Ron DeSantis wants people to believe that the nation’s public universities have gotten away from their core mission of education and become bastions of wokeness run amok, but in Florida, “where woke goes to die” he’s just not going to let that happen.
Now, those of us who are more familiar with what actually happens at colleges and universities know that this is not at all true, and that DeSantis is peddling transparent B.S. as part of a broader push to consolidate his power over public institutions in his state, not just higher ed, but K-12 education as well.
So far, the courts have found some problems with DeSantis’s initiatives, but he doesn’t seem to care. In K-12 education, with the Stop Woke Act, he’s created a sufficient atmosphere of intimidation to have teachers covering up their classroom libraries lest they risk a felony charge.
Such actions would surely be unconstitutional, but this simply becomes another political talking point, the establishment preventing the people, in the person of DeSantis, from exercising their will, as recently outlined in a democratic election that DeSantis won overwhelmingly.
DeSantis is now laying siege to Florida’s New College, a small, public liberal arts school known for its uniquely open culture, in the form of the appointment of a critical mass of trustees – including self-admitted professional propagandist Christopher Rufo, and a founder of a Christian academy named Eddie Speir who writes a shockingly uninformed newsletter – who are prepared to remake the school in an image more palatable to DeSantis and his followers.
As Sam Hoadley-Brill reminded me on Twitter Rufo is on the record denying there’s such a concept of academic freedom, and as Jeffrey A. Sachs (who has been tracking many of these controversies) notes in the government’s response to the ACLU suit to stop the Stop Woke Act, they argued specifically that “A public university’s curriculum is set by the university in accordance with the strictures and guidance of the State’s elected officials. It is government speech.”
Sachs correctly calls this an “all-out assault” on academic freedom, not just an attempt to give the state control over curriculum broadly, but the content of instruction in specific, which would quite obviously render any notion of academic freedom entirely moot.
New College is just the first salvo, a proof-of-concept trial. There’s little doubt that DeSantis has his sights on all of Florida’s public institutions, intending to bring them under his control by establishing procedures that allow presidents and trustees to have full and complete authority over any personnel decisions, independent of faculty, and then making sure the presidents and trustees understand their marching orders.
This played out at New College as at their very first meeting, the DeSantis-appointed board terminated current (now former) president, Patricia Okker, replacing her with, Richard Corcoran, former state education commissioner, who apparently can’t even take the job until March, but is hired anyway.
An important question now is how to fight this assault on public institutions and academic freedom that DeSantis will only be expanding.
One important avenue is the courts, and organizations such as the ACLU and FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) have been filing suits to challenge DeSantis’s unconstitutional overreaches.
But the courts move slow, are no longer reliable protectors of these rights, and as we’ve seen, they don’t seem to be hindrances to executives who plow ahead with their initiatives anyway.
The notion that illegality or unconstitutionality is a check on behavior, or even something everyone condemns went out the window a few January 6th’s ago.
Plus, as Tom Nichols notes at The Atlantic, Florida probably has a right to wreck their public institutions.
I can only imagine how shattering this must be to the students, faculty, and alumni of New College, to see a truly unique institution turned upside down for explicitly political purposes. I couldn’t say for sure, but I’m going to guess this does not bode well for New College enrollment in the fall, given the degree of flux DeSantis has deliberately caused.
DeSantis very much seems to want to raze New College and replace it with a Hillsdale of the South, and he’s well on his way to getting away with it. Cratering the yield by throwing a wrench in the works opens the possibility of admitting cohorts of Hillsdale-desiring students to fill the classrooms and the coffers.
The irony is off the charts, replacing a politically left, but intellectually diverse, and open-minded student body with a conservative monoculture.
So, what else can be done?
I know what they say about free advice, but I have some anyway. Could be bad. Could be wrong, but it’s based in my years of writing in this space, and having spent lots of time outside of higher ed trying to help the public better see what’s happening inside of institutions.
My first recommendation is to not make this a fight about “academic freedom.” This is indeed what DeSantis is attacking, but that’s the argument he wants to have, because to the public, academic freedom sounds like a special privilege that only professors get.
I get that academic freedom is the umbrella which allows the important work of an institution to happen, but that takes a lot of explaining, and even after I explain it, people still sort of don’t buy it.
When they hear that a college or university president doesn’t have the power to just fire faculty, lots of people think that’s kind of weird. I wish that wasn’t the case, but an argument that says academic freedom is necessary for professors to do their jobs is not a slam dunk winner with broad swaths of the public.
Anything that looks like special pleading for professors is likely doomed in terms of public persuasion.
The key to turning the tide is to puncture DeSantis’s narrative. Arguing about academic freedom does not achieve this.
One angle is to attack DeSantis for the explicitly political nature of his actions. He claims he’s saving schools from politics, but in fact, he’s subjecting them to a political maelstrom by inviting out-of-state carpetbaggers like Christopher Rufo to come in and run roughshod over the people of Florida.
While this moves the argument to territory less favorable to DeSantis’s narrative, by itself it won’t be sufficient. There are likely many Floridians that want to see DeSantis run roughshod over New College.
In the end, I think the best shot is convincing people that the things DeSantis is doing does indeed run the risk of ruining their public universities. To make this argument, rather than focusing on academic freedom, I think it’s important to focus on the work of the institution that benefits the public, and how managing them according to the whims of DeSantis and his lackeys is a very bad way of going about things.
For example, have people picture a scenario where they or their child had a particularly good professor who became something of a mentor, and then some years later they or their child wanted to contact them for professional help, or perhaps a recommendation, only to find out that this professor was terminated for simply getting on the wrong side of a president, something that does not happen now.
Talk about how the most talented faculty with the best chance of bringing in outside funding will choose elsewhere. Perhaps argue that making Florida’s universities openly hostile to minority students will be bad for their athletics teams.
There is a practical and clear argument to be made that institutions do best under values of continuity, consistency, stability, values that DeSantis is recklessly throwing to the wind, all to score some cheap political points before he tries to book his ticket to the White House. He’s going to make a mess and then leave it behind for others to clean up.
This argument would be easier to make had institutions better lived by their values all along, an argument I make at length in Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education, a book which I think is even more correct in its diagnosis of what ails our public institutions since I published it, but which truly reads like a fantasy in the face of assaults like what DeSantis is doing.
Schools didn’t only lose a rhetorical battle over concepts like academic freedom, they lost a practical one that made them vulnerable to demagogues like DeSantis.
One has to believe it’s not too late for the institutions to embrace the core mission and sell that mission to the public, the alternative is too terrible to really contemplate.
 I’m going to consign it to a footnote because it’s not the point of this piece, but I must note that while it’s good that FIRE is filing these suits, they also played a role in seeding the ground for DeSantis’s political posturing with things like their inaccurate “Scholars Under Fire” database, which furthered the narrative of a “woke” hegemony at colleges and universities.