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TRANSCRIPT: The Sunshine State Descends into Darkness (Again)
Florida's all-out assault on academic freedom in higher ed
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CHRISTOPHER RUFO: One thing that I almost admire about the political left is that they want to achieve dominance and nothing less than dominance. And so I think it's fair to say that you have left wing ideological dominance in every public university in Florida, and in fact, virtually every public university in the United States. They're saturated with diversity, equity, and inclusion; they're saturated with critical theory or neo-Marxist theory; they're saturated with queer theory. What it all is when you bring it together, it is left-wing political activism.
AMNA KHALID: Conservative activist Christopher Rufo, the brains behind the right-wing movement to fight so-called woke ideology in public education across the country. Florida is ground zero in this battle.
ROBERT CASSANELLO : It looks like DeSantis is working around the clock to stamp out any and all free thought here in Florida.
AK: That's Robert Cassanello, University of Central Florida history professor.
This is banished and I am Amna Khalid. In this episode my colleague Jeff Snyder and I are taking a look at some of the laws and initiatives targeting higher education in Florida. To be honest, there are so many, it's hard to keep track of them all.
Couched in terms of viewpoint diversity and intellectual freedom, there is HB 233, which allows students to record class sessions without the faculty members consent; there is HB 7, most commonly known as the Stop WOKE Act, which restricts what professors can teach about race, sex, and US history; a proposal to revamp the post-tenure review process, which some faculty fear would weaken tenure protections; there's the controversial appointment of Ben Sasse as president of the University of Florida through a hiring process that lacked transparency and faculty input; there’s the installation of new conservative trustees at New College with the aim of transforming the state liberal arts college into a “Hillsdale of the South;” and finally there's DeSantis’ recent requests for public colleges and universities to detail all the expenditures pertaining to critical race theory and diversity equity and inclusion. Phew!
Of all these developments, the Stop WOKE Act has gained the most notoriety. It makes Florida one of seven states that have passed so-called “divisive concepts” laws aimed at public colleges and universities.
CHRISTOPHER RUFO: We saw policies from Donald Trump when he was president. We saw policies from Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida. We saw policies in state legislatures.
AK: Christopher Rufo, the mastermind behind the anti CRT legislative campaign.
CHRISTOPHER RUFO: These policies were successful. What they did is say, hey, we're gonna actually put guardrails on what kind of values and ideologies you can transmit, and we're now going to exclude certain ideas like one race is inherently superior to another race, or you should feel guilty on behalf of your ancestry or your racial identity.
AK: Rufo wasn't exaggerating. These policies really have been successful. But the question is: why?
JAMES GROSSSMAN: Rufo’s brilliance was to create a boogeyman.
AK: James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association. The boogeyman he's referring to is critical race theory.
JG: Each of those words is terrifying to a lot of white Americans all by themselves. Then you put them together and it's going to drive people up a wall. And those three words scare a lot of people. Now, by the way, they're moving from those three words to something that scares people even more, which is sexuality, and sexual identity. That's even more terrifying.
JEFF SNYDER: The campaign to root out alleged left wing indoctrination in schools and on campuses is not only intended to scare the American public, but to frighten and intimidate educators as well.
AK: My colleague Jeff Snyder.
JS: Based on media reports and our own conversations with over a half dozen professors in Florida, the Stop WOKE Act is having serious chilling effects on faculty members, especially those without tenure. From tweaking syllabus content and changing course titles to dropping courses altogether, professors are avoiding topics related to race, racism, and inequality. This past fall, University of Central Florida Sociology professor Jonathan Cox canceled two classes that included readings challenging the assertion that the US is a colorblind society.
“It didn't seem like it was worth the risk,” said Cox who is a tenure track assistant professor. “Somebody who's not even in the class could come after me. Somebody sees the course catalog, complains to a legislator. Next thing I know, I'm out of a job.” Cox's department chair said it's an absolute tragedy that classes like this get canceled. For the fall 2022 semester. The University of Central Florida Sociology department offered 39 courses. None of them focus primarily on race.
The stifling effects of the Stop WOKE Act, which is under a temporary injunction after a federal judge called it “positively dystopian,” have only been compounded by other state laws and directives. Imagine teaching a lecture course where thanks to HB 233 students can surreptitiously record you and then submit the recording as evidence in a formal complaint.
Consider too, the recent request from the governor's office for all 12 public universities in Florida to detail their CRT and DEI expenditures. Amanda Phalin, chair of the University of Florida's faculty senate argues convincingly that this directive sends “a chilling message that anyone who engages with topics that elected officials deem controversial is not welcome in the state of Florida.”
AK: For many, this moment may seem exceptional. Unlike anything that has happened before. Yet a glance back to the past reveals that attacks on professors and their academic freedom are anything but new.
For Robert Cassanello, right-wing activists and politicians continually return to the same well, dipping into a reservoir of fear and anxiety about the Other: Communists, socialists, radicals, civil rights activists, homosexuals, and professors.
RC: It's drawing from a similar place. This idea that there are these Others and these Others are making your life miserable in these ways. So that rhetorical frame I think is consistent throughout these different periods.
The Other is not only marginalized groups. University professors are the Other, the university community is the Other. I think DeSantis and his supporters in the Florida house and Senate see university campuses as this kind of foreign thing, foreign ideas, unAmerican ideas, that all germinate on the campus community. So in that way, I think that's what's connecting all of this. We all have targets on our back.
PAUL ORTIZ: Our campus has a history of faculty being fired for criticizing Robert E. Lee, criticizing Southern succession, being lesbian or gay, even being accused by students of being lesbian or gay.
AK: That's Professor Paul Ortiz describing the history of witch hunts on the campus where he teaches, the University of Florida.
PO: What would happen back in the day is you would see a blip in the local newspaper, and it would say a delegation of Gainesville's best citizens visited the president of the University of Florida and informed him that a faculty member criticized General Lee. The citizens of Gainesville have expressed their displeasure and expect that the president will act post-haste. So within less than a week that faculty is gone. Because if they stayed they would be brutalized. When we talk about LGBT faculty experience here we have retirees who can tell you what it was like to be a faculty member here in the fifties. Florida had a thing called the Johns Committee.
AK: The Johns Committee, named after Florida State Senator Charley Johns, was established in 1956. It rode on the coattails of McCarthyism.
JOSEPH McCARTHY: One communist on the faculty of one university is one communist too many.
Over the course of the next nine years, the committee expanded its purview to target students and faculty involved in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as students and faculty who were suspected of being gay.
PO: Basically how it worked was so insidious. You would get a call one day as a faculty member from the head of our police department, the police chief. We have the scripts. This has been done up in local museums. Really powerful, it’ll move you to tears, because the script was pretty basic. It was the chief calling you and saying, “one of your students has reported you for walking funny in class, and I want you to come down and answer some questions. And you have a choice, either you come into my office and answer these questions, or I'll just call the daily newspaper and just tell 'em you're homosexual. They'll print a devastating article about you.” That's how it went.
AK: As Emma Pettit outlined in The Chronicle of Higher Education, at least 39 faculty members and deans were forced out of Florida colleges and universities due to alleged homosexual activity in the late 1950s and sixties.
That number, Pettit reported, “doesn't include those who fled their campuses during the committee's reign, who decided that Florida was no place to make a life. It doesn't account for the terror of being hunted by your own government for the time spent wondering who knew your secret and who might tell.”
One of the cases that raised the alarm bells for the faculty in the 1960s was that of Marshall Jones. Professor Paul Ortiz.
PO: He was a psychologist. He took a group of students, UF students to St. Augustine to be with Dr. King. And basically when he returned with the students to UF, the punishments and the disciplines began immediately. The administration here did not want faculty or students involved in the Civil Rights Movement in any way, shape or form.
When Marshall went up for tenure, two or three years later, he had a unanimous, department vote. His college supported him, everyone supported him. And then it got to the president’s level. The president basically said: I don't care what these academics said. This person does not deserve tenure at the University of Florida.
JS: Returning to the current moment, we recently caught up with Ellen Schrecker, professor emerita at Yeshiva University. She wrote the book on McCarthyism in the universities: No Ivory Tower. We asked her how what's happening today on college campuses compares to what happened during the McCarthy era. Without hesitation, she said, today is worse.
ELLEN SCHRECKER: Why it is worse is it's an attack on the institution of higher education, especially on public education. State legislatures are pulling back their funding. It's gradual, but we were hearing yesterday about all the jobs where people retire and nobody fills them. And the adjunctification has so hollowed out universities that they're in a much worse position to defend academic freedom.
JS: In a recent article, Schrecker wrote: “The Red Scare of the 1950s marginalized dissent and chilled the nation's campuses, but it did not interfere with such matters as curriculum or classroom teaching.”
In this regard, our current moment is distinctive. Today's attacks are not so much an individual faculty, but on ideas…threatening the very core of academic freedom by telling professors what can and can't be taught in the classroom. In states like Florida, when professors step out of bounds, the institutions that they work for are threatened with funding cuts. This further erodes faculty autonomy by giving university administrators the power to police instructors and interfere in the curriculum.
Schrecker reminds us that we face a truly daunting set of interrelated challenges: declining funding for state colleges and universities; declining trust in higher education, especially among Republicans whose leadership has placed the battle against woke ideology at the center of GOP politics. Last but not least, an increased reliance on contingent labor. Today about three in four teaching appointments are adjunct positions. Compare that to 1969 when nearly 80% of positions were tenured or tenured track.
ES: The university is going to disappear; that’s what is happening unless faculty members really understand how endangered it is and take collective action together to make it clear that they know what the threat is and that it is going to make us into a stupid nation. The academy is going to be destroyed unless faculty members stand up and say, no, we want to fight for the American mind, for the freedom to learn.
AK: That was Ellen Schrecker and I'm Amna Khalid. You've been listening to Banished. This academic year, Jeff Snyder and I are fellows at the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement.
We're investigating the extent to which anti-CRT legislation threatens free expression and academic freedom in higher education. If you're a student, faculty, or administrator who's been affected by these laws, we'd love to hear from you, on or off the record, so please get in touch. Toodle-oo!
References & Links:
Will Florida's "Stop WOKE Act" Hold Up in Court?, Banished podcast episode, November 1, 2022.
Stacy Braukman, Communists and Perverts Under the Palms: The Johns Committee in Florida, 1956-1965, University Press of Florida, 2012.
Daniel Golden, “‘It’s Making Us More Ignorant’: Governor Ron DeSantis’s anti-critical-race-theory legislation is already changing how professors in Florida teach,” Atlantic, January 3, 2023.
Karen L. Graves, And They Were Wonderful Teachers: Florida’s Purge of Gay and Lesbian Teachers, University of Illinois Press, 2009.
Josh Moody, “DeSantis Aims to Turn Public College Into ‘Hillsdale of the South,’” Inside Higher Ed, January 11, 2023.
Emma Pettit, “The Inquisition: State intrusion on higher ed is nothing new. Decades ago, Florida lawmakers tried to purge campus ‘immorality,’” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 11, 2022.
Pettit, “‘Private Little Hell’: A Florida committee once hunted for gay people on Florida’s campuses. Sixty years later, the effects linger,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 28, 2022.
Pettit, “A Florida University Is Quickly Assembling a List of Courses on Diversity. Why? DeSantis Asked,” January 3, 2023.
Victor Ray, “Florida Man Calls the Thought Police,” The Nation, January 11, 2022.
Christopher Rufo, "The Conservative Counter-Revolution Begins in the Universities,” YouTube, January 12, 2023.
Ellen Schrecker, “Yes, These Bills Are the New McCarthyism,” Academe Blog, September 12, 2021.
Schrecker, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Adam Steinbaugh, “Why Florida’s betrayal of the First Amendment to ‘Stop WOKE’ should concern everyone, including conservatives,” November 29, 2022.
Cathy Young, “Ron DeSantis, Chris Rufo, and the College Anti-Woke Makeover,” The Bulwark, January 16, 2023.
“The Committee,” documentary film about the Florida Legislative Investigative Committee (or “Johns Committee”)
Florida HB 7 (aka the Stop WOKE Act)
Florida HB 233