BRADENTON, Fla. (WFLA) — Gov. Ron DeSantis and State University System of Florida Chancellor Ray Rodrigues spoke at the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota in Bradenton. The event was centered on “bringing accountability to the higher education system” in Florida.

DeSantis said the United States was currently in the midst of a larger societal discussion on what the purpose of higher education is. He said it was especially centered on publicly funded systems.

“I think you have the dominant view, which is not the right view. The dominant view is the use of higher education under this view is to impose ideological conformity, to try to promote political activism,” DeSantis said. “That’s what a university should be. That’s not what we believe is appropriate in the state of Florida. Instead we need our higher education to focus on promoting academic excellence, the pursuit of truth, and to give students the foundation to think for themselves.”

DeSantis said the “dominant approach” was common around the U.S., and that people see it “manifested” around the country as “DEI bureaucracies,” saying that they were “hostile to academic freedom and constitute a drain on resources” by committing to things like Critical Race Theory and mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.

The governor said that the state had passed the Stop WOKE Act in 2022 to remove those requirements and stop them “from imposing an agenda on people” to prevent private employees from being forced to go through DEI training.

“They will also do things like require diversity statements is what they call it, but that’s basically like making people take a political oath,” DeSantis said. “In fact, that has been applied across the country, so if a candidate says ‘my view is to treat everyone the same regardless of the color of their skin,’ that they get points off for saying that. That you have to embrace things like critical theory, like the idea of implicit bias and all of those other things, and that’s just not appropriate.”

He said after his inauguration after reelection, the state had requested how much state colleges were spending on DEI programs, staff, and activities, and that “it was a lot of money. Not the best use of your money” and promising to “do something about that” at the day’s event.

The governor said the administrative bloat was due to the student loan system in the U.S., which was expanding bureaucrats and was a “failed model.” DeSantis said the new reforms would require core curriculum be grounded “in actual history, the actual philosophy that has shaped Western civilization.” He said students should get “meaningful degrees” not degrees like “zombie studies.” It’s a degree he’s criticized on multiple occasions.

Additionally, DeSantis said Florida would eliminate “all DEI and CRT bureaucracies” in Florida, and that it served as an ideological and political filter, firing criticism at New College of Florida.

“New College has really embraced that, and I think that’s why the enrollment is down so much, because people want to see true academics, and they want to get rid of some of the political window dressing that accompanies this,” DeSantis said, saying Florida was possibly the first to “leading by example” to do so.

An event briefing pamphlet handed to media read “Education not Indoctrination” and set out a series of requirements that the state will be pursuing as an effort to reform its educational system.

Those requirements were said to be “rooted in the values of liberty and the western tradition,” such as:

  • Requiring any general education course to provide a strong education foundation and “not promote ideological indoctrination,”
  • Require colleges and universities to “prioritize graduating students with degrees that lead to high-wage jobs,” and not those which are “designed to further a political agenda
  • Prohibiting “political filters like DEI statements” when making hiring decisions
  • Prohibiting public institutions from “supporting campus activities or programs that promote divisive concepts like DEI and CRT.”

Additionally, the explanatory document said the reform had a goal of empowering boards of trustees at universities to do a post-tenure review at any time, allow presidents to make hiring decisions by “reestablishing their authority over” the process, and amend research standards to require “annual research expenditures of $50 million for STEM related programs, businesses or industry partners that will employ Floridians.”

DeSantis’ mention of the five-year tenure review was a callback to legislation passed in 2022 to no longer allow unlimited tenure without review. The governor said the change of hiring practices for Florida universities would also allow the state to prevent “certain worldviews” from being promoted when making academic hiring decisions by faculty committees.

The document also said the 2023-2024 budget recommendation from DeSantis would include $15 million for faculty and student recruitment at New College of Florida, with $10 million annually recurring, and another $100 million for recruitment and retention of “highly qualified faculty at state universities.”

The proposal also included “refocusing three Florida institutes on developing courses and curriculum that can be used to educate the next generation on the values of liberty and constitutionalism.”

DeSantis said the state would also work to make three civic education centers, which had been approved in the 2022 budget, making them into a full College in some instances, rather than simply being academic centers, and open them for potential faculty recruitment as well.

“At the end of the day, you know you want these things to be different from what the orthodoxy is, but if it ends up being taken over by the same stuff, then it’s really not worth having it,” DeSantis said. “This is just an important mission. The more we’re centering higher education on the academics, excellence, the pursuit of truth, teaching kids to think for themselves, not try to impose an orthodoxy, you are going to see people flooding into these institutions.”

He said academia across the U.S. “has really lost its way” since he was in school.

When the university chancellor spoke, he said that DEI statements were “essentially a litmus test that applicants have to sign pledges to in order to be hired, promoted, or granted tenure.”

Rodrigues continued, reminding those gathered that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in the 1950s that forced political speech by state institutions was wrong.

“It’s a political litmus test of ideology so that they only bring in those who fit whatever the dominant ideology is on those campuses,” Rodrigues said. “And we all know what that is. In Florida we reject that. In Florida we are a marketplace of ideas, we believe in pursuing academic excellence, and that is our goal. We will be focused on academic excellence at all of our institutions and we pursue the goal of education and reject indoctrination.

The move to change academic standards and which campus activities and programs are supported is likely to draw a legal challenge, in a similar vein to legal contests of 2022’s Stop WOKE Act, which is still going through multiple federal challenges.

Just a roughly 10 minute drive away in Sarasota, DeSantis’ newly appointed members of the New College of Florida board of trustees were set to meet with their colleagues for the first time since being named to the positions. Christopher Rufo, one of the new trustees, was present at the Bradenton event.

Speaking after Rodrigues, Rufo called DEI an “Orwellian misuse of language that manipulates you into feeling that it’s a good thing while under the surface, it’s different.” He said DEI was a lie, when it comes to including a wide range of people and ensure everyone from a wide range of backgrounds are treated equally.

Rufo then “gave a quick lesson” on what those issues look like in colleges and universities, promising to “expose” what’s happening at institutions that have DEI, critical race theory, and “radical gender theory,” saying it was “ugly.”

“They divide the world into oppressor and oppressed, and then they actually train students, faculty and staff members, that certain people are oppressors, certain people are oppressed, and even have certain scholarships that are racially segregated,” Rufo said, saying that was illegal and those who did it were doing so “proudly.”

He said that at some places where children were “trained to feel guilt and shame for their white privilege,” and that at Florida State University, students were told they were “guilty of ‘religious oppression’ and need to atone for their ‘Christian privilege’ which was a new twist on that,” saying it was just part of the bureaucracy.

Rufo said that public institutions supported by taxpayers were governed by the legislature, governed by officials, and that there should be a “philosophical debate” over what treating people equally actually meant. He said the policies proposed were to reassert public control of public universities.

“The purpose of the university is not to push political activism, it’s to train good students, good citizens, in the pursuit of knowledge and the truth and the beautiful,” Rufo said. “I think the DEI officers are, unfortunately, totally against this.”

After other gathered individuals spoke about the reform plan, DeSantis returned to the podium for questions.