Let Florida Try

The academic marketplace will decide if the state’s higher-ed reform efforts have gone too far.

[Editor’s note: The following article continues the Martin Center’s series on the status of higher-ed reform in states of interest to our readers. Please read our reports on Tennessee, Arizona, West Virginia, and Oklahoma. And check this space regularly for updates on reform efforts in South Dakota and elsewhere.]

Fueled by political ambition and a distaste for the new left-wing ideological agendas that have taken root on many college campuses, activists and politicians have sought to alter the landscape of higher education in Florida. In many respects, they have succeeded.

These reformers have focused much attention on New College of Florida, a public liberal-arts college in Sarasota that had a well-deserved reputation as a breeding ground of progressivism. The school’s extremism sparked the ire of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who often says that “Florida is where woke goes to die.” According to DeSantis’s chief of staff, James Uthmeier, “It [was] our hope that New College of Florida [would] become Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the South.”

Activists and politicians have sought to alter the landscape of higher education in Florida.In January 2023, DeSantis shook up New College’s board of trustees. Five seats on the board are held by citizen members appointed by the Florida Board of Governors (BOG), while the state’s governor appoints six citizen members. The remaining two members are the chair of the faculty and the president of the student body. DeSantis removed six trustees and replaced them with conservatives. He also pushed out New College’s president, Patricia Okker, and replaced her with Richard Corcoran, a Republican who had served as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives (2016-2018) and as the state’s education commissioner (2019-2022). The new board dismissed the college’s head librarian, abolished its diversity programs, and denied tenure to five professors who had been recommended for approval.

These decisions caused considerable alarm among faculty and students at New College. Many faculty resigned as a result. Amy Reid, a member of the school’s board of trustees, has said that almost 40 percent of the faculty resigned. This made the start of the 2023-24 academic year especially chaotic, as students scrambled to find courses to take. But given the weakness of the national academic job market, New College should be able to fill those positions over the next year or two.

DeSantis has made other moves intended to shake up higher education in Florida. In March 2023, the BOG approved Regulation 10.003, which required State University System of Florida institutions with tenured faculty to adopt a post-tenure review process by October 16, 2023. The review process will take place in tranches. According to the regulation’s language, “Each tenured faculty member shall have a comprehensive post-tenure review of five years of performance in the fifth year following the last promotion or the last comprehensive review, whichever is later. For faculty hired with tenure, the hire date shall constitute the date of the last promotion.” Each tenured faculty member’s home institution is charged with conducting the review.

There are several levels of evaluation. The faculty member must complete a dossier for the appropriate department chair, who in turn forwards the dossier and a letter recommending the faculty member (or not) to the appropriate college dean for review. The dean then sends the dossier to the chief academic officer. After the review process is complete, the chief academic officer notifies the faculty member, the department chair, and the college dean of the outcome of his or her assessment. The chief academic officer also reports “annually to the university president and board of trustees on the outcomes of the comprehensive post-tenure review process.”

Professors who give up research after tenure are prime targets of post-tenure review.The law also requires that an audit be performed by the university’s chief audit executive or by an independent, third-party auditor, as determined by the chair of the university’s board of trustees. “Policies and regulations adopted by the boards of trustees may include exceptions to the timing of the comprehensive post-tenure review for extenuating, unforeseen circumstances.” These exceptions must appear in the chief academic officer’s report to the university’s president and board of trustees on the outcomes of the post-tenure-review process. “If the auditor finds that a university is out of compliance with state laws, Board of Governors’ regulations, or university regulations and policies, the auditor must present the report to the Board of Governors at its next regularly scheduled meeting.”

Many professors see Regulation 10.003 as heralding the end of academic freedom. However, there are a number of professors who gave up research upon receiving tenure, and, given the language found in the regulation, they appear to be the prime targets of post-tenure review. If they are dismissed, it may not be because of their politics but because they are not productive scholars or have otherwise neglected their professional responsibilities, such as teaching and service.

It is, of course, unclear how many professors will be let go because of Regulation 10.003. There are guidelines that lay out what constitutes an offense that can cause termination, so the regulation will not lead to indiscriminate firings. Moreover, firing a raft of professors all at once would be very expensive. It would certainly trigger lawsuits. Hiring replacements would also be delayed while the process played out, which could take years. Such concerns could compel a university or the state to forgo making drastic cuts.

Florida is also making it more difficult to attract international students from a “foreign country of concern.” Senate Bill 846, which passed unanimously in May 2023, is intended to block any influence on Florida’s universities by seven countries: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria. This includes influence by “any agency … under significant control of such foreign country of concern.”

Because of certain ambiguities in the law, Florida’s colleges and universities are unsure how to interpret it. Although there are good reasons for suspecting the governments of these countries of harboring malign intentions, the law’s murkiness leaves some room for interpretation. Some institutions may err on the side of caution and no longer offer assistantships or fellowships to students from any of the “countries of concern.”

Florida is making it more difficult to attract international students from a “foreign country of concern.”Florida’s colleges and universities will therefore face increasing difficulties attracting researchers from these seven countries. Most affected will be the STEMM fields (the extra “M” is for “medicine”), which rely heavily on foreign faculty and students. Many excellent researchers who have no formal ties with their home governments could be forced to do research at universities in U.S. states with less restrictive laws. It is unclear how many students from the countries in question actually are researchers at the 12 member schools of the Florida University System or the 28 member schools of the Florida College System. Efforts to obtain these data have not been fruitful because the statistics provided by colleges and universities predate the adoption of Senate Bill 846.

Another change in Florida’s system of higher education has been the governor’s strong opposition to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and Critical Race Theory (CRT). DeSantis has been helped in his fight against DEI and CRT by the conservative activist Christopher Rufo, whose writings, speeches, and interviews have been a driving force behind DeSantis’s reorganization of New College and his assault on progressive racial essentialism.

DeSantis succeeded in getting a law passed to prohibit DEI. In May 2023, he signed Senate Bill 266, which bans spending federal or state funds on DEI programs. He also signed House Bill 931 to prohibit Florida’s public institutions from requiring students, faculty, or staff to take political oaths in hiring and admissions. For example, many colleges and universities screen job applicants by requiring them to include statements about DEI in their applications.

Yet, despite the ban on DEI, colleges and universities will find ways around it. They will conduct job searches in subjects that have greater numbers of non-white or women applicants, such as Afro-American studies or women’s studies. They can also ask applicants to submit statements outlining their teaching philosophy to see if these use language sympathetic to DEI. Harvard University even announced that it would seek loopholes in the Supreme Court’s affirmative-action ruling in order to continue its race-based admissions system.

Critics argue that Florida’s intervention into higher education is driving current faculty away and deterring others from coming to the Sunshine State in the first place. But without detailed survey data, we cannot with certainty determine the reason for faculty departure or unwillingness to relocate to Florida. Ultimately, the critics are telling a just-so story, one that fits a certain narrative but has no evidence to back it up.

Florida’s critics are telling a just-so story, one that fits a certain narrative but has no evidence to back it up.On this very point, the New York Times has provided only secondhand, anecdotal evidence: “The University of Florida said that its turnover rate is not unusual and remains well below the 10.57 percent national average. Hiring, it said, has also outpaced departures.” The Gray Lady reported that 37 professors have departed Florida State University, but it was silent about why they left. Some faculty may have left because they received better offers to teach elsewhere. Stories pointing to a massive brain drain from colleges and universities are probably overblown.

Hard evidence on this issue is perhaps hard to come by, but the New York Times made little effort to try to obtain it. The paper long ago dropped any pretense to objectivity. In this case, a negative story about the policies of the DeSantis administration appealed to the class and political interests of the paper’s overwhelmingly middle- and upper-class progressive readership.

It would be useful to know how many of these departing professors are in the humanities and how many of them are in STEMM. The humanities are relatively politicized, so it would not be surprising to learn that they have the greatest concerns about what DeSantis is trying to do. But what about STEMM, which is relatively less politicized? If faculty in STEMM are leaving in large numbers due to state politics, that could suggest that the problem of state intervention in higher education is more severe than would be the case if the departures were limited to the humanities. Or it might suggest that STEMM professors are in much higher demand than humanities professors and thus receive more and better offers to take their talents elsewhere.

Given the poor state of the academic job market, which has been the case for many years, Florida universities will not face insurmountable problems attracting newly minted PhDs. These new grads have few professional options: either teach in Florida or look to another state with more left-leaning politics. But an expectation of being able to choose the state in which you will find a tenure-track position in your field is an option available only to superstar academics.

Colleges and universities could have avoided much of this political backlash. Getting a college degree is very expensive. For some time, tuition increases have outpaced increases in the general cost of living. Many campuses have also become ideological monocultures where left-liberal ideology remains dominant. This ideological imbalance is a recipe for intellectual staleness. Many professors have added the role of activist to their CVs, which has made them lightning rods. A fair number of humanities professors have contempt for teaching anything of a practical nature, a state of affairs that can handicap their graduates in the job market.

Largely lost in the debate over higher education is a sober analysis of the balance that must be struck between academic freedom and the rights of taxpayers to ensure that students receive a rigorous education untainted by partisan politics and dogma. Faculty must have the right to speak their minds and ask difficult questions without fear of retaliation. By the same token, citizens have the right to insist that colleges and universities fulfill their mission by providing an education, not indoctrination. The data on higher education’s leftward orientation are strong. What we see in Florida is a citizen revolt against colleges and universities that have pushed too far in one direction.

Michael H. Creswell is an associate professor of history at Florida State University, the author of A Question of Balance: How France and the United States Created Cold War Europe, and an executive editor at History: Reviews of New Books.