What's Actually Happening in Florida Education?Breaking News
tags: Florida, teaching history, critical race theory, Ron DeSantis, New College of Florida
It’s been a dizzying month for higher ed in the Sunshine State.
Since the New Year, ahead of the Florida legislature’s next session, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Republican allies have ramped up efforts to eradicate “woke” ideology from public colleges.
The recent avalanche of activity began in late December, when DeSantis’s office requested that state colleges and universities list their spending on programs related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and critical race theory. Florida’s Republican House Speaker, Paul Renner, later asked the same campuses to turn over a mountain of additional DEI-related information.
DeSantis’s office also requested that state universities report data on transgender students, and he appointed six new trustees to the New College of Florida’s board because, according to his press secretary, the small liberal-arts institution has put “trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning.”
State leaders are not finished: They will examine ways to “more broadly curb” campus DEI programs, the lieutenant governor said last week. She also suggested that leaders would review general-education courses in the state, and she proposed to “further empower” university presidents to control faculty hiring.
In some ways, what’s happening in Florida isn’t new. For the past two years, state Republicans have passed measures that seek to challenge the way public campuses operate, including what’s known as the “Stop WOKE” Act that restricts how professors teach about race. Since at least the Red Scare of the 1950s, the campus has been a battleground for American culture wars. Conservatives, in particular, have long been suspicious, and asking public colleges how they spend their money is a well-worn tactic to underscore lawmakers’ control, said April C. Kelly, who studies politics in higher education at Elizabethtown College, in Pennsylvania.
But the extent of information — including employee names, salaries, and internal communications — that Florida’s politicians are seeking on DEI work does seem novel. “That’s a different level of state intrusion into institutional independence,” said Barrett J. Taylor, an associate professor of counseling and higher education at the University of North Texas who wrote Wrecked: Deinstitutionalization and Partial Defenses in State Higher Education Policy.
Complaints about social justice in academe go back decades. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the phrase “political correctness,” which is akin to “woke,” became widespread, said Andrew Hartman, a professor of history at Illinois State University who wrote A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars. In October 1990, The New York Times published an article with the headline “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct.” It noted that conservatives and classical liberals described “a growing intolerance, a closing of debate, a pressure to conform to a radical program” around certain subjects, including race and gender.
But the difference between then and now is that in the 1990s, conservatives used public persuasion, not legislation, to bring awareness to what they saw as problems, Hartman said. The current effort in Florida to curb certain university activities by passing laws and issuing requests for DEI-related information, said Hartman, is “ultimately, or at least potentially, extremely threatening to academic freedom in ways that nothing during the ‘80s and ‘90s was.”