From the Editor: Fighting for Higher Education

By Michael Ferguson

Students returning to New College of Florida this fall found a campus in the midst of stark transformation. More than a third of the faculty left the college over the past year, the Tampa Bay Times reported in July, creating large gaps in the curriculum. The gender studies department is being eliminated; the diversity office has been shuttered.

The radical reshaping of New College that began in January 2023 with Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s installation of six conservative trustees exemplifies what Jennifer Ruth, in this issue’s lead feature, calls “the campaign to control higher education.” That state-level project—drawing from a playbook developed by right-wing think tanks and inspired by authoritarian ideologies—now poses a profound threat to the academic profession through its intertwined attacks on the freedom to teach, tenure, shared governance, and institutional autonomy. The long-term repercussions of these attacks are becoming increasingly apparent. As Juliana Paré-Blagoev puts it in an article for our online edition, “What is happening at New College won’t stay at New College.”

Indeed, a recent survey of faculty members in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas conducted by state AAUP conferences and other faculty organizations suggests that the exodus from New College may be a preview of wider disruptions to come. Two-thirds of respondents said that they would not recommend their state to faculty colleagues as a desirable place to work, and about a third said they were considering seeking employment elsewhere. Among the latter group, 58 percent cited the political climate as a reason for wanting to leave their state, with threats to academic freedom, tenure, and diversity programs also among the top concerns.

For students, of course, the consequences of such a “brain drain” from states where higher education is under attack would only add to the damage already done by educational gag orders that stifle discussion of so-called divisive concepts and by attempts to ban support services for students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and members of other vulnerable groups.

What stands in the way of this dystopian future? Faculty organizing, as the authors of the “state dispatches” in this issue show, can push back or at least temper some of the worst pieces of legislation. Broad-based coalitions can consolidate support for higher education and counter the Right’s distorted culture-war narratives—especially important as we enter an election year. Above all, the AAUP, with its long history of advocating for the principles now under political attack, is uniquely situated to defend the academy. “In a perverse way,” as Ellen Schrecker writes in this issue, “the current campaign against the university by Ron DeSantis and others offers us an unparalleled opportunity to reorient many of the AAUP’s operations to reclaim our position as the main institutional voice for the academic profession.” Achieving that aim will require a renewed effort, of which this issue of Academe is a small part, to engage AAUP members and mobilize our chapters, state conferences, and allies for the continuing fight ahead.