Defending the University as Both Idea and Reality: Florida as Harbinger

Under the guise of fighting “wokeness,” right-wing legislators have launched a not-so-stealth campaign to destroy liberal education as it has been known in this country. Florida leads the charge, and many states have followed, but resistance is mounting. Governor Ron DeSantis launched an attack on Florida’s higher education earlier this year through two separate bills: HB 7 and HB 999. DeSantis signed HB 7 into law in March, with its ostensible mandate being the end of discrimination in the college classroom. Of course, it does no such thing. Rather, it is worded in such a way as to stop most discussions of race, color, or gender, without which it becomes impossible to discuss a plethora of topics in the humanities and social sciences.

HB 999 is even more expansive and terrifying. The Florida senate equivalent, SB 266–which broadly features the same wording–made it to DeSantis’s desk in early May and was signed on May 15. The law is controversial for its aim to totally defund diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs in public universities within the state. This would mean an end to DEI language and initiatives in college courses, training, and hiring, as well as a total ban on critical race theory and the elimination of entire majors, including Jewish studies and gender studies. Colleges would be prohibited from funding or otherwise supporting any programs that support DEI in any of its forms; likewise, courses that are based on “unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content” would also be banned, likely out of an aim to target courses on subjects as far-ranging as evolution, the history of minorities, and gender studies. The law empowers university boards to review their faculty–including those with tenure–and mandate courses on “Western civilization” and a more “patriotic” approach to U.S.  history and civics. I interviewed a group of graduate students from a university in Florida on the effects of HB 999 prior to SB 266 becoming law. Fearing retribution, they preferred to remain anonymous; all subsequent quotes are from them. As the students recounted, they feared that once the law goes into effect, it would have an impact not only academic culture, but on  adjacent organizations at the university level. As one student commented, this could mean the “removal of several campus organizations such as Latinx and African-American student unions, and historically Black fraternities and sororities.”

While ostensibly an extension of DeSantis’s war on “wokeness,”as seen with his escalating conflict with Disney World,  it would be more appropriate to see this as a move toward establishing control over a hotly debated arena of U.S. life: education. Conservatives have long complained of the supposed dominance of left-wing ideas and progressive educators at higher education institutions, despite the paucity of evidence for that claim. Conservatives see establishing control over higher education institutions as a means of undermining resistance against conservative policies. By promoting visions of history and the social sciences that are more in line with conservative values and beliefs and censoring “unwanted” content and courses, Florida’s government is committed to completely remaking higher education along blatantly partisan lines. As the graduate students told me, there has already been a chill in classrooms and campuses across the state. Instructors have become much more “cognizant of what we say and do, making sure to adhere to HB 7 and not conflict with its requirements.” This, in turn, is likely all a part of DeSantis’s push for a presidential bid and “to gain support from right-wing constituents in other states.”

There have been other consequences. As he announced his legislative priorities and desire to revamp the public higher education landscape in Florida back in January, DeSantis took the highly unusual move of restructuring New College of Florida, a small public liberal arts college. He installed a new board of trustees filled with conservative pundits and fired the college president and replaced her with one of his own allies, without any input from the school’s community. The new board of trustees promptly denied tenure to various professors, despite having already gained tenure approval from their departments, because of the perception that these professors hold “liberal” views. This will have huge ramifications for Florida’s education system. As the graduate students told me, these new laws will ultimately “affect quality of education, as many professors and students will choose not to come to Florida based on the current political situation because they feel their jobs, careers, and education are not stable. The proposed five-year review of faculty will also deter potential new professors or visiting scholars, as it demonstrates lack of trust in their educational capacity and their ability to teach difficult subjects.” Other than some relatively tepid responses from professional academic organizations such as the American Historical Association, DeSantis’s proposed changes have not sparked much national discussion or outrage outside of academic circles. This is despite the fact that lawmakers in Ohio, Iowa, Mississippi, North Dakota, and Texas, emboldened by DeSantis’s war on education, are also seeking to put an end to tenure and DEI initiatives, and to restrict faculty governance, or some combination thereof.

It is tempting to dismiss this as the woes of professors, a tenured class whose members have not often gone to bat for their untenured or graduate student colleagues who have fought to unionize and resist university administrations intent on abusing and exploiting them. Dan Patrick, lieutenant governor of Texas, has been pushing to end tenure for all hires in the state precisely because professors lack “oversight” and cannot be held accountable for what they teach – though thankfully, for now, it seems the Texas legislature has resisted his efforts to do so. But this is precisely why the tenure model is worth fighting for. It gives academics and scholars the freedom to teach and research controversial topics, forcing us to confront uncomfortable truths about history, science, society, and more. Tenure should be extended to vulnerable faculty; it should not be the exception, but rather the norm.

There is a greater issue at hand. We live in a time when the humanities and the social sciences are attacked as  as not “useful.” Skyrocketing tuition costs, costs of living, and a lopsided job market have ensured that only a few majors, such as computer science, engineering, and the various degrees that feed into professional degrees such as medicine or law, are considered to have merit. We cannot blame students for choosing degrees and classes that they believe will help make up for the high cost of education or ensure them some element of financial security. But what is the goal of our education system? Is it simply to produce good, diligent workers or is it to give us the chance to explore our real interests and better ourselves in myriad ways, including as members of a democratic and egalitarian society? None of this is to take away from the incredible work that engineers or computer scientists do. We need them. But perhaps we need historians, writers, journalists, social workers, and so on, just as much.

Should DeSantis’s model spread beyond Florida, where the fight against “wokeness” is used as a way to gut the humanities and social scientists and clamp down on freedom of expression and inquiry, higher education in this country will be in grave danger. The only solution is to broaden our ambit of solidarity: Faculty are workers, tenured or not, as are graduate students, instructors, and the wide variety of staff that help to make the running of universities possible. Moreover, we cannot allow our universities to divest themselves of the communities that make them worth attending in the first place–the attack on LGBTQ+ students, on Black organizations, on feminist activists, and more is an attack on the idea of the university itself. Rather than striking or protesting at one school alone, we must take action at schools across the country in protest of conditions in Florida and elsewhere.