Florida university leaders silent as DeSantis rages

Governor encounters some faculty and student pushback to his campaign of restrictions on curriculum and personal rights, but presidents and many academics cower in fear

一月 30, 2023
Person underneath a plastic sheet to illustrate Florida university leaders silent as DeSantis rages
Source: Getty

Florida’s university leaders are increasingly seen by their faculty as wilting in the face of escalating interference by the state’s governor, offering no apparent resistance as he expands restrictions on educational content and student rights.

Among his latest intrusions into campus operations, Ron DeSantis has banned the teaching of a college-level course on African American studies and has ordered institutions to report data on individuals seeking or receiving gender-affirming medical care.

The Republican governor has been announcing such encroachments into academic life with growing regularity since he took office in 2019, describing himself as waging a battle on behalf of conservatives against “the imposition of trendy ideologies” in higher education. The approach helped him to win re-election as governor last November, and to make him a leader in nationwide polls forecasting next year’s US presidential election.

Some academics and students have been fighting back, through acts of protest, refusals to cooperate and legal action. But university presidents have largely remained silent, if not showing outright support for Mr DeSantis’ agenda, as he uses his gubernatorial powers to reshape institutional governing boards. In the clearest sign of that alignment, the heads of all 28 state colleges recently endorsed the governor’s demand that they restrict teaching about the historical mistreatment of racial minorities in the US.

Florida’s university presidents are too afraid to speak out and “are frankly relying on the faculty union to preserve intellectual freedom”, said Paul Ortiz, professor of history at the University of Florida and president of its faculty union. “Unfortunately, Florida is a repressive state with a long history of consequences for speaking out.”

One long-time University of Florida faculty member, William McKeen, now professor of journalism at Boston University, agreed that Florida has an extended history of political interference in academia. That said, the severity now seems beyond comparison to anything in the past, Professor McKeen said.

“It seems to me DeSantis is just a guy without shame,” he said. “I just cannot imagine what it’s like to be on the faculty there right now, and I really feel deeply for my friends who are there.”

Yet there is no easy answer when it comes to an individual’s decision to speak out or quit, said another former University of Florida professor, Cirecie West-Olatunji, now director of the Center for Equity, Justice, and the Human Spirit at Xavier University of Louisiana. “People’s jobs are on the line,” she said, “and they fear that if they resign in protest, there will be few people left to resist the dismantling of inclusive education initiatives.”

There have been some instances of overt pushback, most notably the three University of Florida political science professors who successfully sued after Mr DeSantis tried to prevent them from offering expert testimony in court cases against the state. More recently, three Florida high school students moved to sue the state after the DeSantis administration rejected the use of a new advanced placement (AP) course covering African American studies.

And groups of students and teachers rallied recently at the state capitol in Tallahassee, protesting against actions that include the ban on the AP course and the governor’s call on state universities to provide him with data on individuals receiving gender-affirming care on their campuses.

“I can tell you first-hand,” Professor Ortiz said, “that folks are terrified of crossing the governor.” But the silence of the academy, he said, risked giving the general public “the illusion of consent” from university leaders.




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Reader's comments (1)

What, specifically, do you expect them to "say." He is the governor (which is different from US President, I remind you). But they are not (yet) following him.... What IS your point?