TALLAHASSEE — Saying organizations that accredit colleges and universities have an “inordinate amount of power,” Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Tuesday that will force schools to periodically change accreditors.
The measure (SB 7044) also significantly changes the process of reviewing professors’ tenure, a provision that has drawn ire from the state’s largest faculty union.
“It’s all about trying to make these institutions more in line with what the state’s priorities are, and quite frankly the priorities of parents throughout the state of Florida,” DeSantis said during a bill-signing event in The Villages.
Colleges and universities under the law will be required to change accreditors at the end of each accreditation cycle, a process that can take as long as 10 years. The law will take effect July 1.
The state university system’s Board of Governors and the State Board of Education, which oversees the college system, will be directed to identify organizations that are “best suited to serve” as accreditors for the schools. The accrediting bodies will have to be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
The governor took aim at accreditors before signing the measure.
“The role that these accreditation agencies play, I don’t even know where they come from. I mean, they … are effectively self-anointed. They have an inordinate amount of power to shape what is going on at these universities,” DeSantis said.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, or SACSCOC, accredits Florida’s colleges and universities. The relationship between SACSCOC and state higher-education officials was strained last year after the organization weighed in on two high-profile issues at universities.
The agency raised questions about a potential conflict of interest involving state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran when he was a candidate to become president of Florida State University. Later in the year, SACSCOC took preliminary steps toward an investigation into whether the University of Florida faced “non-compliance issues” related to a decision to block three professors from serving as expert witnesses in a high-profile voting rights lawsuit.
SACSCOC President Belle Wheelan defended the inquiries and said it is common for accrediting organizations to ask such questions of schools. Wheelan on Tuesday said the bill signed by DeSantis will have an “unfortunate” impact on Florida’s colleges and universities.
“Accrediting bodies are governed by the member institutions themselves, sharing their expertise in various disciplines across higher education. While institutions may contribute when associated with other colleagues across the nation, our member institutions found value in collaborating with colleagues from a region with similar values, histories and cultures. It is unfortunate that Florida institutions may no longer have this opportunity,” Wheelan told The News Service of Florida in an email.
The new law also will authorize the Board of Governors to adopt a regulation requiring university professors to undergo a “comprehensive post-tenure review” every five years. Such reviews would take into account accomplishments and productivity, assigned duties in research and teaching, performance metrics, compensation and “consequences for underperformance.”
“I think the thing is, you know, tenure was there to protect people so that they could do ideas that maybe would cause them to lose their job or whatever, and academic freedom,” DeSantis said Tuesday. “I don’t know that that’s really the role that it plays, quite frankly, anymore. I think what tenure does, if anything, it’s created more of an intellectual orthodoxy.”
The governor’s approval of the bill drew an immediate objection from United Faculty of Florida President Andrew Gothard. The union has argued that individual schools already have processes to review faculty tenure.
“All of Florida’s faculty already undergo an extensive performance review process, tenured or otherwise; they are already held accountable by their peers and employers,” Gothard said in a statement. “The only missing piece in that equation is that tenured faculty cannot be fired for political reasons, meaning the passing whims of the latest politician in power cannot be used to harm the future of Florida’s students and institutions.”
Gothard, who is a professor at Florida Atlantic University, also criticized state leaders for “playing political games” with the futures of university students.
“Tenure protects the right of faculty to teach and research honestly and accurately without the threat of politicians who would fire them for doing their jobs, and it protects the rights of students to learn about whatever interests them without being told by big government how to live their lives,” Gothard said in a statement.