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Dark Times for Academic Freedom in the Sunshine State
We are critics of DEI initiatives. But DeSantis' method of fighting them is deeply illiberal.
“Typical DEI training includes unscientific claims.”
“The growth of DEI bureaucracies has fueled bureaucratic bloat.”
“DEI offices… are in fact a threat to academic freedom.”
We agree with these three claims. They come from a recent Manhattan Institute Issue Brief about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in public universities. The lead author, Christopher Rufo, is a pivotal figure in the nation-wide anti-Critical Race Theory movement and the brains behind Ron DeSantis’s wholesale efforts to remake Florida’s system of public higher education.
As professors, we have long been skeptical of conventional DEI initiatives. We’ve argued that diversity training is ineffective, often counterproductive; that the push for more DEI administrators has swelled the ranks of unnecessary middle management; and that DEI offices have a pernicious predilection to undermine academic freedom.
So we must be on board, then, with DeSantis’s new initiative to prohibit Florida colleges and universities from using any funding to support DEI initiatives? To the contrary. This measure, in our view, is inseparable from a broader assault on academic freedom in Florida. From the “Stop WOKE Act” to the installation of six new conservative trustees at New College (including Rufo himself), DeSantis and his allies are waging an aggressive, highly orchestrated campaign against faculty expertise, faculty autonomy and faculty governance.
DeSantis and Rufo have framed this campaign as a form of heroic resistance to so-called “woke indoctrination” and the “illiberal takeover” of higher education by DEI offices and left-wing ideology. But make no mistake: whatever you think of their diagnosis of higher education’s problems, the solutions they are advancing are profoundly illiberal in their own right and should be roundly rejected by everyone who believes in the powers of persuasion and the virtues of academic freedom.
The American Association of University Professors first formalized academic freedom in the United States in a 1915 report. The “Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure” placed faculty governance at the heart of academic freedom, asserting that professors hold the primary responsibility for educational matters ranging from the curriculum to hiring and promotion. The authors of the AAUP report were especially concerned about trustees and, in the case of public institutions, state legislators playing politics and interfering with the “unfettered” pursuit of knowledge. Academia, according to the declaration, was a place where expertise and professional competence should be the coin of the realm.
Expertise and competence don’t appear to count for much in DeSantis’ top-down, directives-driven program for higher education reform. On top of eliminating funding for DEI, key features include prohibitions against teaching CRT and “identity politics,” as well as a directive to align universities’ missions to “Florida’s existing and emerging workforce needs.” In a further blow to faculty-led university governance, the proposed legislation empowers institutions’ presidents and boards of trustees to “take ownership of hiring and retention decisions, without interference from unions and faculty committees” and “to conduct a post-tenure review of a faculty member at any time with cause.”
But academic freedom is effectively meaningless if faculty, who are the experts in their areas, are cut out from the hiring process. Presidents and trustees simply do not have the requisite expertise to make judgment calls about the needs and requirements of academic departments and programs. The fact that presidents and board members are increasingly political appointees (think the half-dozen new trustees at New College) makes these provisions even more alarming.
At a recent press conference, DeSantis justified his proposal as a necessary corrective to the left-wing “political agenda” currently being imposed on higher education. Rufo, who spoke after DeSantis, applauded the move to defund campus DEI programs, declaring that “the purpose of a university is not to push political activism.”
But the plan from Rufo and DeSantis is itself a multi-pronged campaign to impose a deeply conservative political agenda: an attempt to fight politicization with politicization. Watch this recent Rufo video titled “The Conservative Counter-Revolution Begins in the Universities” and it’s abundantly clear that he sees college campuses first and foremost as culture war battlegrounds. It’s high time, he maintains, that conservatives organize to “recapture territory” and “reverse” the alleged “leftwing ideological dominance” at public universities in Florida and other states.
Rufo declares that Florida is “a beacon” for other states when it comes to transforming colleges and universities. This is a genuinely frightening prospect. It’s not just academic freedom that is on the line: the basic integrity of public higher education is at risk. In a response to a recent tweet from Steven Pinker criticizing DeSantis’s culture war approach to higher education, Rufo, true to form, tells it like it is: “Sorry, buddy… We’re in charge now.”
What’s happening in Florida is a power play. While we are deeply skeptical of many DEI initiatives, we recognize that DEI needs to be reformed—and indeed transformed—from within the university itself, with faculty taking the lead. Even if you find Rufo and DeSantis’s criticisms compelling, top-down change by state diktat is never the answer.
A version of this piece was originally published on February 10, 2023 by Persuasion.
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