Commentary

DeSantis reveled in U.F.’s Top 5 status; now his minions threaten its academic freedom

The state’s universities don’t exist to bolster politicians’ ambitions

November 15, 2021 7:00 am
University of Florida

University of Florida campus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to attend college in Florida. Higher education is under serious threat here.

Y’all will recall that last session Gov. Ron DeSantis and his legislative minions jammed through a bunch of policies restricting the use of drop boxes, restricting voter registration drives, and making it harder for voters to get absentee ballots.

I guess the logic is, if more people vote, fewer Republicans win.

Anyway, those who still believe in democracy, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, the NAACP, and Common Cause, have filed suit against this assault on the franchise, and three University of Florida professors, experts in voting rights, were set to testify.

But U.F. President Kent Fuchs said no — until bad publicity forced him to back down.

The damage, however, has been done. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the body that accredits the university, says they’ll investigate.

No accreditation, no federal funding. Not a good look for a Top Five public institution.

(UF is tied for 5th place among public colleges and universities along with UC Santa Barbara and UNC Chapel Hill according to 2022 rankings from U.S. News & World Report.)

U.F. is a center of vital research and great creativity, but it’s embarrassed itself with this tawdry episode. It may cost U.F. donors; it may also cost the university some of the best and brightest students and faculty.

U.F. brass originally proffered a basket of nonsense about how, if these experts — who, like thousands of other academics, have testified in court many times — were to tell the truth in a court of law, it might be a “conflict of interest to the executive branch of the state of Florida.”

Translated, that means intellectual freedom, the right of scholars to pursue the facts, might harm the interests of Ron DeSantis and his political ambitions.

As a university professor for nearly 30 years, now teaching at Florida State, it’s news to me that our job is to please or defer to the governor — any governor of any party.

Of course, colleges are always somewhat at odds with government.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Legislature established the infamous Johns Committee to root out “communists” and homosexuals from Florida’s colleges.

In the early 1970s, FSU’s innovative Center for Participant Education, a student-run “alternative university,” tangled with Democrats in the Legislature and conservative FSU president J. Stanley Marshall over a course called “How to Make a Revolution.”

Pushing the boundaries, interrogating orthodoxies, questioning authority: These are among the things faculty and students should be doing.

But if you produce only work that you think will pass muster with your political overseers, you are no scholar. You’re a lackey.

Fuchs now claims that all he meant was that the professors had to testify on their own time and that U.F. was committed to “our most sacred right as Americans, the right to free speech, and to faculty members’ right to academic freedom.”

Sure.

Yet, this isn’t the first time U.F. has tried to suppress its faculty.

Last year, four law school professors who signed onto a court brief opposing a state law making it even harder for former felons to get their voting rights restored were told they could not identify themselves as U.F. faculty — the only ones out of the 93 law professors from across the nation also supporting the brief who did not specify their affiliation.

This past summer, Jeffrey Goldhagen, a pediatrician and professor at U.F.’s Jacksonville College of Medicine, was forbidden to submit a sworn statement in a lawsuit challenging DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates in schools.

He did it anyway: “I’ve always made decisions based on what’s best for children.”

DeSantis denies any involvement in this debacle, using his habitual you-going to believe-me-or-your lying-eyes defense. A mendacious spokesmuppet declared, presumably with a straight face, “This is an internal U.F. issue and not the sort of thing that the executive branch would be involved in.”

She added, “Gov. DeSantis has always championed free speech, open inquiry, and viewpoint diversity on college and university campuses.”

Right.

No doubt it’s mere coincidence that many members of the U.F. Board of Trustees are big donors to DeSantis and the Republican Party. The trustees’ chair, developer Mori Hosseini, pushed U.F. to give Joseph Ladapo, the quack anti-masker nominee for Florida surgeon general, a highly paid gig at U.F.’s College of Medicine.

Republican anti-educationalists all over the state are trying to control what their faculty think and do. Trustees at Florida Atlantic want to take tenure decisions away from people who know the field and hand it to political appointees of the governor.

A proposal to institute a five-year post-tenure “review” is also making the rounds.

That would be the end of academic freedom — which may well be the governor’s goal.

If DeSantis knew anything (or cared) about higher education, he’d understand that we review faculty all the time. If you don’t produce or if your research is faulty or you’re a terrible teacher, you are penalized.

Just not on ideological grounds.

DeSantis has made it clear he thinks universities are the enemy, that campuses in Florida are “intellectually repressive,” hostile to conservatives, and that “liberal professors” try to indoctrinate our students into some kind of Marxist dogma.

We must be really bad at it: Florida keeps electing Republicans.

There are no votes in higher education. DeSantis knows that he can attack us with impunity.

It’s a political ploy, a way to energize the base. But it’s also another power-grab, the kind of attempt to control or repress every entity that might challenge his authority.

Xi Jinping would be proud.

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Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts

Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books, most recently Dream State, an historical memoir of her Florida family, and Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She lives in Tallahassee, except for the times she runs off to Great Britain, desperate for a different government to satirize.

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