Defending the University as Idea and Reality: Florida as Herald

May 31, 2023 by Yasser Ali Nasser

Under the guise of fighting the “awakening,” right-wing lawmakers have launched a not-so-stealthy campaign to destroy liberal education as it is known in this country. Florida is leading the charge, and many states have followed, but resistance is growing. Governor Ron DeSantis launched an attack on Florida’s higher education earlier this year through two separate bills: HB 7 and HB 999. DeSantis signed HB 7 into law in March, with its apparent mandate to end discrimination in university classrooms. Of course, he does no such thing. Rather, it is worded in such a way that it stops most discussions of race, color, or gender, without which it becomes impossible to discuss a host of topics in the humanities and social sciences.

HB 999 is even more expansive and terrifying. The Florida Senate equivalent, SB 266, which broadly features the same wording, arrived on DeSantis’s desk in early May and was signed into law on May 15. The law is controversial for its goal of totally defunding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs. in public state universities. This would mean an end to DEI language and initiatives in college coursework, training, and hiring, as well as an outright ban on critical race theory and the elimination of entire majors, including Jewish studies and gender studies. Universities would be prohibited from funding or supporting any program that supports DEI in any form; Similarly, courses that rely on “unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content” would also be banned, likely with the goal of focusing courses on topics as broad as evolution, minority history, and gender studies. The law empowers college boards to review their faculty, including those with tenure, and teach courses on “Western civilization” and a more “patriotic” approach to US history and civics. I interviewed a group of graduating students from a Florida university about the effects of HB 999 before SB 266 became law. Fearing reprisals, they preferred to remain anonymous; all subsequent quotes are from them. According to the students, they feared that once the law goes into effect, it would have an impact not only on the academic culture, but on neighboring organizations at the university level. As one student commented, this could mean the “removal of various organizations from campus, such as Black and Latino student unions, and historically black fraternities and sororities.”

While ostensibly an extension of DeSantis’s war against the “awakening,” as seen in his escalating conflict with Disney World, it would be more appropriate to see this as a move to establish control over a much-debated field of American life: The education. Conservatives have long complained about the alleged dominance of left-wing ideas and progressive educators in higher education institutions, despite the paucity of evidence for that claim. Conservatives see the establishment of control over higher education institutions as a means to undermine resistance against conservative policies. By promoting views of history and social science that are more in keeping with conservative values ​​and beliefs and censoring “unwanted” content and courses, the Florida government is committed to completely remaking higher education along clearly partisan lines. As graduate students have told me, there has already been a chill in classrooms and on campuses across the state. Instructors have become much more “aware of what we say and do, making sure we are compliant with HB 7 and not in conflict with its requirements.” This, in turn, is likely part of DeSantis’ push for a presidential run and “to garner support from right-wing voters in other states.”

There have been other consequences. When he announced his legislative priorities and his desire to revamp Florida’s public higher education landscape in January, DeSantis took the highly unusual step of restructuring New College of Florida, a small public liberal arts college. He installed a new board of trustees filled with conservative pundits and fired the university president and replaced her with one of her own allies, without any input from the school community. The new board of trustees quickly denied tenure to several professors, despite having already obtained tenure approval in their departments, due to the perception that these professors hold “liberal” views. This will have huge ramifications for Florida’s education system. As graduate students told me, these new laws will ultimately “affect the quality of education, as many faculty and students will choose not to come to Florida due to the current political situation because they feel their jobs, careers, and education are not stable. The faculty’s proposed five-year review will also deter potential new professors or visiting scholars, as it demonstrates a lack of confidence in their educational ability and ability to teach difficult subjects.” Other than some relatively tepid responses from professional academic organizations like the American Historical Association, DeSantis’s proposed changes have not sparked much national discussion or outrage outside of academic circles. This is despite the fact that lawmakers in Ohio, Iowa, Mississippi, North Dakota and Texas, emboldened by DeSantis’ war on education, are also seeking to end tenure and DEI initiatives, and restrict the government of the faculty, or some combination thereof. .

It’s tempting to write this off as the problems of faculty, a tenured class whose members have failed to stand up for their fellow graduate or non-tenured students who have fought to unionize and resist university administrations seeking to abuse and exploit them. Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, has been pushing to end tenure for all employees in the state precisely because teachers lack “oversight” and cannot be held accountable for what they teach, although thankfully, for now, it appears that the Texas legislature has resisted. your efforts to do so. But this is precisely why the tenure model is worth fighting for. It gives scholars and scholars the freedom to teach and research controversial topics, forcing us to confront uncomfortable truths about history, science, society, and more. Ownership should extend to vulnerable teachers; It should not be the exception, but the norm.

There is a bigger problem at hand. We live in a time when the humanities and social sciences are attacked for not being “useful”. Skyrocketing tuition costs, costs of living, and an unbalanced job market have ensured that only a few majors, such as computer science, engineering, and the various degrees that feed into professional degrees like medicine or law, are considered meritorious. We can’t blame students for choosing degrees and classes that they think will help offset the high cost of education or provide some element of financial security. But what is the goal of our educational system? Is it simply to produce good and diligent workers or is it to give us the opportunity to explore our real interests and improve ourselves in countless ways, including as members of a democratic and egalitarian society? None of this is to detract from the incredible work that engineers or computer scientists do. We need them. But perhaps we need historians, writers, journalists, social workers, etc., in equal measure.

If the DeSantis model extends beyond Florida, where the fight against the “awakening” is used as a way to eviscerate humanities and social scientists and stifle free speech and research, higher education in this country will be in grave danger. The only solution is to broaden our scope of solidarity: teachers are workers, tenured or not, graduate students are teachers, and the wide variety of staff who help make universities possible. Plus, we can’t allow our colleges to be stripped of the communities that make them worth attending in the first place: the attack on LGBTQ+ students, Black organizations, feminist activists, and more is an attack on the idea of ​​college. same. Instead of striking or protesting at one school, we must take action in schools across the country to protest conditions in Florida and elsewhere.