Gov. Ron DeSantis is, famously, on a crusade to transform Florida’s education system into one that projects his own ideology. What’s taken up fewer national headlines is that one of the institutions standing in the way has been the accrediting body for Florida’s institutions of higher education. On Thursday, DeSantis ratcheted up the power struggle by asking a federal court to find that the nation’s system for accrediting colleges and universities is unconstitutional. The play is simple enough: If the referees are ruling against you, try to throw them out.
The stakes are high in DeSantis’ disputes with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and its Commission on Colleges, known as SACSCOC, which gives a stamp of approval to universities and colleges across the region after considering things like student performance, academic freedom, and governance. Only accredited colleges and universities are eligible for billions in federal grants and student aid, losing accreditation can doom an institution.
In 2021, DeSantis and other Florida Republican officials twice came into conflict with the accrediting body. The first time, his education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, was seeking to become the next president of Florida State University. As the education commissioner, Corcoran sat on the university system’s overarching board of governors, which was in charge of filling the position. SACSCOC notified the board that Corcoran’s membership was a potential conflict of interest—one that, if he were selected, put FSU’s accreditation at risk. Ultimately, Corcoran was passed over as a finalist; In February, he was selected as the interim president of New College of Florida, a small public liberal arts school that DeSantis and culture war provocateur Christopher Rufo aim to transform into a model of anti-woke education. SACSCOC has yet to intervene at the school, but observers have argued those plans put the college’s accreditation at great risk, which could jeopardize DeSantis’ and Rufo’s experiment.
The second confrontation of the year came when the University of Florida prohibited three professors from providing expert testimony in a voting rights lawsuit targeting a state law championed by DeSantis, sparking an investigation by SACSCOC into whether its standards on political interference and academic freedom were violated. The university claimed that allowing professors to be paid for testimony against the state ran counter to its interests as a state institution. But once the accrediting agency announced its concern, the university reversed its decision and allowed the testimony.
After those incidents, in 2022 the Florida legislature required every state college and university to change its accreditor at the end of every accreditation cycle. The process for switching accreditors is long and costly, but the requirement would make it harder for any single accrediting body to punish a school for, say, displaying signs of political interference or curtailing academic freedom. The US Department of Education took note of Florida’s new law and warned that it would not tolerate changing accreditors to avoid oversight. The requirement drew enough complaints that this year the legislature partially walked it back.
DeSantis and the GOP-controlled Florida legislature have passed numerous laws in the last few years to increase political control over higher education in Florida. With the Stop WOKE Act, DeSantis tried to limit what views on systemic racism and sexism could be endorsed by college professors. (A federal judge called it “dystopian” and blocked it last fall.) The governor and legislature have also allowed more of the process governing the selection of institutions’ presidents to take place in secret, resulting in a string of Republican politicians being taped to lead public universities and colleges.
But the looming threat of losing accreditation is reportedly one reason Florida Republicans watered down their latest education reform package before passing it this spring. The law’s language still aims to reshape and possibly eliminate course content that DeSantis and his fellow Republicans dislike, removes job protections and hiring power from university faculty, and blocks funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion work—but the original wording was even more extreme.
The lawsuit, filed by Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, sues the Department of Education and various officials, arguing that the accreditors’ “unchecked power” over the state violates the US Constitution, and that SACSCOC “wields this power to interfere with the sovereign prerogatives of Florida.”
As I reported last month, DeSantis’ attempt to remake higher education in his image follows an authoritarian playbook. Would-be autocrats seek to eliminate centers of power that could challenge them, including liberal college campuses that are naturally opposed to authoritarian government. Like them, the accrediting bodies have become another obstacle he wants to destroy.