The writer has asked to remain anonymous.
History repeats itself with the governor’s attack on Florida’s higher ed
In 1956 a Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, known as the John’s Committee, was created as a reaction to Brown v. Board of Education and modeled on the efforts of Joseph McCarthy to root out Communists. The John’s Committee looked for evidence to connect civil rights groups, like the NAACP, to communism. When these efforts failed, the committee shifted their focus to target and remove homosexuals and the “extent of [their] infiltration into agencies supported by state funds.” Suspected homosexuals, both faculty and students, were interrogated, outed, and fired at a time when sodomy was illegal in the state. The campaign ruined the careers and destroyed the lives of many ensnared in it, both falsely accused straight and homosexual. The John’s committee also attacked academic freedom by singling out faculty for such “offenses” as the perceived discrimination against male students, teaching evolution, and assigning books they deemed “obscene.” If you’ve been following along with what Governor Ron DeSantis and the Republican legislature are doing in Florida, this should all sound eerily familiar.
It is no secret that Governor Ron DeSantis has declared war on education in Florida through authoritarian tactics targeting curriculum from pre-K to higher education. From book bans to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, he has k-12 teachers removing and covering up books to avoid felony charges and hiding pictures of their spouses to avoid termination. He forced university instructors to return to the classroom during the Delta variant surge, and students were asked to report non-compliance (virtual teaching) through a “course concern” button added to a phone app that was designed to report tips to the police, make emergency calls, and other functions that “improve their personal safety and security.” The Stop W.O.K.E. Act prohibits teaching any topic that might make students feel guilty based on race, color, national origin, or sex. He has declared war on Critical Race Theory (a concept he cannot even define) and asked over 2 million state college/university faculty, staff, and students to complete a survey that all experts agree would not clear the Institution Review Board’s process that ensures the protection of participants in a research study, to suss out our political leanings. There are many more truly fascist overreaches and mandates coming out of Tallahassee, too many to list. I invite you to listen to the Banished podcast “The Sunshine State Descends into Darkness (Again)” which covers Florida’s all-out assault on academia.
I am a queer contingent faculty member, and the chair of my department’s DEI committee at a very large public university in the state of Florida. I’ve watched as my personal liberties and those of my colleagues have been whittled away. The latest involves reporting of spending and resources used for campus activities that relate to diversity, equity, and inclusion and critical race theory initiatives, and collecting information about the faculty, staff, and students serving on DEI committees. In a separate action, DeSantis has requested information on individuals who have or are receiving gender-affirming treatment at Florida universities. These moves come on the heels of legislation passed to remove our promotion and tenure process from the departments and peer evaluation committees, and allow the university president or board chairman to fire individuals, without due process, clearing the way to fire anyone whose gender, orientation, or political views offend the political party in power.
Great. So now we are putting people on lists, and history has not been kind to people put on lists by authoritarian leaders.
We knew it was coming, but this week department chairs received the request to provide the names, email addresses, and “notes” on all members of departmental diversity and inclusion committees. This opens up the possibility of names (and notes) being submitted without our knowledge. Most of the people who serve on these committees are marginalized in some way and don’t have the protections tenure provides; committee service is always disproportionately assigned to junior faculty, and diversity work is nearly always assigned to the “diversity” members of the unit. We are afraid. What if that guidance on how to draft job announcements to broaden our search pools, or that statement my department chair asked me to write acknowledging the murder of George Floyd, offends the wrong person? Will I lose my job, or something more sinister? What is DeSantis going to do with this information? We do not trust him.
So, what can we do about it? Several groups of faculty are taking action by providing guidance in how to respond to surveys and other data gathering activities by the state, organizing responses to public comment periods, and building an understanding of academic freedom issues and how they impact ALL departments and programs. But these efforts won’t stop the governor and legislature from demanding lists and firings, nor the university administrators from complying. For those outside Florida’s education system who are concerned, please consider donating to Equality Florida or the Florida ACLU. Please also consider joining the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and please VOTE (and get all of your friends to vote).
DeSantis’s actions and this thinking are a disease, and it is spreading. Other states are watching what is happening and emulating Florida’s efforts to crack down on open discourse and inclusivity in universities. Education in the US is already faltering in international rankings. We need to figure out how to protect our faculty and students, and our academic institutions, before it’s too late.