Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been at the epicenter of higher education this past year. His interest in divorcing higher education from what he perceives as a far-left agenda antithetical to American democracy has invited judges, faculty and administration, and similarly skeptical conservatives across state lines to deliberate on the current state of higher education. In K12 and higher ed, the term “woke” has plunged education into a muddy existential battle.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has released a scathing report compiling interviews from current and former faculty members, students, alumni, trustees, and retired university leaders documenting what it believes is a network of institutions declining into authoritative control, intellectual and moral bankruptcy and unfettered faculty turnover.
The AAUP special committee report interviewed more than 65 people from mid-February to late September. Only two higher education administrators agreed to the interview.
“Bottom line: Big Brother is watching,” wrote one University of Florida professor in an email to his colleagues and collected by the special committee. “He is taking names. I’m on their ‘woke’ list! I’m the faculty advisor for the Federalist Society, for the Law School Republicans, and for the Christian Legal Society. If they find me threatening, the rest of you are dead in the water.
“Be wary and be aware. If I don’t have academic freedom, neither do you. If you don’t, neither do I. We are in this together.”
New College of Florida: A preview of the DeSantis mission
The report outlines how the DeSantis-appointed New College of Florida Board of Trustees ousted the president and helped oversee the appointment of his political allies into executive administrative roles.
Richard Corcoran, the new president, is the former Republican speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. One of his first actions as president was denying tenure to five faculty members and denying the contract renewal of a visiting professor who had been critical of the college takeover.
New College has since hired other administrative leaders close to DeSantis’ political views despite their very limited academic experience. Kevin Hoeft, vice president of enrollment, played a role in banning AP African American Studies in Florida. Presidential search committee member Bridget Ziegler is the cofounder of Moms for Liberty, a right-wing group influencing book bans and censorship. David Rancourt, the new dean of student affairs and former deputy secretary of state who’s lobbied and aided former GOP officials, has no higher education or student services experience.
The college has since abolished all diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, axed its top officer and ended its gender studies program. The college’s new institutional direction has ostracized legacy students and catalyzed a mass exodus among faculty members who don’t align with the state’s politics.
“What’s happening at New College is a disgrace,” said University of Florida President Emeritus Bernie Maches, according to the special committee.
A remodeled governance structure
As dire as the situation at New College, AAUP described the development at the small liberal arts institution as a microcosm for his administration’s overarching state strategy.
Thanks in part to Florida’s university system structure, the governor has substantial power in shaping two of its highest administrative bodies: The Florida Board of Governors and each state university’s board of trustees. Since DeSantis’ appointment, members of the board of governors have been “concerned principally with their relationships with the governor,” according to the report.
Consequently, high-level administrators have been granted further sway in shaping campus administrations and faculties and crippling universities’ shared governance principles guiding tenure, faculty instruction and curricula.
They’ve executed this primarily through a flurry of bills within the last year. For example, a trifecta of bills (HB233, SB7 and SB266) has created contradictions in what faculty should and should not teach to avoid consequences. The report describes these contradictions as a “feature, not a bug… [to] sow confusion and fear among faculty members.”
Moreover, SB7044 stips the power of tenure, granting the president of the institution the ultimate authority on post-tenure review processes, which by the bill’s standards, would speed the process up to every five years. And as presidential appointments are becoming facilitated by DeSantis-aligned leaders, presidents can serve as an extension of further political control.
While many respondents agreed that some of DeSantis’ most notorious bills will lack strong implementation measures, the intention behind it has created a culture of “fear, censorship and surveillance” in the workplace. Some faculty members whose identity or research does not align with the state’s viewpoint expressed it has created a hostile environment for them.
“There is a tremendous sense of dread right now, not just among faculty; it’s tangible among students and staff as well. People are intellectually and physically scared,” said LeRoy Pernell, professor of law at Florida A&M University, according to the special committee.
Without room to dissent, faculty are opting to “vot[e] with their feet.” Nearly half (46%) of 642 Florida faculty surveyed by the AAUP in an August poll said they will seek employment outside of the state in the next year, and 28% said they have already begun interviewing. About 85 percent said they would not encourage a faculty member in another state to come to Florida.
AAUP finished the report by hinting what’s happening in Florida is but a small mechanism aiding a more substantial threat to academic freedom and the core tenets of American democracy nationwide.
“Florida and other states following suit are part of a global rise in right-wing, nationalistic political agendas that know well the power of a diminished sense of citizenship, increased surveillance, and increased obedience to the state to control citizens for generations to come,” the special committee wrote.