Florida's College Presidents Should Speak Up or QuitRoundup
tags: Florida, Ben Sasse, Ron DeSantis, University of Florida
Robert Birnbaum is professor of higher education emeritus at University of Maryland, College Park, and former chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh.
College presidents can be influential voices in the public square when significant public policy issues are debated. However, they seldom speak out because their stated views could mistakenly be interpreted as the position of trustees or other college groups. This makes presidents quite cautious about taking public positions. I understand the dilemma, because I was once a university chancellor in a public system, and I learned to keep my extramural thoughts to myself.
But there are two exceptions to the general rule. One is when public policy directly affects campus life, such as legislation changing the legal drinking age. The other is when state authorities try to become involved in academic matters traditionally left to educational professionals, such as who should teach, who should learn and what courses of study should be followed.
That second exception is now playing out in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis is attempting to impose his will on public colleges and universities. He has signed legislation requiring the review of tenured faculty every five years and permitting students to record lectures so they can file charges against instructors they perceive as engaging in indoctrination. He has asked colleges to turn over data on diversity, equity and inclusion programs with the intention of reducing or deleting their budgets. He has accused the institutions of brainwashing their students to accept “woke” culture. He has appointed six new conservative members to the Board of Trustees of New College of Florida because this small, experimental liberal arts institution allegedly put “trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning.” The revised board then fired the president and hired a DeSantis ally as an interim president tasked with making a 180-degree change in the college’s mission.
It gets worse. DeSantis has put forward House Bill 999. The bill, as originally proposed, would prohibit funding for projects advocating diversity, equity or inclusion or critical race theory (CRT). It would increase trustees’ power over faculty hiring and tenure review and give the statewide Board of Governors authority to rewrite institutional mission statements and the legal authority to ban general education courses dealing with “identity politics.” College courses in American history would return to the anodyne curricula of my youth and would prohibit the teaching of ideas “contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” History would be cleaned up. Students could presumably learn that George Washington chopped down the cherry tree but not that the cherry tree had been planted by people he enslaved. General education courses in gender studies or CRT would be banned, as would any majors or minors that included them.
Presidents don’t have tenure in their administrative roles (although most, not all, may have tenure if they also have a faculty position). One Florida president (New College’s) is already gone. No one can tell who is next. Presidents may believe that although the current situation is challenging, if they leave (or are forced out) things could get much worse; perhaps it might be best to hunker down and operate as best they can within limits prescribed by the law, and things will eventually get better. They are wrong. We know from history that the more autocrats are tolerated, the more entrenched, assertive and demanding they become. The more power they get, the more power they want. DeSantis’s current behavior foretells a future in which many rights of administrators, faculty and students will be destroyed. He has said he is just getting started. Believe him.
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