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Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at a podium in front of the Florida state flag. A blue sign with white lettering on the podium reads: “Florida: The Education State.”

Governor Ron DeSantis spoke at New College of Florida last Monday, when he signed SB 266 and two other education-related laws.

The Washington Post/Contributor/Getty Images

Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s attacks on the state’s public colleges and universities have oft been characterized as part of his war on “woke.” This, however, is a dangerous reduction. To read events in Florida as one skirmish within the so-called culture wars is not entirely wrong, but it is insufficient. To see why that is so, we must connect these assaults to the radical right’s national campaign to consolidate its power—even at the cost of destroying American democracy.

DeSantis’s “reform” of public higher education is providing a blueprint that fellow partisans are eagerly emulating elsewhere. What is happening in Florida, therefore, is what is also occurring in Texas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Idaho, North Dakota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Kansas and other red states. The countermajoritarian agenda of the radical right is to fashion an autocratic regime that will secure its ongoing dominance when conventional democratic mechanisms, especially elections, no longer guarantee that end.

If this project is to succeed, colleges and universities must be stripped of whatever autonomy they now exercise and so become mere handmaidens of the state. To comprehend this plot, the analytic categories that continue to inform most left-leaning readings of American higher education, especially “corporatization” and “neoliberalization,” are no longer adequate. These concepts, it is true, have effectively called our attention to multiple troubling trends in American higher education. To cite but a few, consider the wholesale collapse of any significant distinction between higher education and vocational training, the emergence of academic capitalism whereby research is tethered to the imperatives of capital accumulation, and the incorporation within the academy of top-down managerial techniques where they do not belong.

Today, the phenomena designated by the categories of “corporatization” and “neoliberalization” have hardly disappeared. We see their ongoing appearance, for example, in a “fact sheet” DeSantis issued on his higher education plans earlier this year. There, he declared his intent to require Florida’s universities “to prioritize graduating students with degrees that lead to high-wage jobs” and, by implication, to steer undergraduates away from majors that might encourage critical thinking about the conflation of an education with its cash value. In that same document, DeSantis also announced his plan to mandate that Florida’s research universities expend at least $50 million each year for “STEM related programs, businesses or industry partners,” thereby promoting higher education’s ever more complete incorporation within a capitalist economy.

These categories, however, cannot adequately account for DeSantis’s hostile takeover of New College of Florida; his efforts to concentrate power in the hands of Florida’s Board of Governors, whose co-conspirators he names; his attacks on accreditation agencies that might challenge this amassment of state power; or his frontal assault on gender studies and critical race theory. These and other planks in DeSantis’s agenda aim to weaken and, ideally, eliminate the autonomy that is an indispensable condition of the university’s status as a site of free inquiry. The academy’s disempowerment is in turn part and parcel of the radical right’s antidemocratic gerrymandering of congressional districts; its adoption of voting regulations designed to disenfranchise its opponents, especially communities of color; and its manufacture of a federal judiciary that can be counted on to neutralize those who would undo its bidding.

DeSantis’s scheme to render public institutions of higher education mere administrative agencies of the state is readily apparent in the so-called Stop Woke Act, which he signed into law last year, and SB 266, which he just signed last week. Among other things, Stop Woke, which federal courts have temporarily blocked, prohibits faculty from inviting students to entertain the merits of critical race theory and hence to consider the structural underpinnings of white supremacy. SB 266 makes clear that Stop Woke’s ban on certain arguments is to be reinforced by mandates designed to ensure that all students are instructed in the eternal verities of the “Western canon.” Mutually reinforcing, injunction and command thereby reduce instruction to indoctrination.

If the university is to become little more than a mouthpiece for state ideology, its faculty members must become little more than its clerks. That this is what DeSantis intends became evident when the state’s attorneys responded to the legal challenge to Stop Woke. This statute, they declared, requires that “state-employed teachers may not espouse in the classroom the concepts prohibited by the Act, while they are on the State clock, in exchange for a State paycheck … The in-class instruction offered by state-employed educators is also pure government speech, not the speech of the educators themselves.” On this construction, just like workers in Florida’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, faculty members are ministerial underlings who cannot say other than what their employer commands. Florida’s public colleges and universities, DeSantis’s shills also announced, are themselves but “subordinate organs of the State.”

Florida is the leading edge of a broader national movement aimed at canceling the indispensable conditions of free inquiry, which is essential to the vitality of any democracy worthy of the name. Among others, the beneficiaries of education’s nullification will include those who profit from the comprehensive transformation of colleges and universities into workforce training centers as well as engines of capital accumulation, those who are threatened by as well as resentful of “uppity” persons of color and those who hope to keep women shackled by the burdens of forced reproduction. What is happening in Florida is part and parcel of a much broader agenda that is anti-labor, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, but pro-white, pro-Christian and pro-patriarchy. This is a project whose motto is “refuse to lose” and whose purpose is to weave together a devotion to capital accumulation, an insistence on ideological conformity and a concentration of state power.

Welcome to the Sunshine State, where, if we pay attention, we may learn more than we really want to know about the radical right’s design to fold American higher education within an authoritarian regime that mocks its avowed commitment to “promote and preserve” our “constitutional republic.”

Timothy V. Kaufman-Osborn is the author of multiple articles on higher education in the United States as well as The Autocratic Academy: Reenvisioning Rule Within America’s Universities (Duke University Press, 2023). He is the Baker Ferguson Professor of Politics and Leadership Emeritus at Whitman College.

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