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Cook Hall on the New College of Florida campus.

Alaska Miller/WikiMedia Commons

In a recent piece in The Atlantic, Tom Nichols argues that “Florida has a right to destroy its universities.” Governor Ron DeSantis, he writes, “has decided to root out wrong-think at one of Florida’s public colleges”—New College of Florida—“and his harebrained meddling will likely harm the school, but he has every right to do it.” I’m inclined to disagree with Nichols: even if a majority of Floridians approve of DeSantis’s emulation of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, it is not clear that this majority is either legally or ethically entitled to limit the speech of the minority or to dictate what they may or may not study.

For the sake of argument, however, I am prepared to grant Nichols’s point, since it raises a different but consequential question: If Florida has the right to destroy its universities, do those universities have any particular right to be accredited?

Accreditation in the United States is fragmented and imperfect but remains one of the few mechanisms through which we attempt to guarantee some level of educational integrity and consistency across a large and diverse array of institutions. It is also deeply consequential: students at unaccredited colleges are ineligible for federal financial aid and find it almost impossible to transfer credits or be admitted into graduate and professional programs.

Public colleges and universities in Florida are now accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), one of seven regional accrediting commissions and the one that handles most institutions in the South from Virginia to Texas. In what appears now to be a move in anticipation of trouble, Florida officials began exploring in recent months a switch to a new accreditor, reportedly a response to concerns raised by SACSCOC about conflicts of interest, political interference and threats to academic freedom in the state. We know now that any earlier concerns were more than justified.

None of the commissions has a sterling record of pulling the accreditation of institutions that fail to meet the stated standards for accreditation. Still, it is worth pointing out the reasons why SACSCOC should take a very close look at the situation at New College and in Florida more generally. Deviating slightly from the standards for accreditation is one thing; ignoring them altogether—treating them with what might be described as aggressive disdain—is something else entirely.

Like all the accrediting commissions, SACSCOC publishes a detailed list of “Principles of Accreditation”—essentially the standards an institution must meet in order to receive a stamp of approval. It also publishes a resource manual for institutions with additional notes and rationale for the various principles. In relation to Section 4.2.b of these principles, the manual states, in part:

Effective governance includes clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of the governing board, administration, and faculty and ensuring that each of these groups adheres to their appropriate roles and responsibilities. While it is important that the overall mission and overarching policies of the institution are approved by the board, the administration and implementation of the general direction set by the board are carried out by the administration and faculty in order to prevent the board from undercutting the authority of the president and other members of the administration and faculty, thereby creating an unhealthy and unworkable governance structure.

Here is Christopher Rufo, the most outspoken of DeSantis’s recent six appointees to the board of New College: “We’re going to be conducting a top-down restructuring … design a new core curriculum from scratch” and “encode it in a new academic master plan.” Academic departments and programs, Rufo said, “are going to look very different in the next 120 days.”

DeSantis and Rufo in particular have been transparent about their intention to wrest control of everything from academic programs to student support services away from the administration and the faculty and to have them shaped by the newly politicized board. I would invite the SACSCOC to consider whether this represents the “appropriate” role and responsibilities of a board or is conducive to a healthy and workable governance structure.

Here is an excerpt from SACSCOC’s resource manual in relation to section 4.2.f of the Principles of Accreditation:

Effective governing boards adhere to the laws and regulations that underpin the institution’s legitimacy while championing its right to operate without unreasonable intrusions by governmental and nongovernmental agencies and entities. This applies to any governing board, whether public, private not-for-profit, or private for-profit. The board protects and preserves the institution’s independence from outside pressures.

“Undue” influence does not mean “no” influence. Elected officials, corporate offices, alumni associations and religious denominational bodies are examples of persons or bodies that appropriately have interests in the activities of related colleges and universities. However, the governing board of the institution has been vested with the authority to make decisions regarding the institution, and no outside person, board or religious or legislative body should be in a position to interfere with the governing board’s ultimate authority to fulfill its responsibilities or to interfere in the operations of the institution (my emphasis).

“Independence from outside pressures”: no comment here is really necessary, is it?

Section 6.2.c speaks in part to the role of the faculty in overseeing the curriculum. SACSCOC’s resource manual for institutions states:

Because student learning is central to the institution’s mission and educational degrees, the faculty has responsibility for directing the learning enterprise, including overseeing and coordinating educational programs to assure that each contains essential curricular components, has appropriate content and pedagogy, and maintains discipline currency.

Another new board member, Eddie Speir, has written that the board should create a committee to review the curriculum and should reject what he describes as “aspects of wokeness”—a term that he likes to repeat as often as possible—“that are dogmatic.” Such aspects, he wrote, “should not be incorporated into a curriculum, nor supported through school sponsored programs or activities. One example of a dogmatic expression of wokeness is the assertion that America and its institutions are systemically racist and must be torn down.”

I suspect Speir misses the irony of his resolutely dogmatic objection to dogmatism and commend the full text of his published comments to the attention of the officials at SACSCOC.

Perhaps most important, section 6.4 addresses the nature and necessity of academic freedom:

The essential role of institutions of higher education is the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. Academic freedom respects the dignity and rights of others while fostering intellectual freedom of faculty to teach, research, and publish. Responsible academic freedom enriches the contributions of higher education to society.

The systematic dismantling of any semblance of academic freedom at New College and more broadly at public colleges and universities in Florida is being carried out with an almost gleeful enthusiasm and with little attempt to disguise itself. As just one of many examples, DeSantis championed and signed the Stop WOKE Act last year, restricting faculty discussions about race in the classroom. In temporarily blocking the act’s enforcement in higher education settings last year, a federal judge found that the law “officially bans professors from expressing disfavored viewpoints in university classrooms while permitting unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints.” Judge Mark. E. Walker continued, “Defendants argue that, under this Act, professors enjoy ‘academic freedom’ so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the State approves. This is positively dystopian.

I submit that the accreditation of the new version of New College would in effect render the criteria for accreditation meaningless. SACSCOC and any other regional accrediting commissions approached by officials in Florida should examine closely the conflict between their published standards and actions that are inconsistent with those standards—actions that the state has taken no pains whatsoever to conceal.

It may be that DeSantis, assisted by the likes of new New College trustees Rufo and Speir, has the power to erase in Florida the histories of oppressed people, prevent the teaching of ideas he finds objectionable and punish those who dissent. Ultimately this will be a question for the courts to decide, a reality that inspires less confidence than one would hope. What he does not have, what he should never have, is the power to confer legitimacy on his distorted and politically expedient version of higher education.

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