bill has all revolved around fear. I have not heard of one legitimate concern that is not about fear,” Mariano said.
“The biggest criticism is regarding the accreditation process and what that’s going to do to our universities. First, I’ll say there is a provision of this bill to say that if they do not attain accreditation with a new accreditor, they can go back to where they’re at, so that should eliminate the fear on that part,” she said.
As for the amendment, Mariano emphasized. “This is not mandatory. It’s up to the Board of Governors to decide.”
“We want accountability in our education system. That’s all this is,” she said.