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Executive director's corner / Fear and loathing in Florida

Executive director's corner / Fear and loathing in Florida

By David Robinson

There has been a lot of horrendous higher education legislation proposed in the US in recent years, but the state of Florida may have just set a new low.

House Bill 999 was introduced in the Florida legislature in late February. It comes on the heels of other bills seeking to ban the teaching of critical race theory or muzzling faculty from testifying against state laws.

The latest bill represents a wholesale assault on academic freedom, tenure and institutional autonomy. It would cut funding for equity programs at state institutions and prevent universities and colleges from “using diversity, equity, and inclusion statements, Critical Race Theory rhetoric, or other forms of political identity filters as part of the hiring process.”

The bill would grant boards and presidents almost unilateral hiring power by specifying that the “president and the board are not required to consider recommendations or opinions of faculty of the university” when making appointments.

If that wasn’t enough, the bill also gives boards the power to review a faculty member’s tenure status at any time. That effectively removes any real meaning from tenure, the procedural safeguard for academic freedom.

Amanda Phalin, chair of the University of Florida Faculty Senate, warned that the bill “essentially strips academic freedom away from the universities and turns the state university system into a political entity that will be completely controlled by whomever is elected in Tallahassee.”

The president of the United Faculty of Florida, Andrew Gothard, predicted the bill would lead to an exodus of faculty and students from Florida. He rightly accused the Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, of hypocrisy by, on the one hand, railing against the alleged indoctrination of students while, on the other, seeking to do the same by prohibiting the teaching of race and gender studies.

It might be tempting for us in Canada to dismiss all of this as just another example of the messy and polarizing culture war waging in the US. But that would be a mistake. We are not entirely immune from the political assault on higher education we are seeing in Florida. While not as extreme, we have nevertheless witnessed an increasing tendency of our governments to meddle in the internal affairs of institutions.

Pushing back against government intrusion into universities and colleges is not something we can solve at the bargaining table. It requires a political response and likely more militant action on our part.

So far, the students and academic staff in Florida have led the fight-back against the attacks on higher education. Administrators have either acquiesced or remained complicitly silent.

There’s an important lesson here for academics in Canada. When push comes to shove, we must be prepared to take the lead in defending the integrity of our institutions and of our work.

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