April 20, 2022
Florida’s public colleges must change accreditors every cycle — which often spans five years — under a new law the state’s Republican governor, Ron Desantis, signed Tuesday.
The legislation enables public colleges to sue accrediting agencies that have taken “retaliatory action” against institutions and receive damages up to the value of how much federal financial aid they receive, as well as court costs and attorney fees.
Lawmakers also took aim at the State University System of Florida’s tenure structure. The legislation allows the system’s governing board to set up a process for evaluating tenured professors every five years.
The Republican-championed legislation targets some of higher education’s linchpins: tenure systems and accreditors, which verify the health of instruction, finances and academic freedom on college campuses. They also serve as gatekeepers of federal Title IV student aid funding.
DeSantis and other GOP policymakers have characterized accrediting agencies as having a stranglehold on the state’s public colleges and said they too frequently shape institutional decision-making.
However, accreditors often hear the opposite critique — that they fail to hold institutions accountable. Colleges fund and make up accreditors’ membership, and critics say they have little reason to punish the institutions that pay their bills.
Florida faculty have raised alarm bells about the legislation for months, saying switching accreditors so often could jeopardize institutions’ federal funding. That’s in part because the process of landing a new accreditor can be cumbersome and can take years. Not following those complex procedures could put colleges out of compliance with federal standards and risk their Title IV funding.
The U.S. Department of Education last month raised such concerns to DeSantis, writing in a letter to the governor that the law could present “unintended consequences.”
Undersecretary of Education James Kvaal in the letter cited several federal laws and regulations the Florida law could potentially violate, including statutes requiring accreditor membership to be voluntary.
The Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.