A new preliminary report by the American Association of University Professors is sounding alarms over a slew of legislative and political maneuvers by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature. The report states that Florida’s public colleges and universities “face a politically and ideologically driven assault unparalleled in US history” (1), with implications for the whole country.
This “onslaught,” the authors emphasize, “threatens the very survival of meaningful higher education in the state” (1), but “what is happening in Florida will not stay in Florida . . . We call on all professional organizations, unions, faculty, staff and administrators across the country to fight such ‘reforms’ tooth and nail and to offer support to our colleagues in Florida however we can. We are in this together” (17).
But instead of standing up to or speaking out against threats to academic freedom, according to the report, many academic administrators have been either silent or complicit.
“A politically and ideologically driven assault unparalleled in US history.”
An Academic Call to Arms
The report represents a somber rallying cry by one of the country’s most well-established professional associations for academics. The AAUP represents over 500,000 faculty members, academic staff, and graduate students across the US and advocates generally for academic freedom and the professional welfare of its members.
“The AAUP is blowing the whistle, banging the drum, basically to all faculty in Florida, as well as around the country,” says Anita Levy, acting director of the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance at AAUP and a staff member to the AAUP special committee that authored the report. “If you think this isn’t going to happen [elsewhere], think twice.”
“What is happening in Florida will not stay in Florida.”
The AAUP report comes amid a barrage of legislative and political efforts by DeSantis and the Florida Legislature aimed at controlling and curtailing academic freedoms in Florida’s public colleges and universities, some of which measures prompted the NAACP to issue a formal travel advisory calling Florida “hostile toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals.”
Last year, Gov. DeSantis signed a bill, popularly known as the Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (W.O.K.E.) Act, banning the teaching in public schools of a wide swath of racial or racially informed curricula. This includes any content that threatened to make students feel “guilty” for past discrimination by their race. (A federal judge later overturned parts of the law, restricting its application to higher education institutions).
That bill was followed by what many, including the authors of this report, characterized as a “hostile takeover” (1) earlier this year of the New College of Florida, a historically liberal state school in Sarasota. In January 2023, DeSantis appointed a new slate of members to the New College’s board of trustees, most of them conservative academics or activists, who immediately moved to fire the college’s president Patricia Okker. Shortly thereafter, they voted to eliminate the school’s Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence and end the request for “diversity statements” from job applicants. The school’s dean of diversity was also fired, the first of a series of firings that appear, the report states, to be “targeting LGBTQ individuals and people of color.”
Just this May, DeSantis signed another new bill that strips funding for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion measures, offices, or programs at public colleges and universities. The ramifications of this law have yet to be seen, but critics fear it will hobble or dismantle years-long efforts to increase not just diversity on campus but the inclusion of minority and marginalized groups in every facet of academic life.
“There’s quite clearly a racial dimension to these attacks on higher education,” says Levy. “I don’t think it’s accidental that the fields that have been called out as prohibited are ones related to race and racism in this country, the history of race and racism.”
“I can only imagine that this would have a terrible impact on students and faculty of color, students who can’t learn about their history, who find their history being blatantly rewritten, for faculty who specialize in these areas of study and are now being told what they can and cannot teach—and a majority of those teaching in these areas are Black and people of color,” Levy says.
The report highlights four key findings:
1. The governor and legislature are using their “swift, aggressive and ongoing hostile takeover of New College of Florida” as a “test case,” with the likely intent of intimidating higher education faculty and leadership across the state (1).
This “takeover” has proceeded with Governor DeSantis’s appointment of a slate of six highly partisan trustees, five of whom live outside the state and are publicly known as right-wing activists, to New College’s board of trustees. These appointees, together with other political allies of the governor, have announced their intention not only to transform New College into what they describe as the “Hillsdale College of the South”—a private Christian college known as a bastion of conservatism—but also to use the takeover as a blueprint for future encroachments on public colleges and universities across the country (1).
2. Instead of speaking out against and/or mobilizing to stop the state’s regressive measures, academic administrators across Florida “not only have failed to contest these attacks but have too frequently been complicit in, and in some cases explicitly supported them” (2).
Administrators, the report says, have served at times “as pawns in DeSantis’ corrupt patronage system” (2).
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Administrators far too frequently imagine their role to be getting those below them . . . to comply with the policy preferences of those above them. Too often administrators are rewarded with promotions and larger salaries for such passivity and compliance. Governor DeSantis makes this situation worse by handpicking university and college presidents and board members from among his friends and political allies—even when they have no experience in higher education (10).
3. Recent measures approved by Governor DeSantis and the Florida Legislature constitute “a systemic effort to dictate and enforce conformity with a narrow and reactionary political and ideological agenda throughout the state’s higher education system” (2).
These laws range from such measures as the Viewpoint Diversity Act, which permits students to record lectures without prior notice or permission; to the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, which would “make it unlawful to advance ideas that the legislature and governor find ‘offensive,’ (13)” including, but hardly limited to, the teaching of critical race theory; to the recently signed legislation which not only cuts funding to DEI measures on campuses, but also “drastically erodes tenure protections, mandates a comprehensive post-tenure review every five years, empowers boards and presidents to be involved in academic personnel decisions, limits the teaching of certain topics in the general education curriculum, and allows the board of governors and the state board of education to review all elective courses that cover ‘theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States’” (14).
The report asserts that these bills effectively work in concert to threaten academic freedom, undermine faculty and staff rights, and “weaken educators’ ability to unionize, thus limiting their ability to fight the abuses of power that are bound to occur after the passage of these bills” (15).
The report states:
Taken as a whole, these new laws and the executive actions enforcing them do not bode well for the future of higher education in Florida. They stand collectively as a uniquely bold and dangerous program designed to reshape public education according to ideological and partisan political standards (15).
4. The recent measures, including proposals not yet passed, have already created a “chilling effect” (2) on academic freedom felt by faculty and students across Florida’s higher educational system.
“It remains unclear how much of Governor DeSantis’ higher education agenda will be successfully implemented . . . But these measures have already done tremendous damage” (16).
“We have heard reports that faculty members of color and those teaching in the humanities and social sciences in particular are seeking to leave and that filling positions with candidates of color has become difficult, if not impossible” (16).
Such findings, in other words, indicate that recent efforts by Gov. DeSantis and the Florida Legislature may succeed in discouraging open discourse and academic resistance even where they are technically limited by bureaucratic or legal hurdles.
An Uncertain Future
The authors of the AAUP’s preliminary report remain at work on a final report, planned to be released this summer; and AAUP committee members will continue to hear from academics, faculty, and members in the field as the work continues.
The AAUP is also examining, Levy says, potential violations in the various Florida policies of AAUP standards for academic freedom and institutional integrity, which have been broadly adopted across the field.
“This has very, very dire implications for the faculty rights and for higher education in general,” says Levy.
And it is hardly lost on anyone watching the Florida landscape of higher education that Gov. DeSantis is now an official candidate for the US presidency.
“I would imagine that he would try to make America like Florida, in many respects,” notes Levy.
Meanwhile, maneuvers like those being employed by DeSantis and Florida legislators are already surfacing elsewhere.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick are pushing forward with bills to strip funding for DEI initiatives in that state. And similar measures are making their way through the state houses of Tennessee and North Dakota.