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Governor Ron DeSantis’s agenda to transform education in Florida is sometimes deemed “unprecedented.” In fact, there are some important precedents for the changes that his administration is making in the state’s higher education system. Understanding these precedents helps to understand what is familiar, what is new and what is at stake.
Deinstitutionalization of Higher Education
In my book Wrecked (Rutgers University Press, 2022), I refer to the process by which a state undermines its higher education system as “deinstitutionalization.” That word is a mouthful, but its meaning is straightforward. Deinstitutionalization is the process of making higher education less central to society by compromising its institutional independence.
During the 20th century, higher education became institutionalized—a core part of modern society—thanks to a combination of public resources and public trust. Families aspired for their children to attend. A growing percentage of jobs required a postsecondary credential. The production of new knowledge through academic research contributed to vibrant cities and regions.
In this capacity, higher education was an institution, like churches or courts. Higher education was part of public life, but it was not an arm of state legislatures or governors.
Institutional independence is important to higher education because no political party has a monopoly on knowledge. For this reason, institutional independence is enshrined in labor practices like faculty tenure and governance arrangements like statewide boards, both of which seek to protect academic freedom from political influence.
As deinstitutionalization compromises institutional independence, colleges and universities have less latitude to pursue their missions. Instead, they may become focused on efforts to cope with immediate crises—what I call partial defenses. Eventually, campus leaders may even prioritize compliance with political demands over the educational mission.
Deinstitutionalization as Precedent
Thinking about events in Florida as an instance of deinstitutionalization helps to identify some precedents from the recent past.
Wisconsin from a decade ago is a good example. In a precursor of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, Inside Higher Ed dubbed former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker “a primary antagonist of the academy.” Walker told public university professors they should be “teaching more classes and doing more work.” Proposals to monitor faculty time were introduced. Many Wisconsinites came to mistrust higher education. Rising mistrust eventually underwrote efforts to remake shared governance and tenure in the University of Wisconsin system—direct forerunners of Florida’s undermining of faculty tenure now.
Efforts like Walker’s spread over time. By the middle to late 2010s, polling and research indicated that Republican and Republican-leaning voters increasingly mistrusted colleges and universities.
Republicans have voiced hostility toward many nonpartisan institutions, not just higher education. Yet colleges and universities face particularly intense scrutiny. This seems to relate to the changing racial demographics of college enrollment. Republican-controlled states tend to fund higher education at lower levels than do other states and make even deeper than average cuts when college enrollments are more racially diverse than the state’s population.
At best, higher education has inadequately and belatedly begun to confront its own racism. Yet the policy agenda of deinstitutionalization claims it has done too much, too fast. North Carolina offers another informative precedent. In that state, institutional independence has come under attack when University of North Carolina officials attempted to move a statue of a Confederate soldier or address racial discrimination through a law school center, not when they perpetuated the status quo. Similar patterns have been evident in Florida, where attempts to confront racism have been labeled indoctrination. The policy agenda of deinstitutionalization in these states is rooted in racial threat and racialized anger, which is unsurprising given the racialization of political partisanship and higher education policy making.
While there are some precedents for events in Florida, the Sunshine State has moved faster, reached deeper into the academic core and targeted specific elements of higher education more precisely than did its forebears. As a result, deinstitutionalization in Florida has been especially intense.
Officials in Florida have moved much faster than in other states. In Wisconsin, several years and an (unsuccessful) gubernatorial recall election passed between Walker’s assault on public employee collective bargaining and the remaking of shared governance and tenure in the University of Wisconsin system. In Florida, less than two calendar years have passed since the controversy over whether University of Florida professors could provide expert testimony in lawsuits. Efforts to remake public higher education in Florida are proceeding at a rapid pace.
Additionally, Florida has reached farther into the academic core than the states I profiled. Officials in North Carolina injected partisanship into governance via fights over appointments to the statewide board. Florida has gone farther still, selecting a sitting Republican U.S. senator as president of the University of Florida and packing the board of New College of Florida with political partisans. Florida officials have also meddled in the curriculum, proposing to insert new courses into the core and invited students to record and report the words that instructors use in the classroom.
Finally, Florida has acted with laser-like precision. The state has aggressively targeted any programs or courses linked to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, even asking for spending data. These efforts, coupled with the prospect of recorded class sessions, suggest that the state government wants to control speech on campus. Academic freedom in the state has been chilled, creating a climate of deep unease for anyone whose politics differ from the governor’s.
Why It Matters
There are many good reasons to deinstitutionalize higher education. Colleges and universities occupy seized land. Endowments, campuses and curricula grew from the enslavement of human beings. Outside of historically Black colleges and universities, and other exceptions in which colleges played important roles in social movements, the mid-20th-century period in which higher education became a central social institution was highly inequitable. Our current structures and practices, from hiring to admissions, perpetuate or even exacerbate these inequities.
Unmaking these social arrangements to create a more just and equitable higher education system is a laudable goal. However, that does not seem to be the kind of deinstitutionalization that is happening in Florida.
The last two years in Florida hew closely to the process of deinstitutionalization that wrecked other states’ higher education systems. Yet Florida is moving faster, reaching more deeply into the academic core and targeting individuals and programs even more explicitly than other states. In short, Florida is proclaiming its mistrust of higher education loudly and often, and it is backing up those words with actions that compromise institutional independence.
These loud and repeated proclamations of hostility to higher education seem to have found an audience. Indeed, Florida’s actions have resonated beyond its borders. Oklahoma’s state superintendent echoed Florida’s position on DEI funding, ordering colleges to account for “every dollar that has been spent over the last ten years on diversity, equity, inclusion,” and South Carolina lawmakers have followed suit. The College Board has been accused of revising its Advanced Placement curriculum for African American studies to comply with Florida officials’ objections (the College Board has denied the Florida Department of Education’s claim that it “removed 19 topics that were present in the pilot framework at the behest of FDOE”).
If rising mistrust triggers another wave of deinstitutionalization, Florida’s public colleges and universities will be in a worse position to face it. Wave after wave of these efforts could not only undermine crucial academic programming, but also the institutional independence that would allow colleges and universities to rebuild—a reality that some commentators have already discerned in campus leaders’ compliant responses to the state. Small wonder that students and faculty members have protested.
Being wrecked sounds bad, and it is. But sometimes a wrecked car is still operable, even if it no longer drives as well as it once did. In Wisconsin, North Carolina and other states that wrecked their higher education systems, colleges and universities did not become arms of the state government.
Will the same be true of Florida? The answer to that question will go a long way toward determining how unprecedented events in the Sunshine State truly are.