University leaders must defend freedom against DeSantis’ overreach

Higher education leaders are often reluctant to enter the political realm, but now this prudence carries the stench of cowardice, says Michael Roth

March 17, 2023
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Over the past few months, Florida governor Ron DeSantis has succeeded in shifting attention away from the messy sleaziness of Trump & Company toward his own pugilistic brand of conservatism. In his cynical crusade against so-called liberal elites, he attacks small colleges, arrests people for trying to vote, eliminates diversity programmes, and now maintains that politicians should be the arbiters of how history is taught.

DeSantis is a menace to American higher education. His call to “reform” colleges and universities may be an effective political strategy for marshalling the forces of resentment, but his plan to shift the locus of decision-making about what is taught on campus to state legislators and governors would be a disaster. If he is successful, even the hiring of professors will be controlled by politicians.

As DeSantis’ recently introduced post-secondary education bill, HB 999, announces: “The president [of a university] and the board are not required to consider recommendations or opinions of faculty of the university or other individuals or groups.” The plan is for the faculty to be controlled by politicians. Even those with tenure are at risk: “Each state university board of trustees may, at the request of its chair, review any faculty member’s tenure status.”

DeSantis’ “anti-wokeness” takes frightening form in this bill. The Florida university system is directed to “remove from its programs any major or minor in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems”. What will happen to faculty who work in these areas of the curriculum, including the many who have research grants to continue to do research on related topics? As the Free Speech organisation FIRE (no hotbed of wokism) has put it: the “First Amendment doesn’t allow Florida law to declare which concepts are too challenging for students and faculty to discuss in a college classroom”.

The government should not get to decide what concepts are too challenging, and nor should it tell its universities which values they must promote through general education courses. But the Florida legislation does just that: “Whenever applicable”, their required courses must “promote the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization and include studies of this nation’s historical documents” – in particular, The Federalist Papers, the authors of which would doubtless be appalled by governmental attempts at thought control.

We don’t need the government to tell college students and their teachers what to think or what they can study. All members of a campus community should feel that they can enter into controversy without fear of being silenced or constrained. A commitment to the free exchange of ideas and pursuit of knowledge involves a wide range of protections for speech and expression, even when noxious or offensive. This commitment does not allow for interventions by government into what values must guide research.

As Keith E. Whittington has noted, “Florida may also become the proving ground for policy proposals that Republicans in Congress, or a future presidential administration, might take national.” Scholarly organisations and free speech groups are already protesting against these Orwellian measures, and university presidents across the country should join in and make their voices heard too.

Those who lead institutions of higher education are often reluctant to enter the political realm, but now this prudence carries the stench of cowardice. In America today, academic freedom once again needs vocal defenders: people who know that learning requires freedom from intimidation and censorship while also demanding openness and attentiveness.

But this isn’t only about academic freedom – it’s about freedom of thought and expression more generally. The latest Florida Senate bill to “register” bloggers who write about state government makes this clear, as does a wave of book banning. The spirit of thought control won’t stop at the borders of campus; it won’t be satisfied with attacks on the woke scapegoat. We must stand up against this governmental overreach before it’s too late.

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University, Connecticut.

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