The higher education reform movement, as pursued by Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature, has run into a heavy barrage of criticism from both the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) and Keith Whittington, who, though writing in his individual capacity, is chairman of the governing committee of the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA).
Normally, both organizations side with those of us who think reform is imperative. Whittington’s article, though, under an inflammatory title and an unflattering picture of the governor, is particularly damaging to the reform movement. He states that the proposed reform is worse than the disease it intends to cure: the unprecedented politicization of universities. What is going on?
The Florida bill in question, HB 999, is certainly flawed, as Whittington correctly points out in his article. The bill recommends, for example, that “Courses with a curriculum based on unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content are best suited to fulfill elective or specific program prerequisite credit requirements, rather than general education credit requirements.”
Whittington worries that this statement would make it possible to ban Plato and Einstein from general education courses. I believe that it refers to new social and scientific theories, not to the history of ideas, so Plato, Aristotle, and the like are safe. The word “theoretical” is clearly misplaced—the writers of the bill probably meant “speculative or exploratory” content. Einstein would then be safe, too, as his theories have long since been confirmed by experiments. Hopefully this small change could satisfy Whittington.
HB 999 also stipulates that the Florida Board of Governors “provide direction to each constituent university on removing from its programs any major or minor in Critical Race Theory (CRT), Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems.” And, in the same spirit,
General education core courses may not suppress or distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics, such as Critical Race Theory, or defines American history as contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.
However much I revere the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence and detest, by contrast, the tribalist, divisive ones of identity politics and, worse, the neo-racialist ideology promoted by CRT, I don’t think that direct intervention by the Florida Legislature in these matters would do any good. It may, in fact, backfire.
[Related: “End Collegiate Collection of Racial Data”]
If academic freedom means anything at all, it is the right of professors to teach their courses free from political intrusion. The fact that progressive politics has already corrupted academia is not a justification for conservative politics to do the same. The rot must be fought by other means.
Academic freedom, however, cannot possibly mean that professors have the right to impose their personal ideological and political preferences on their students, through indoctrination, political activism, intimidation, or harassment. FIRE and the AFA are as opposed to indoctrination as they are to classroom censorship, and rightly so. State legislatures have the right—indeed, the obligation—to fight indoctrination by insisting that courses present diverse viewpoints in a balanced way, that is, as fairly and accurately as possible following the highest academic standards. They should absolutely insist that students taking such courses can speak freely without fear of academic punishment or social ostracism. But how can these rules be enforced without an effective mechanism by which to remove from teaching those who violate them? Given the heavy penetration of wokeism in most universities, these violations are more encouraged than punished.
Both FIRE and Whittington are particularly critical of the fact that HB 999 gives boards of trustees (BTs) a primary role in hiring and firing faculty. Consequently, they worry that this will weaken tenure. Whittington writes:
A central feature of modern American universities is faculty control over faculty-personnel decisions. The independence of the faculty is meant to ensure that professional merit and not political favoritism [by which BT are often appointed] drives such decisions and that scholarly activity will be insulated from political pressures.
This may have been a fair characterization of universities sometime in the past, but it sounds out of place in today’s heavily politicized academic environment. I very much doubt that Whittington believes faculty have as much control over their personnel decisions today or that, even where they still have such control, professional merit is the only, or even the main, driver.
Does it weaken tenure to allow BTs to fire professors who betray the mission of the university through shoddy scholarship, faulty data, plagiarism, or inadmissible political activism and indoctrination in the classroom? Certainly. But is this an unmitigated disaster, as both FIRE and Whittington claim? The main justification for tenure—that it allows faculty and researchers to take unpopular positions, avoid ideological conformity, and explore risky, uncharted territory—is demonstrably false.
[Related: “Scholars Weigh In on DeSantis’ Higher Education Reform”]
Moreover, tenure has already been under attack—from the Left—at many universities, including my own Princeton. If the destructive forces of wokeism are allowed to continue unimpeded, more and more dissident tenured faculty members will be fired for trumped-up reasons, as happened to Joshua Katz at Princeton and as may happen to Amy Wax at the University of Pennsylvania, to mention just the most widely publicized cases.
Though I hope, and expect, that the new BT of the New College of Florida will greatly help the reform movement in the US, I am perfectly aware that BTs can also do a lot of damage in the other direction. Politics is a revolving door, and if the Republicans intervene now, the Democrats can do it too, in reverse, when they are back in power in Florida. But even if you assume that the Democrats are oblivious to the dangers of academic wokeism, an idea with which I happen to disagree (though they clearly believe that it works to their political advantage), how is their future intervention going to make things worse than they are right now?
Investing BTs with ultimate control over personnel decisions is clearly a risk, but, insofar as reform is (as I believe) inconceivable without external pressure, it is a risk worth taking. To mitigate the risk, BTs could be required to hire based on the recommendations of outside academic experts, chosen by the Board, and to fire tenured faculty only when specific contractual obligations are violated.
Ultimately, I seriously doubt that the reforms proposed by HB 999 can succeed throughout the entire Florida university system. There is simply too much resistance to change. We, the professoriate, treat tenure as a sacred right and will fight to the last for it. But, once its most obvious flaws are corrected, the bill may help create a few islands of excellence in the Sunshine State. Given the general dissatisfaction with the state of higher education, reform may then spread through competition rather than direct political intervention. In that sense, what is happening at New College provides, in my view, the best hope for change.
One can argue that weakening tenure would put Florida universities at a competitive disadvantage relative to other states. Higher salaries combined with an environment of academic excellence, a drastically reduced administration with no DEI, intellectual integrity, and true academic freedom can, I think, more than compensate for it.
May it be that Florida becomes the site of a new, unwoke Berkeley or UCLA.
8 thoughts on “DeSantis’ “Plot”: Not So Terrifying After All”
You aak a serious question.
But to me, that would simply replace current tenure standards with much less demanding evaluation. In some ways the worst of both worlds. I’d probably go for some sort of intermediate status for “career instructors.” Am speaking from pov of a research R1 type place. The local CC has tenure for the “career” people. I’m fine with that.
Really, tenure seems to me like a (dangerous) red herring.
“A central feature of modern American universities is faculty control over faculty-personnel decisions. The independence of the faculty is meant to ensure that professional merit and not political favoritism [by which BT are often appointed] drives such decisions and that scholarly activity will be insulated from political pressures.”
The flip side of this is that the faculty had a vested interest in the future success of the university — it was their retirement and everything they had and owned was tied up in the success of the university. If it’s reputation faltered, if it failed and was closed, they were screwed.
People forget about that….
Sergiu Klainerman advocating abolition of tenure in Florida is just as bad as the attacks on his colleagues at Princeton. (Sergiu Klainerman himself is not likely to lose his position at Princeton.) If this is academic reform, leave me out. A pox on everyone!
Not exactly abolition. Read carefully what is actually written.
When he announces that he’s left his own tenure-protected fat cat position at Princeton, I’ll take him more seriously — though he looks like he’s probably approaching retirement anyway.
Jonathan, what he wrote was:
“If the destructive forces of wokeism are allowed to continue unimpeded, more and more dissident tenured faculty members will be fired for trumped-up reasons, as happened to Joshua Katz at Princeton and as may happen to Amy Wax at the University of Pennsylvania, to mention just the most widely publicized cases.“[emphasis added]
Isn’t the purpose of tenure to preclude the firing of professors for trumped-up reasons???
EXACTLY what part of that sentence do you disagree with?!?
And not all of these professors are formally fired — it is possible to make a professor’s life so miserable that he/she/it has no choice but to resign. Look at the tragic case of Mike Adams for an example of this.
And then there are the tenured faculty (inevitably male) who are forced into retiring a few years earlier than they had planned to under incredibly questionable circumstances. There were two instances of this at the University of Maine at Orono a few years back.
So for a conservative, it appears that tenure isn’t worth much more than a bucket of warm spit — and no one is going to fire a trendy leftie — so why is tenure needed???
And why should conservatives defend tenure?!?
Because, Dr Ed, tenure makes it MUCH harder for them to get rid of faculty they don’t like. Ask any adjunct. Amy Wax would be long, long gone by now without tenure. At one point in my career, I was very publicly speaking out against diversity policies. I guarantee I would not have touched that with a ten foot pole without the pretection of tenure. The idea that conservative professors will do just as well without tenure is simply idiotic.
That is why these rightwing bullies want to get rid of tenure, so they can get rid of professors who don’t toe THEIR line.
By all means, stop wokeism, I’m all for that. But don’t confuse that with getting rid of tenure. The latter is just playing into the hands of the bullies.
OK, could you live with tenure being replaced with the civil service rules that (I believe) every state has — essentially “just cause” dismissal with a state civil service board that reviews (and can reverse) terminations.
I painfully know that adjuncts have no protections at all — and (at least at a public university) I see the state civil service system as being fairer to everyone. After all, they aren’t hiring conservatives to tenure track positions so why should we care about tenure?