Ron DeSantis’ censorious higher education policies will not go well for Florida

We aren’t convincing the best and brightest to come teach or study here

October 23, 2023 7:00 am

DJ Spang, a student from Tallahassee Community College, joined a walkout at Florida State University to protest various policies for higher education from the DeSantis Administration. Feb. 23, 2023. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

The American Association of University Professors recently conducted a survey of faculty in Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas, finding the state of higher education in the South is not strong — in fact, it’s in crisis.

One-third of those surveyed say they’re looking for a job in a state that supports academic liberty, citing a political atmosphere becoming more toxic by the day. As one respondent put it, “An overall climate of fear of retaliation and mistrust is the worst I’ve seen in over 20 years in academia.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis appeared on the Florida A&M University campus on Feb. 24., 2020, flanked by university officials and members of the Legislature. Credit: Michael Moline

Two-thirds of respondents told the AAUP they would not recommend a colleague or a newly minted Ph.D. accept a job in any of these four states.

The number in Florida is much higher: 85% of professors would caution against working in one of our universities and 95% rate the political atmosphere “poor” or “very poor.”

This is not going to go well for the state.

We aren’t convincing the best and brightest to come teach or study here; too many of the best and brightest already in Florida are getting out.

Intelligent, curious people don’t like being told what they can and cannot read or discuss or think.

Instead of promoting the pursuit of knowledge, the state is weirdly obsessed with bathrooms, threatening to punish anyone who uses one that doesn’t “conform” with their gender at birth.

Perhaps DeSantis’ State Guard will deploy as potty cops to check the genitals of faculty, students, and staff before they’re allowed to answer the call of Nature.

Ever since the governor installed a gaggle of Visigoths and Vandals at New College, Florida’s once-celebrated liberal arts college has been hemorrhaging faculty.

More than one third of its professors — a rate its own provost calls “ridiculously high — have fled.

Students are also going: 27% have dropped out.

Ballplayer U

The regime of Richard Corcoran, the overpaid and under-qualified New College president, counters that with 325 new students, enrollment at New College is higher than last year, totaling 689.

This sounds good until you realize that admission standards have been lowered considerably and the freshman class includes 70 scholarship baseball players.

Former Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, now president at New College of Florida. Credit, Screenshot, Florida Channel

The University of Florida, with a freshman class of 15,000, almost 50 times as many, admitted 35 scholarship baseball players.

While New College is the most spectacular example of the DeSantis war on education, other institutions are also suffering. We won’t know for a while whether the big research universities will lose an appreciable number of students, but faculty are leaving the state at an unprecedented rate: Over the past year, at least 1,800 have resigned from UF while USF has lost about 200.

The Yale- and Harvard-educated but syntactically challenged DeSantis said liberals and the media will say, “‘Like, isn’t that bad? Is that a brain drain?’ Well, you know, if you’re a professor in like, you know, Marxist studies, that’s not a loss for Florida if you’re going on and, trust me, I’m totally good with that.”

Like, you know, this aggressive, like, ignorance is going to hurt, like, the whole state in the near future.


DeSantis is obsessed with remaking education according to his authoritarian tendencies, doing his damnedest to wreck K-12 with his army of book-banning harpies in “Moms for Liberty” and his Scared Karens legislation, and forbidding honest discussion of slavery and racism so as to never make white kids feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress.”

Now he wants universities to conform to his absurd anti-”woke” hysteria. Any institution he fears he can’t rule, he will disable and even destroy — as he’s done with New College.

Other targets

The rest of the state is in his sights, too. Earlier this year, Florida Atlantic had three well-qualified candidates for president. Suddenly, the search came to a screeching halt: DeSantis’ boy, the combustible Rep. Randy Fine, best known for his war on drag shows and threatening to shut down UCF, was not a finalist.

Fine, supposedly a Harvard graduate, desperately needs a refresher course on the U.S. Constitution.

He’s now pitching an epic hissy fit over students and professors exercising their right to free speech in support of Palestinians, demanding expulsions and firings, never mind that good old First Amendment.

The man has no business being on a small-town sanitation committee much less running a university.

U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. (Photo by Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images)

The University of Florida, our flagship, is the victim of political assault as well, battered by trustees actively hostile to academic freedom.

We have the chairman of the board, developer and Republican campaign bank-roller Mori Hosseini, to thank for imposing the anti-vax DeSantis lickspittle and quack Joseph Ladapo on UF’s medical school.

UF also hired the nonentity Ben Sasse, a former U.S. Republican senator from someplace far from Florida and even farther from reason, to be president.

In turn, Sasse hired a couple of guys who worked for him in Washington for top positions at UF.

James Wegmann, the new VP for Communications, and Raymond Sass (no relation), now VP for Innovation and Partnerships, have little to no experience in higher ed but will each make around 400 grand a year — the rewards of cronyism.


These two perfectly exemplify Florida’s “whatever” attitude to its state universities.

They say they won’t even move from D.C. to Florida.

So, they know nothing about UF or its students: But hell, how hard can it be to make crucial decisions for a large and complex research university from 775 miles away?

Sure, this is insulting; this is stupid; but it makes perfect sense here in DeSantistan, where thinking goes to die.

You will hear Ron DeSantis and his anti-education Department of Education boasting that U.S. News and World Report ranks Florida’s colleges and universities top in the nation.

That sounds great, until you realize it doesn’t mean our institutions are the very best when it comes to pushing back the frontiers of science or winning prestigious grants or changing the intellectual and artistic discourse.

Florida universities are good at all of those things, and excellent in some areas, but we’re not yet scaring the bejesus out of MIT or Stanford.

No, the U.S. News designation is about money: comparatively low tuition, a smaller debt load than most college students nationwide, and overall bang for the buck.

We should, of course, be glad of this. Higher ed should be affordable. But we must not confuse a good bargain with across-the-board academic achievement.

Copies of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” on display at a New York City bookstore on Nov. 17, 2021. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Faculty in Florida want to get to the top and are working on it — assuming we don’t get fired for mentioning white privilege or teaching “The 1619 Project” or maybe falling foul of some bathroom issue.

To the extent we succeed, it’s not because of DeSantis but despite him.

Leaving out the minority of kids who go to college to get drunk, get laid, and avoid at all costs anything that might expand their minds, most of our students hunger to learn.

These students live in the world as it is, not the world DeSantis and his terrified white nationalist friends want it to be.

They know he’s lying to them. They will remember.

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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. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo.