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A drawing of one hand extending a sealed envelope, with the word "RESIGNATION," in red, written over the envelope seal, to another outstretched hand.

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College presidents can be influential voices in the public square when significant public policy issues are debated. However, they seldom speak out because their stated views could mistakenly be interpreted as the position of trustees or other college groups. This makes presidents quite cautious about taking public positions. I understand the dilemma, because I was once a university chancellor in a public system, and I learned to keep my extramural thoughts to myself.

But there are two exceptions to the general rule. One is when public policy directly affects campus life, such as legislation changing the legal drinking age. The other is when state authorities try to become involved in academic matters traditionally left to educational professionals, such as who should teach, who should learn and what courses of study should be followed.

That second exception is now playing out in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis is attempting to impose his will on public colleges and universities. He has signed legislation requiring the review of tenured faculty every five years and permitting students to record lectures so they can file charges against instructors they perceive as engaging in indoctrination. He has asked colleges to turn over data on diversity, equity and inclusion programs with the intention of reducing or deleting their budgets. He has accused the institutions of brainwashing their students to accept “woke” culture. He has appointed six new conservative members to the Board of Trustees of New College of Florida because this small, experimental liberal arts institution allegedly put “trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning.” The revised board then fired the president and hired a DeSantis ally as an interim president tasked with making a 180-degree change in the college’s mission.

It gets worse. DeSantis has put forward House Bill 999. The bill, as originally proposed, would prohibit funding for projects advocating diversity, equity or inclusion or critical race theory (CRT). It would increase trustees’ power over faculty hiring and tenure review and give the statewide Board of Governors authority to rewrite institutional mission statements and the legal authority to ban general education courses dealing with “identity politics.” College courses in American history would return to the anodyne curricula of my youth and would prohibit the teaching of ideas “contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” History would be cleaned up. Students could presumably learn that George Washington chopped down the cherry tree but not that the cherry tree had been planted by people he enslaved. General education courses in gender studies or CRT would be banned, as would any majors or minors that included them.

Lawmakers have softened some of the most egregious aspects of HB 999 and its companion bill in the Senate as they have passed through the Legislature, reportedly due to concerns about accreditation requirements. But the revised bill still, with some exceptions, prohibits the use of state and federal funding to support programs or campus activities that “advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion.” The revised bill also continues to ban the teaching of “theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political and economic inequities.” Florida is creating a current-day analog to the Ministry of Truth in 1984 that declared, “Ignorance is Strength.” Faculty members must reconsider their courses to meet the fuzzy and opaque mandate that they not distort historical events or refer to identity politics. Remember, Big Brother is watching you.

This legislative and gubernatorial intrusion would compromise academic freedom and institutional autonomy. A college or university so restricted would find its mission as an educational agency diminished as it increasingly became an agent of an autocratic state. And the pattern is familiar. One of the first things that authoritarian governments try to do is capture and control their educational institutions. Germany and other fascist countries did it in the early 1930s. Communist governments did it after the Iron Curtain fell on Europe. Hungary is doing it today, and DeSantis is following Viktor Orbán’s playbook. Laws created in Florida to enable the political ambitions of one governor may serve as a model for other conservative states. Florida and Texas already appear to be converging in their attacks on academic freedom and tenure as both red states vie to be seen as the most conservative. Other states with Republican governors are almost sure to follow.

These efforts to undermine academic freedom and institutional autonomy have not gone unchallenged.

Faculty senates and other faculty-based groups in Florida have publicly indicated their opposition. Students have voiced their disapproval. The president of the American Association of University Professors, a guardian of academic freedom, has said, “The state telling you what you can and cannot learn[;] that is inconsistent with democracy. It silences debate, stifles ideas and limits the autonomy of educational institutions.” Critics have characterized DeSantis’s education agenda as a hostile takeover by the state, compared this state-mandated censorship to education under the Soviets or the Nazis and called it dystopian. The AAUP, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Coalition Against Censorship jointly declared HB 999 “would destroy higher education as we know it.” One opinion column in The Chronicle of Higher Education was headlined “DeSantis’s Terrifying Plot Against Higher Ed: Even conservatives should oppose the Florida governor.” But these opinions appear to have had little influence.

While faculty, students, higher education associations and the media have all condemned what DeSantis is doing, the presidents of Florida’s public colleges appear missing from the list of protesters.

As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education: “There has been no vocal, system-wide defense of academic freedom. Quite the opposite. Earlier this month [in January], the 28 state and community college presidents posted a letter promising compliance. The colleges would not ‘fund or support’ any practice or program ‘that compels belief in critical race theory or related concepts such as intersectionality.’”

I am sure that Florida’s college presidents are seriously concerned about what is happening to their institutions. Yet they say little. When Inside Higher Ed asked the 40 presidents of Florida’s public institutions of higher education for comments at the end of March, none of them would discuss DeSantis’s assaults on higher education.

Presidents in Florida understandably fear the wrath of a governor who has already demonstrated his desire to control the state’s higher education institutions. They recognize that presidents who challenge, protest or refuse to comply with the governor’s initiatives may be fired under state pressure.

They are probably correct, but presidents must be a bastion against attacks on institutional autonomy. They have a duty to speak out publicly about this impending danger. They should fight like hell to protect their institutions and should ultimately consider themselves expendable in a war against improper government interference.

Presidents don’t have tenure in their administrative roles (although most, not all, may have tenure if they also have a faculty position). One Florida president (New College’s) is already gone. No one can tell who is next. Presidents may believe that although the current situation is challenging, if they leave (or are forced out) things could get much worse; perhaps it might be best to hunker down and operate as best they can within limits prescribed by the law, and things will eventually get better. They are wrong. We know from history that the more autocrats are tolerated, the more entrenched, assertive and demanding they become. The more power they get, the more power they want. DeSantis’s current behavior foretells a future in which many rights of administrators, faculty and students will be destroyed. He has said he is just getting started. Believe him.

A governor who threatens academic freedom and institutional autonomy poses an existential threat to every public college in Florida, a threat that requires an equally drastic response. Presidents must be concerned, but what can they do? Individual presidents could speak out publicly to oppose these actual and proposed gubernatorial efforts. But autocrats have ways of quickly silencing single voices and using their silencing as an example to others.

Alternatively, the presidents could speak out in unison. While it is easy to fire one president, it is politically and perhaps legally much more difficult (but not impossible) to fire a greater number; for authoritarians, where there is a will, there is a way. Still, there is a nuclear option.

I believe the most effective strategy for public college presidents in Florida would be to turn the potential of being fired on its head by threatening to resign en masse. If all presidents are not prepared to do this—after all, some may be politically beholden to the governor—those that agree can form a coalition of the willing.

It may be that threatening to resign would be playing into DeSantis’s hands. However, threats of resignations by many presidents would send a powerful message that even an autocratic governor with U.S. presidential ambitions could not disregard. Mass resignations, if they come to pass, would be a suitable response fitting the degree of danger of the moment. It would recognize presidents’ ultimate responsibility to put everything on the line—including their positions—to protect their institutions.

The college presidency is a role, not a profession. In the academic world, being fired for publicly supporting academic freedom is not a disgrace but a mark of honor. It would likely raise the presidents’ academic prestige and reputation and make them more employable should they seek a presidency elsewhere. For those who threaten to resign and have their resignations accepted, there are many institutions outside Florida with unfilled presidencies that would be pleased to have them. For those who don’t offer to resign, they may have a difficult time finding a presidential search committee at another serious academic institution willing to consider them.

All that said, do I really expect Florida’s college presidents to speak out publicly or to choose the nuclear option? No. I think it is more likely they will continue to be unwilling, yet still complicit actors, aiding the erosion of the state’s higher education system.

Finally, in questioning my own professional morality, my older self must ask my younger self: As a chancellor many years ago with a family and without tenure protection, would I have offered my resignation in a similar situation? Gratefully, I had a supportive governor and a more benevolent Board of Trustees, and I was never faced with this option. But if things had been different, I hope I would have had the guts to view resigning as a professional imperative. College presidents cannot act as a governor’s water boy. If they are unwilling to sacrifice their positions to save their institutions, then what is a president for?

Robert Birnbaum is professor of higher education emeritus at University of Maryland, College Park, and former chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh.

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