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Florida higher education union decries new ‘anti-WOKE’ law

The first of 20 slides in UF’s "Understanding House Bill 7” presentation details financial consequences the university could face if professors break the law. The presentation was released to faculty at the end of April. (Carissa Allen/WUFT News)
The first of 20 slides in UF’s "Understanding House Bill 7” presentation details financial consequences the university could face if professors break the law. The presentation was released to faculty at the end of April. (Carissa Allen/WUFT News)

In the wake of an anti-WOKE legislative session distinguished by controversial education bills, one Florida union representing university faculty members is pushing back against a law going into effect July 1.

House Bill 7, titled “Individual Freedom” but dubbed the “Stop WOKE Act,” is the latest development in an ongoing power struggle between the University of Florida and Tallahassee concerning academic freedom.

The law, introduced in the Florida House of Representatives at the beginning of this year’s legislative session, specifies how race-related issues are taught in K-20 schools and in workplace training. However, faculty and leadership at the United Faculty of Florida say under its veil of standing up to indoctrination, HB 7 could muzzle educators’ discussions about race.

Andrew Gothard, president of UFF, said the bill could create a chilling effect on Florida classrooms, with professors erring on the side of caution and self-censoring for fear of breaking the law.

“The nature of this law is designed to stop students and stop faculty from talking about subjects that conservative politicians dislike,” Gothard said.

UFF — which represents over 25,000 faculty members statewide and approximately 1,600 at UF — has not filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the state, but Gothard said nothing is off the table yet. Union faculty is exploring ways to counter the bill.

HB 7 prevents academic instruction and workplace training compelling individuals to believe they are “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously”; that an individual is “either privileged or oppressed” based on “race, color, sex, or national origin”; and that students “bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law April 22 to prevent professors from indoctrinating  revisionist history that pushes collective guilt, according to a news release written by his staff.

The governor said no one should be taught to feel unequal or shamed because of their race, and he will not let the “far-left woke agenda” take over Florida schools and workplaces.

Gothard said HB 7 is a form of censorship that will harm the public education system in Florida. He could not distinguish any positive outcomes from the law.

UF aligned itself with politicians and Tallahassee, Gothard added, instead of defending the rights of faculty and preserving academic freedom, and it's not the first time faculty have made that critique.

University administrators released a presentation titled “Understanding House Bill 7” to inform professors about the law as it relates to academic instruction. It provides recommendations for lecturing within the law’s requirements.

The first of 20 slides detail the hefty financial penalties, outlined by Senate Bill 2524, UF may face if it violates HB 7. This includes ineligibility to receive performance funding for the following fiscal year, which could entail upwards of $100 million in state performance funding, as it has received in previous years.

The university did not want to offer additional comment beyond the information released in the presentation, UF spokesperson Cynthia Roldan wrote in an email.

Paul Ortiz, a history professor and president of UF’s chapter of UFF, said the administration should not have to choose between funding and intellectual freedom.

The law’s timing represents a state government that is out of touch with higher education classrooms, he added; fall courses are set, books are ordered and syllabi are written well before the semester starts.

UFF-UF is condemning the law by maintaining the same rigorous academic integrity that prepares students to be successful in their post-graduate careers, Ortiz said. This includes covering reading materials and themes discussed at other top universities nationwide.

In the fall, Ortiz will teach an African diaspora seminar, in which he will talk about slavery, segregation and colonialism. Students will still read Toni Morrison’s controversial “Beloved.” He said he is not changing the syllabus “one iota” to accommodate HB 7 — what he considers an intimidation tactic sustaining the legislature’s ongoing culture war.

“I'm not going to pull a book or stop talking about a topic because I think some politician in Tallahassee wants me to stop talking about it,” Ortiz said. “If I did that, I would be doing disservice to my students who no longer would be able to have the benefit of the best scholarship on any given topic.”

The law explicitly allows teachers to discuss topics like slavery and racial oppression, but instruction cannot cause students to “feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress for actions…committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”

Many GOP state representatives, including Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, agree the bill affords a return to objectivity in learning.

“Our paramount goal must always be to educate and unify; rather than creating fractures and division by placing manufactured accountability and blame on students who did nothing more than register for a class," Clemons wrote in an email.

Ortiz said the union is considering a broader legal challenge to HB 7. He said the bill’s ambiguous provisions constitute poor education legislation and make the state look ridiculous.

Steven Kirn, a retired faculty member and former president of UFF-UF, believes the union could be successful in court. By prohibiting guilt or discomfort in the classroom, the legislation’s language is “so vague and so impossible to understand that it’s not valid,” he said.

Anything that causes students to question their worth or feel guilty about 400 years of enslavement, he explained, is off-limits; this means critical analyses, like critical race theory, cannot be taught.

The only way students can understand the importance of diversity and vow to be more inclusive is if they become uncomfortable with some aspects of themselves, Kirn added.

“It is simply wrong to tell faculty what they can and can't teach, what they can and can't say, and it goes against the very idea of a university,” he said. “That is a real violation of academic freedom.”

The union is working to preserve Article 10 of UFF-UF’scollective bargaining agreement, which says the university and UFF shall “maintain, encourage, protect, and promote the faculty’s full academic freedom.” UFF-UF hopes to organize an informational town hall to address its next steps to combat HB 7. Gothard pledged to attend.

There is power in numbers, and though Kirn said UFF-UF has seen an increase in membership since HB 7 was signed into law, it was not as dramatic as he anticipated.

The legislature’s conservative stamps on higher education have lessened the number of applicants for lecturer positions at UF and spurred existing faculty into submission.

“They are afraid. They are hunkering down and saying the smart thing to do right now in this climate is to not stick your head out of the foxhole,” he said. “Got to do your work, keep your nose clean, don’t bother anybody, don’t do anything controversial. And that’s not a vibrant academic environment.”

Carissa is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.