Critical race theory becomes flash point for GOP, UF heading into legislative session

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As Florida Republican lawmakers rush to introduce bills that target the teaching of critical race theory in state institutions, a University of Florida professor is claiming university officials have already asked faculty members to not use the words “critical” and “race” in curriculum to avoid political backlash.

The claims — made by UF College of Education Associate Professor Chris Busey in a grievance filed Sunday through the faculty union — underscore widening allegations by faculty members that the state’s flagship university is being influenced by the politics of the day, even as university leaders have declared UF “free from undue influence.”

Busey claims that in meetings, university officials warned faculty and administrators in the College of Education to steer clear of curricula that touch on race, anti-racism, or mention the words “critical’ and “race” together.

The issue, Busey claims, was painted as one that could “jeopardize” the college’s relationship with the state, and “inflame Tallahassee” just as Republican lawmakers proposed legislation that takes aim at the concept of critical race theory and similar themes.

Two prominent GOP lawmakers who have rallied against the subject of critical race theory, and who have filed bills in the House and Senate, said Wednesday that they were not surprised by the allegations and one even welcomed the alleged restrictions on Busey’s curriculum.

“I am heartened to see universities act proactively to get this garbage out of our state,” said Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who is sponsoring legislation that would prohibit the teaching or promotion of “divisive concepts, race or sex scapegoating, or race or sex stereotyping” in state institutions.

But Busey says the university’s threatening him with discipline for using “critical race” in his curriculum and program design is an “egregious and unprecedented violation of academic freedom.” He was not available for an interview on Wednesday, but in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Busey, who studies critical race theory, said he is disheartened and discouraged by the university’s actions and feels forced to look for another job.

UF claims grievance includes ‘inaccuracies’

The new allegations come about a month after UF barred three political science professors from testifying in litigation against the state. The university was accused of caving to political pressure, and later reversed course on its decision and said that there was no undue external influence on its decisions.

Hessy Fernandez, a university spokeswoman, said in an email, that pursuant to state law, any grievance matter would be confidential, and therefore, the university is “unable to publicly acknowledge whether a grievance has been filed.”

However, she said that the grievance, which Fernandez requested a copy of, “contains a number of inaccuracies, and we will address them through the appropriate processes.” She did not elaborate.

Busey, meanwhile, says that he was told to remove the word “critical” from his proposed concentration, titled “Critical Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Education.” According to Busey’s biography on the university’s website, he is an associate professor in the College of Education, where he “primarily teaches courses for the Critical Studies in Race, Ethnicity and Culture specializations.”

The specialization, which has been approved by the College of Education, is still awaiting approval from the university, according to the complaint. According to Busey’s notes from a meeting in mid-October, the senior associate dean for the graduate school program, Paul Duncan, indicated that the graduate school would not approve anything with the word “critical” in the title.

Rep. Randy Fine, a Palm Bay Republican who is sponsoring the anti-critical race theory bill in the House, said that he would like to learn more about Busey’s proposed course before commenting on whether he agrees with what he is teaching or not. However, he noted that Busey’s proposed titled did raise concerns and “doesn’t sound good.”

He added that if he came to find out it was heavily focused on critical race theory, he would “absolutely use it as an example” for the need for his bill.

“If I were the University of Florida I would not want to become the example that Randy Fine uses when he is pitching his bill,” Fine said. “Part of the way that I sell my bills is through stories that prove the point that they are needed.”

Legislation modeled after Iowa

The bill, which is just a proposal at the moment and has not been heard in committee in either the House or Senate, would bar all state institutions, including the state’s college system and university system, from teaching “divisive concepts” about race and gender. Fine said it is a copy-paste version of a bill that became law in the state of Iowa this summer.

“Why reinvent the wheel, right?” Fine said. “This is not language that I invented from scratch.”

The bill, as currently drafted, is so broad that it would target more than just the teaching of critical race theory. It would target any subject that makes an individual feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex” or any other form of “race or sex scapegoating or race or sex stereotyping.”

Republicans have turned their ire at critical race theory — a legal academic concept that examines systemic racism in American institutions and policies — because they say it is an attempt to “indoctrinate” rather than teach. Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he is against the concept because it could lead white kids in particular to see themselves in a “negative light.”

Fine defended his strategy of using his influence to call out state universities and faculty members in order to get the bill passed, even if professors see it as a way to restrict their academic speech.

“There are limits to what is acceptable in the discussion of academic freedom,” Fine said. “There are constraints that we put on things and we do not believe taxpayer money in the state of Florida should be used in advance to this racist, evil ideology, which is as un-American as it comes.”

But some faculty members are worried about the proposal being the start for something bigger.

“What’s next? Are we going to be telling the people in biology, you can teach evolution but don’t call it that?” UF College of Journalism and Communications professor Churchill Robert, the faculty union’s chief grievance officer, said in an interview Wednesday.

Corcoran dragged into UF allegations

The allegations have also pulled in the who’s who of Florida politics. In his complaint, Busey says that at a meeting in late September, UF Associate Provost for Academic and Faculty Affairs Chris Hass said neither UF President Kent Fuchs nor UF Provost Joseph Glover were willing to be fired if the College of Education decided to press the issue of anti Black racism curriculum.

“All the consequences will be on [College of Education] Dean [Glenn] Good or the college,” according to the complaint, based on notes Busey took of Hass’ remarks.

Based on Busey’s notes, Hass allegedly said that “many departments/colleges are moving anything controversial out of the fall calendar while the Legislature is in session.” Hass said “there is a feeling that after budget allocations are finished, it may be possible to move on other things.”

Hass reminded people at the meeting that Fuchs serves at the pleasure of the UF Board of Trustees and that he could be “removed at any time for any reason,” according to Busey’s notes of the meeting, which are included in the complaint.

“Other state universities have been threatened with replacement of their president with a political appointment. Richard Corcoran has been mentioned as a replacement for removed presidents,” the complaint states.

Corcoran earlier this year was in the running to become the next president of Florida State University. When asked if he was aware of such a claim, Corcoran declined to comment through a Department of Education spokesperson, except to call it a “rumor.”

The state university system’s Board of Governors and UF did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment on the alleged threats to remove university presidents. DeSantis’ office declined to comment on the allegation, and referred questions to the BOG and UF.

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