In the summer of 2011, I moved with my husband from New York City to Tampa, Florida. We had just finished graduate school and there were very few jobs going for academics. I was resigned to going back home to Wyoming, when I got a call offering me a two-year position as a visiting assistant professor at the University of South Florida, a large public university. I had never been to Florida, but it seemed a much better option than living with my parents. My husband started adjunct teaching at a private university in Tampa and, in 2013, we thought we had hit the jackpot when we were both offered tenure-track jobs. Since 2010, it had been all but impossible to get a tenure-track position at any university, much less for spouses to get them in the same city. Tampa, a city of 400,000 people, halfway up the Gulf Coast, was now home.
Florida has been a challenging place to live. I am allergic to most of the plants. The weather gives me migraines. The ocean water is often contaminated – sometimes with giant seaweed blobs filled with flesh-eating bacteria. And the heat! To make matters worse, Tampa’s infrastructure is always on the verge of collapse. Squirrels chew through power lines. There are giant pythons and house-eating, tyre-puncturing giant snails. But the defining feature of life here is the hurricanes. The anxiety starts days before the storm approaches land. Warnings go out. The two major highways are immediately clogged with traffic. Grocery stores run out of water and gas stations run out of gas. There are days of uncertainty and fear as you try to decide whether to stay put or flee to safety. Yet I have come to appreciate Tampa. I enjoy living in a large and varied city. And for the first few years, it was exciting to live in the swingiest of swing states. Teaching at a big public university can be immensely satisfying. It wasn’t easy to hand in my resignation earlier this year.
Ron DeSantis was elected governor of Florida in 2018 by a margin of less than 1 per cent, and for the first two years even those of us who had opposed his election felt that he might be an improvement on the previous Republican governor, Rick Scott. DeSantis’s policies included cutting the number of standardised tests that schoolchildren have to take and raising salaries for teachers. But during the Covid pandemic he vowed to keep Florida ‘open for business’ when other states were implementing full or partial lockdowns. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people moved here, shifting the demographics of the state strongly in favour of the Republicans (‘redistricting’ also helped), and DeSantis duly won re-election last year. It has been clear for a while that he is setting himself up as a potential presidential candidate. He wants to be seen as conservative and competent, someone who appeals to both moderate and hard-right voters, and who could challenge Donald Trump’s hegemony over the Republican base.
With his presidential ambitions in mind, and the support of a Republican supermajority in the state senate, DeSantis has sought to impose a far-right, Christian nationalist vision. His ‘war on woke’ has targeted educational institutions and teachers, who are accused of ‘indoctrinating’ children with left-wing ideologies. While such policies are not unique to Florida, under DeSantis they have extended to criminalising those who oppose them and asserting unprecedented powers in the name of ‘freedom’.
I hadn’t heard of the University of South Florida before I applied for the job. During my time there, the administration was desperate to make the university into a brand. Managers obsessed over rankings and over what they called ‘our aspirational peers’ – a fancy way of describing schools ranked higher than USF. We couldn’t compete with Harvard or Yale, of course: our aspirational peers were state universities with recognisable names and high-profile sports teams – the University of Texas, say, or Rutgers. When faculty members applied for tenure or promotion, they were advised to get evaluation letters from professors at these institutions.
The university management was obsessed with joining the Association of American Universities (AAU), an invitation-only organisation for ‘leading research universities’. Administrators spent an enormous amount of time and money figuring out how to join this club, and it seemed to have paid off when, in June last year, USF became the second public university in Florida to be admitted. The invitation came as a surprise, not least because most of the major public universities in the AAU were talking of a crisis in higher education after decades of funding cuts. The narrative USF prefers to give is one of uncomplicated ascent. The university president, Rhea Law, wrote to staff members and students boasting about USF’s ‘position as a top-tier university’. The theory is that a higher ranking will attract more students and more funding, but studies show that this only happens in states where education is valued for its own sake.
In the years before my tenure application, I was advised by my department chair that I would only succeed if I published books with the most prestigious academic presses and articles in journals with the best citation metrics. But there was no research support in the humanities and social sciences. We were expected to gain international reputations on our own dime and in our own time. Even then, the standards for promotion were vague enough that some colleagues were denied tenure for reasons that amounted to not conforming to the university’s image of itself. Though this was frustrating, it pales in comparison to recent tenure denials at public universities in Florida, which appear to have been based not on research and teaching, but on applicants’ failure to adhere to Republican ideology. The most egregious examples of this have occurred at New College of Florida, a small liberal arts institution in Sarasota.
In May, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a preliminary report on the state of academic freedom in Florida, which concluded that ‘academic freedom, tenure and shared governance in Florida’s public colleges and universities currently face a politically and ideologically driven assault unparalleled in US history.’ They cite the ‘hostile takeover’ of New College. Earlier this year, DeSantis named six new high-profile right-wing activists to the board of trustees, including Christopher Rufo, who has been among the most prominent agitators in the manufactured debate over critical race theory. DeSantis’s plan is to transform what the right sees as a hotbed of activism into a conservative, Christian liberal arts school along the lines of Hillsdale College in Michigan (Matthew Spalding, a professor at Hillsdale, is another DeSantis appointee). New College has long had a reputation for academic excellence and for the diversity of its students and faculty. One of the first orders of business for the new board of trustees was to dismantle all diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives (known collectively as DEI policies) and to root out resistance among faculty and students. When the president of New College, Patricia Okker, spoke out against these efforts, she was fired and replaced with a DeSantis appointee, Richard Corcoran, a former Speaker of the House who served as education commissioner during DeSantis’s first term. The only faculty member on the board of trustees resigned in protest after five professors were denied tenure by the trustees at the request of Corcoran, who wrote in a memo that he needed to decide whether the professors were suited to the new, ‘more traditional’ direction of the college.
New College appears to be a test case for the takeover of public universities in Florida. In a ceremony there in May, DeSantis signed into law SB 266, which prohibits spending on diversity initiatives at Florida public universities, including those concerning hiring practices and changes to the curriculum. The first version of the bill compelled universities to remove majors in ‘critical race theory, gender studies, intersectionality or any derivative major of these belief systems’. The final version was less specific, but sets new criteria for general education courses, which must adhere to conservative ideology. It states, for instance, that teaching must ‘not distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics … or is based on theories that racism, sexism, oppression and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political and economic inequities’. It also gives much more power over hiring and firing to university presidents and boards of trustees, sidelining faculty committees. The appointment of the Republican senator Ben Sasse as president of the University of Florida in January in the face of significant faculty opposition confirmed that New College wasn’t a one-off.
The adoption of SB 266 and similar bills has resulted, unsurprisingly, in increased self-censorship among professors. A 2021 law (HB 233) allows students to record lectures without the consent of the professor or other students, not only for learning purposes but also to be used as evidence in complaints against the university or for a criminal or civil court proceeding. The bill also mandates that universities carry out an annual survey measuring ‘intellectual freedom’ and ‘viewpoint diversity’ on campus. Whatever state legislators may have been expecting, the first survey was a disappointment. Only 2.4 per cent of students and 9.4 per cent of employees responded, and the results did not indicate widespread ‘liberal indoctrination’.
Despite the failure of efforts to expose pernicious ‘woke’ ideologies, the legal attacks continue. HB 7, more commonly known as the ‘Stop WOKE Act’, seeks to control the way subjects including race, slavery and sexism are discussed in the classroom by defining certain viewpoints as ‘unlawful employment practices’. Some of the examples include positing that ‘members of one race, colour, national origin or sex are morally superior to members of another race, colour, national origin or sex’; ‘a person by virtue of their race, colour, national origin or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive’; ‘a person’s moral character or status as privileged or oppressed is determined by race, colour, national origin or sex’; and ‘a person, by virtue of their race, colour, national origin or sex should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity or inclusion’. The bill also mandates ‘discussion of topics such as sexism, slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation and racial discrimination in an age-appropriate manner, and in such a way that does not indoctrinate or persuade students to a certain point of view that is inconsistent with state principles’. I don’t know anyone who teaches in this way, but academics who are perceived to be violating these directives can be fired by the newly empowered board overseeing all public universities in Florida and schools can lose state funding if they do not keep faculty in line.
The threat to funding is the most convincing explanation for the cowardice of the response of university administrators to this legislation. In 2013, the Florida legislature created a new category for evaluating and financing its twelve state universities – ‘performance-based funding’. Each university is assigned to a category, for instance ‘pre-eminent’ or ‘emerging pre-eminent’, calculated using ten metrics, including completion rates and median wages a year after graduation. This category determines the funding of each institution, and those that achieve ‘pre-eminence’ get to share an annual pot of extra money. The effect has been to turn the funding of state universities into something akin to patronage, and the focus on graduate incomes diverts resources to business and technology and away from the humanities and social sciences. USF has been so determined to maintain its ‘pre-eminent’ status that it has responded to De Santis’s ad hominem attacks against our ‘woke’ faculty with gushing emails thanking the state for allocating ‘historic’ amounts of funding and promising to conform to the new policies. Other state universities are behaving in the same way. The firing of Patricia Okker can’t be far from their minds.
The implementation of HB 7 has been delayed as a result of legal challenges (thanks in part to one of my history department colleagues and a USF student, who are among those suing the state on the grounds that the bill is a violation of free speech), but its implications have alarmed academics in different fields. What does it mean to teach ‘factual information’ about topics such as African American history or the Holocaust, without violating the decree that we can’t suggest ‘a person’s moral character or status as privileged or oppressed is determined by race, colour, national origin or sex’? It doesn’t seem likely that HB 7 will hold up in court, but it doesn’t have to in order to have consequences for state universities.
The exodus of staff is going to be damaging to the standing of the universities, as well as to remaining staff and students. It is becoming clear that finding replacements will not be straightforward. Beyond the bills targeting universities, the past year has seen the legalisation of ‘concealed carry’ of firearms, a ban on abortion after six weeks, and new bans and limitations on gender-affirming care for trans children and adults. Organisations from the NAACP to the Human Rights Campaign have issued travel warnings about the hostile atmosphere in Florida. For many, including trans children and their families, the only option is to leave the state. Even as we lament the loss of academic freedom in the classroom, it is increasingly unsafe for some Floridians to walk the streets and come into our classrooms. The USF administration waxes eloquent about the research and teaching accomplishments that have enabled the university to rise in the national rankings and receive admittance to the AAU, while refusing to support its academics publicly. At least USF professors have not, so far, been treated like the University of Florida professors whom the university tried to prevent (apparently under pressure from the DeSantis administration) from providing expert testimony on the effects of a 2020 voting law. An email from the university’s assistant vice-president claimed that ‘as UF is a state actor, litigation against the state is adverse to UF’s interests.’
Everyone is demoralised. The recently passed SB 256 bill prevents unions from taking membership fees directly from pay cheques, which Republicans hope will significantly reduce membership. The party has gerrymandered itself into a permanent supermajority in the state legislature and frequently blocks successful voter referendums, including the 2018 referendum restoring voting rights to ex-prisoners. We can express our displeasure to our elected officials, but nobody answers the phone or replies to emails. The many court battles underway will be lengthy and the Republican appointees among the judiciary are unlikely to step out of line. Leaving the university and hoping that others will leave too, that students will go out of state, local economies will suffer and the culture war will collapse under the weight of its own hypocrisy, isn’t a satisfactory form of resistance. But there are very few options left. The wind is picking up and it’s time to go.
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