US faculty group decries Florida’s ‘assault’ on higher education

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and state lawmakers have mounted an “unparalleled” attack on higher education, aided by “cowardly” college and university administrators who have failed to push back, according to a report released early Wednesday by one of the nation’s top faculty groups.

It says recent laws and other steps taken by Republican leaders threaten “the very survival of meaningful higher education in the state, with the direst implications for the entire country.”

The report, described as preliminary, was produced by the American Association of University Professors, which said its findings are based on interviews with more than 40 faculty members and a former school president. It was authored by a committee of seven professors outside the state who were charged with investigating Florida’s recent actions regarding higher education.

They concluded that “academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance in Florida’s public colleges and universities currently face a politically and ideologically driven assault unparalleled in U.S. history.”

A full report is expected later this year. The preliminary version points to four main findings.

It states that DeSantis and the Legislature engineered a state takeover at New College of Florida “as a test case” that will provide a “blueprint for future encroachments on public colleges and universities across the country.”

Related: New College of Florida faculty votes to censure trustees

In January, DeSantis appointed six new trustees to the Sarasota school with a mandate to overhaul its curriculum, operations and progressive culture. The new board has since replaced the president, closed the diversity, equity and inclusion office, rejected tenure for five veteran faculty members and fired some administrators.

New College of Florida graduate June Snell, 22, walks towards the stage during a commencement ceremony marked by tension and protests on Friday, May 19, 2023, in Sarasota.
New College of Florida graduate June Snell, 22, walks towards the stage during a commencement ceremony marked by tension and protests on Friday, May 19, 2023, in Sarasota. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The report also takes administrators to task, saying school leaders “from the highest to lowest levels” around the state have “failed to contest” and in some cases “explicitly supported” attacks on higher education. It also chastises professional organizations and accrediting bodies for responding “unevenly or not at all.”

Administrators are often rewarded with promotions and salaries for “passivity and compliance,” the report says. It calls that approach understandable given fears of retaliation by politicians, but deems it “more cowardly than cautious.”

It says the changes mandated by the Legislature “constitute a systematic effort to dictate and enforce conformity with a narrow and reactionary political and ideological agenda.”

With laws like the Individual Freedom act of 2022, which limits classroom discussion of topics like institutional racism, and this year’s SB 266, which regulates content in general education courses and puts new limits on tenure, lawmakers are undermining academic freedom, the report states.

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Related: DeSantis signs 3 bills bringing major change to Florida universities

The Individual Freedom act, also called the Stop Woke Act, is being challenged in the courts.

Still, that and other new measures have led teachers and professors to self-censor in classes, a trend that is “spilling over into private institutions,” according to the report.

It says several faculty told the investigative committee about their plans to look for work outside the state. They also spoke of searches where job candidates turned down offers to come to Florida without anything else lined up.

As part of its work, the group sought input from Ray Rodrigues, chancellor of the State University System, and Kathy Hebda, chancellor of the Florida College System. Together they oversee 40 schools.

Both declined to engage, citing previous comments from Irene Mulvey, president of the professors’ association. In their statement to the association, Rodrigues and Hebda said the group had already decided that state politicians had interfered with the higher education and they doubted the committee would “fairly and fully consider any testimony to the contrary.”

Related: US News ranks Florida No. 1 for education

Henry Reichman, co-chairperson of the committee and a history professor at California State University, East Bay, said the group was disappointed they did not hear back from other university administrators they reached out to.

“We wanted their perspective,” he said.

Reichman said he was stunned by the extent of what he learned through interviews. Florida’s push, he said, had already undermined “fundamental principles of how American higher education should be governed and run.”

He said he hoped state residents will question DeSantis’ portrayals of taxpayer-funded schools being overtaken by “woke” zealots bent on indoctrinating students.

They are not “hotbeds of weirdness and communism,” Reichman said.

The report advises the academic community nationally to oppose the changes “tooth and nail, and to offer support to our colleagues in Florida however they can.”

“What is happening in Florida will not stay in Florida,” it says. “We are in this together.”

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.