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Ron DeSantis stands at a lectern that says "Florida The Education State," with the state flag behind him.

Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, last week at New College of Florida.

Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post via Getty Images

The American Association of University Professors released today a preliminary report sounding alarm about Florida higher education under Ron DeSantis’s governorship—and calling for academe to fight back.

“It is imperative that we pay attention to the dire situation in Florida now,” the report says. “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 they can. We are in this together.”

DeSantis’s press secretary responded in an email, “Florida is No. 1 in higher education, and Governor DeSantis intends to keep it that way.”

Multiple media outlets have reported that DeSantis will announce his presidential run today.

In January, the AAUP announced “the establishment of a special committee to review an apparent pattern of politically, racially and ideologically motivated attacks on public higher education in Florida.”

Henry Reichman, one of the report’s authors and a professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay, said he expected the final report to be done by now. But he said the issue was bigger than committee members had realized, the harm was ongoing and more harm may come this summer, when students and faculty members aren’t around to protest.

“The undersigned members of this special committee have interviewed more than 40 faculty members and a former president at multiple public Florida colleges and universities, and we have immersed ourselves in a dizzying array of documents and media reports,” he and the others wrote. “Our efforts thus far have led us to conclude 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. Initiated and led by Governor Ron DeSantis and the Republican majority in the state legislature, this onslaught, if sustained, threatens the very survival of meaningful higher education in the state, with the direst implications for the entire country.”

The roughly 17-page preliminary report focuses on what’s happening at New College of Florida, on “complicit” college and university administrators statewide, legislation, and the “chilling effect” produced by legislation even if it doesn’t become law or survive legal challenges.

This includes the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act, which DeSantis signed into law last year. It limits how instructors can discuss race and gender in public universities and K-12 schools, although its application to higher education has been halted by an injunction.

It also includes Senate Bill 266, which bans state dollars from going to diversity, equity and inclusion programs at public institutions and, as the report says, “drastically erodes tenure protections.”

The report says the Florida legislation threatens academic freedom, shared governance and educators’ ability to unionize. AAUP, in partnership with the American Federation of Teachers, sometimes acts as a union as well as the signature faculty professional association.

“This tripartite attack appears to be serving as a model for similar legislation proposed in other states where Republicans control legislatures and governors’ mansions,” the report says. “Similar legislation has now been introduced (and in a few cases already passed) in Ohio, Tennessee and Texas.”

“Academic administrators throughout Florida’s public university and college systems, from the highest to the lowest levels—without exception—not only have failed to contest these attacks but have too frequently been complicit in and, in some cases, explicitly supported them,” the report says. “While some individuals are leaving as a matter of conscience, those who remain face the prospect of serving as pawns in DeSantis’s corrupt patronage system. Moreover, disciplinary professional organizations and accrediting bodies so far have responded unevenly or not at all to the plight of the faculty members facing serious threats to their academic freedom.”

In every interview with Florida faculty members, the committee wrote, “we heard repeated complaints not only about the silence of their campus and system administrators but also about administrators’ direct complicity in implementing policies that would severely restrict academic freedom and faculty and student rights more generally. It is perhaps understandable that administrators would be cautious in their conduct, fearful that their institutions might suffer devastating retaliatory budget cuts from a governor and legislature that have demonstrated repeatedly their willingness to act vindictively toward critics. That said, the approach of many of the administrators appears more cowardly than cautious.”

The chancellor of the State University System of Florida and the chancellor of the Florida College System declined to speak with the AAUP for the report. A State University System of Florida spokeswoman provided a joint letter from the chancellors, in which they object to statements Irene Mulvey, AAUP’s president, made on Twitter and to Inside Higher Ed and The Tallahassee Democrat for previous articles.

“Since the president of AAUP has consistently concluded political interference exists in Florida’s higher education system, it is difficult to accept that the AAUP’s special committee will fairly and fully consider any testimony to the contrary,” the chancellors wrote. “As a result, we respectfully decline your invitation.”

Much of the report is focused on the New College of Florida.

“The governor and state legislature are using their swift, aggressive and ongoing ‘hostile takeover’ of New College of Florida as a test case, likely for its intimidating effect. This ‘takeover’ has proceeded through 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’ but also to use the takeover as a blueprint for future encroachments on public colleges and universities across the country.”

In an email, New College said, “These allegations and charges are patently false. Right now, there is fear of the unknown, but we are confident that concerns will subside once it is seen how all of the changes we are making at New College are moving us in a direction of improvement and future stability for our campus, as we become the best liberal arts college in the country. It’s a process and a time of transition and with that always comes resistance to change, but we are confident in the direction we are heading and we know others will see that progress, too.”

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