Gov. Ron DeSantis talks during a press conference before signing legislation. Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times/AP

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On Wednesday, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis expected to announce he’s entering the 2024 presidential race in the evening, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released a damning report on the state of higher education in the potential candidate’s home state. “Academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance in Florida’s public colleges and universities,” the association concluded, “face a politically and ideologically driven assault unparalleled in US history.” The “onslaught” led by DeSantis and the Republican-led legislature “threatens the very survival of meaningful higher education in the state, with dire implications for the entire country.” 

A special committee established by the AAUP earlier this year interviewed more than 40 faculty members at several Florida institutions of higher education to “review an apparent pattern of politically, racially, and ideologically motivated attacks.” Interviewees described the reality in Florida as “Orwellian.”

“There is literally not a class I teach where I am not somehow violating policies and laws,” one tenured law professor said. Some reported that faculty of color or in the social sciences field are seeking to quit; other said candidates are turning down offers. The University of Florida’s Levin College of Law reportedly “can’t recruit anyone but white men.”

One self-identified conservative and devout Christian professor at the University of Florida sent an email to his colleagues that read: “Bottom line: Big Brother is watching. He is taking names. I’m on their ‘woke’ list! I’m the faculty advisor for the Federalist Society, for the Law School Republicans, and for the Christian Legal Society. If they find me threatening, the rest of you are dead in the water. Be wary and be aware. If I don’t have academic freedom, neither do you. If you don’t, neither do I. We are in this together.” Others interviewed spoke of the state as “a canary in a coal mine.”

Among the findings was the fact that the governor and the state legislature are using the “hostile takeover” of New College, a small 700-student liberal arts college in Sarasota, as a “test case.” In January, DeSantis appointed six conservative members to the board of trustees of New College, including conservative activist Christopher Rufo, who tweeted at the time: “We are now over the walls and ready to transform higher education from within.” The new majority has since fired then-incumbent President Patricia Okker (moving to replace her with DeSantis’ former Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran); eliminated the office of outreach and inclusive excellence; and dismissed the chief diversity officer (who uses ze/zir pronouns) as well as a librarian who is a member of the LGBTQ community.

In April, five faculty members were denied tenure, prompting the board’s faculty representative to resign on the spot. “This is just one step in the downfall of higher education in Florida,” the New College chapter of United Faculty of Florida wrote in a statement. The overarching goal is to shape New College after Hillsdale College, a Michigan-based Christian classic liberal arts school. It is also, the AAUP report says, meant to serve as “a blueprint for future encroachments on public colleges and universities across the country.”

The association also notes that a series of legislative and executive efforts in Florida amount to a “systematic effort to dictate and enforce conformity.” That includes a bill from 2021 allowing students to record lectures as potential evidence in a complaint or lawsuit and mandating “Intellectual Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity Assessment,” as well as another called the Stop WOKE Act and made into law in April 2022 that restricts what can be discussed in classrooms and workplaces. For now, its implementation in higher ed has been blocked in court. A judge called it “positively dystopian.”

More recently, the governor signed sweeping legislation barring funding to diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, attacking tenure protection, and instructing the board of governors to review courses “based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States.” These measures, the AAUP report finds, “undermine basic and long-standing principles of academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance” and are having a “chilling effect” on faculty and leading to “self-censorship and fear.” 

“What is happening in Florida,” the report concludes, “will not stay in Florida.” 

Isabela Dias

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