AAUP Report Documents Assault on Higher Education in Florida

By Anita Levy

In December, the AAUP released the final report of the Special Com­mittee on Academic Freedom and Florida. Political Interference and Academic Freedom in Florida’s Public Higher Education System provides an in-depth review of a pattern of politically, racially, and ideologically motivated attacks on public higher education in Florida under Governor Ron DeSantis. The report reaffirms and expands on the findings of the committee’s May 2023 preliminary report, chief among them that academic freedom, tenure, and shared gov­ernance in Florida’s public colleges and universities face an ideologi­cally driven assault unparalleled in US history, which, if sustained, threatens the very survival of meaningful higher education in the state, with dire implications for the entire country.

The final report explicitly considers how long-standing AAUP-supported principles and standards are implicated in the political and legislative attacks on Florida’s higher education institutions and incorporates the perspectives of more than sixty-five interviewees, including faculty members, students, alumni, trustees, and former presidents and other university leaders.

Its play-by-play account of the right-wing takeover at New College of Florida demonstrates what the DeSantis-led assault on higher education hopes to achieve. Starting with the governor’s January 2023 appointment of six new members to the college’s board of trustees, the best known among them right-wing activist Christopher Rufo, the report details the ouster of then president Patricia Okker; the elimination of the college’s Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence and gender studies program, the latter in viola­tion of faculty rights as set forth in AAUP-supported principles of shared governance; and the new administration and board attack on tenure, which also violates AAUP-supported standards. In the wake of these disturbing events, accord­ing to the report, by mid-August some forty-one faculty members at New College had departed, more than 40 percent of the faculty.

The report further highlights the various manifestations of political and legislative interfer­ence in Florida’s higher education system under the DeSantis adminis­tration and that of his predecessor, Rick Scott. These include attacks on faculty academic freedom and tenure; the assault on the curricu­lum; the elimination of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs; the development of a patronage system marked by politically connected administrative appointments; the stacking of the statewide board of governors with Republican former political officeholders and profes­sional political operatives beholden to the governor and the legislature; the passage of legislation making confidential identifying informa­tion of applicants for presidential positions at state universities or Florida College System institutions; political and legislative attacks on the higher education accreditation system; legal challenges to public employee unions; and the broader assault on the rights and social gains of LGBTQ+ communities.

Among the report’s key conclu­sions are that the unprecedented takeover of New College of Florida and the imposition of an aggres­sively ideological agenda, marked by improper denials of tenure and a faculty member’s nonreappointment without due process, constitute the most egregious and extensive violations of AAUP-supported principles and procedural standards at a single institution in recent memory; that shared governance is in “mortal danger” in the State University System of Florida; and that the state government’s assault on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and on so-called woke disciplines not only reflects a blatant disregard for generally accepted academic standards of governance and aca­demic freedom but is also part of a discriminatory and biased attempt to undermine the rights of LGBTQ+ communities.

The report calls on all pro­fessional organizations, unions, faculty, students, staff, administra­tors, and communities across the country to fight such “reforms” tooth and nail and to offer support to our colleagues and unions in Florida and beyond.