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Projected declines in student enrollment. Reduced state funding. Demoralized faculty and staff leaving for jobs in the private sector. Questions about the relevance and return on investment of degree programs.

A series of headwinds bedevil higher education, requiring institutional and systemic innovation.

What we all too often find, however, are political leaders and boards of trustees who wish to lay siege to our institutions under the rhetoric of disruption. The decimation of tenure and the appointment of contingent faculty. An obsession over impactful student and faculty support initiatives that account for less than 1 percent of an institution’s budget. The appointment of controversial presidents with zero input from students, staff or faculty. The subsequent removal of presidents who receive million-dollar golden parachutes and a sinecure for life. Or the removal of presidents that result in lawsuits for wrongful termination. Or the departure of presidents after a year or two where a board basically says, “Oops!” With all of these unforced errors, our leadership faces no recrimination. Their response to the citizenry, the faculty, the students and the media is, “Mind your own business.”

This is partly why the recent attacks on academic freedom and tenure, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and institutional autonomy in Florida—articulated with astounding hubris through House Bill 999—have been so alarming and maddening. One could make the argument that the need for innovation in Florida is perhaps as great as in any other state. Within Florida, each of the most pressing humanistic and scientific challenges we face as a society are found in abundance—and in all of their intricate, multidisciplinary complexities. Extreme socioeconomic inequality? Check. The challenges of supporting an aging population? Check. Labor market demands for a culturally fluent and technologically innovative workforce? Check. Climate change? Check, check, check. These very real existential issues, affecting millions of people’s daily lives, are the perfect issues around which diligent, talented scholars from the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences could collaborate and focus their expertise in service of lasting, innovative solutions that would benefit the public. As a result, Florida could be an astonishingly impactful laboratory for innovation.

Unfortunately, however, Nero fiddles while Florida’s Gini Index climbs and Miami floods. Florida, indeed, has become a cautionary tale—a counterexample to everything we know about supporting institutional innovation.

As we detail in our recent book, Creating a Culture of Mindful Innovation in Higher Education (State University of New York Press, 2022), decades of scholarship on innovation conclusively show that autonomy must be protected and individual expertise must be respected to cultivate an organizational culture of innovation. Creativity, a prerequisite for innovation, transpires in an organization when groups representing a broad and diverse spectrum of backgrounds, identities, experiences and content areas are brought together and given the necessary resources to experiment, refine, iterate and implement their ideas.

But instead of incentivizing creativity and innovation by supporting cultures that would enable positive change, Florida’s trustees throw spare change at institutions desperate for scraps through performance-based funding—a discredited tactic that exacerbates existing inequities, incentivizes shortcuts and is all too familiar in today’s doctrine of austerity. If boards, indeed, have a fiduciary responsibility for their institutions and hold the public’s trust as the outward face of their organizations, then they have three critical roles: (a) encourage decision-making and input from the faculty (facilitate consultation, not isolation); (b) reaffirm institutional support for academic freedom (create laboratories for experimentation, not policies for disruption); and (c) support innovation without sending institutions into zero-sum competitions resembling Thunderdome (incentivize intrinsic motivation, not easily gamed external metrics).

Of course, the damaging consequences of Florida’s recent actions against higher education go much further. Through their ignorant attacks on academic freedom, shared governance and tenure, the state’s assemblage of dilettantish power brokers have casually dismissed in favor of innovation the vital importance of professional expertise, accrued over decades of disciplinary trial and error. Through their administrative coups at the University of Florida and New College of Florida, which appear to have been coordinated in secret or otherwise outside the light of the state’s sunshine law, politicians and trustees have ignored the necessity of transparency and institutional autonomy so that specialized political and business interests do not dictate or suppress scholarly work. And through their misguided and vindictive attacks on diversity and inclusion initiatives, “antiwoke” warriors have fostered a sterile atmosphere of alienation, rather than a fertile environment of inclusion so that diverse groups can inform innovative public policy and enable meaningful social progress.

In a sad twist, the inspiration for these higher education policies follows not from the significant intellectual and philosophical legacies of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Wilhelm von Humboldt and other influential thinkers who celebrated expertise, autonomy, diversity and deliberation in higher education—figures who would comfortably fit within the cherry-picked Hillsdale College curriculum that is purportedly serving as a model for the “new” New College. Rather, Florida’s policies follow the cynical, intellectually bankrupt, politically expedient and philosophically superficial strategies of autocrats who lack a genuine interest in comprehensive and equitable economic development, much less scientific progress. The autocrat’s preferred governance style of legal threats and draconian political control leaves little room for the free inquiry and open debate necessary for innovation. In fact, as researchers who have spent substantial time working in Hong Kong over the past decade, we believe Xi Jinping would find much to admire in how Florida’s leadership has strategically bullied the state’s most vulnerable individuals, as well as its most tragically underfunded public institution, to foster a chilling and repressive environment of job insecurity, distrust and self-censorship.

Mindful innovation encourages organizations to solicit input, share resources and maintain lines of communication. Discussion and deliberation improve decisions. When boards of trustees whimsically assert their authority over issues about which they have little understanding—such as what should determine a curriculum—they are reverting to a managerial style of the early 20th century, where workers simply follow orders. Contemporary problems require contemporary decision-making processes. Mindful innovation encourages consultation with disciplinary experts, as well as consideration and respect for impacted communities.

Ultimately, we predict that Florida’s leaders will not achieve their “master plan” in being best known as “the state where woke goes to die.” Instead of serving as a solutions-oriented laboratory to address today’s most challenging problems, Florida public higher education will be regrettably branded as an inert, myopic sector where students are deprived of an education relevant to the 21st century, especially as quiescent leadership rubber-stamps outdated curricula monetized by opaque corporate interests. Instead of leveraging its natural beauty and ample conference facilities to engage the world’s scholars in boisterous debate and the pursuit of truth, Florida will be an educational pariah shunned from hosting scholarly conferences and research collaborations of significance. Instead of incentivizing innovative development, Florida will alienate many scholars and extinguish the agency of those who are compelled to stay. Instead of supporting marginalized populations and celebrating its increasingly diverse population, Florida will be known for protecting disgraced and corrupt autocrats while serving as a toxic echo chamber for the politicization of imagined white grievances.

In short, Florida will be widely recognized as the state where innovation goes to die.

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