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Political moves impacting college curricula are a grave threat to academic freedom.
By Afshan Jafar
n May, the American Association of University Professors’ Special Committee on Academic Freedom in Florida released a preliminary report concluding that academic freedom, tenure and shared governance in Florida’s public colleges and universities face a politically and ideologically driven assault unparalleled in U.S. history. Committee Co-Chair Afshan Jafar, the May Buckley Sadowski ’19 Professor of Sociology at Conn, explains what’s at stake.
After the Board of Trustees of New College of Florida (NCF) moved to eliminate gender studies from its offerings in August, NCF Trustee Christopher Rufo tweeted: “Governor [Ron] DeSantis was right: Florida voters should not be forced to subsidize ‘zombie studies’ degrees that do not meet a basic scholarly standard or conform to the mission of liberal arts education. I'm proud to have worked to abolish gender studies at New College. No apologies!”
Back in January of 2023, NCF’s Board of Trustees had welcomed several new members appointed by Gov. DeSantis. Many of these new appointees, including Mr. Rufo, openly acknowledged their agenda to change New College from a small, progressive, liberal arts honors college that espoused a unique approach to education (there are no letter grades at NCF and students work closely with professors on theses in their senior year) to a college with conservative values much like Hillsdale College, a private, conservative Christian college in Hillsdale, Michigan. The new appointees to the Board wasted no time.
When their first meeting rolled around on Jan. 26, 2023, the Board moved to fire the president of the college, Pat Okker, who was 18 months into her position. Subsequently, they also moved to eliminate the division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, fired the dean overseeing those programs, and started targeting other staff for layoffs. The initial round of terminations often centered on those who were known to be liberal or members of the LGBTQIA community. Now academic programs are on the chopping block and the trustees are starting with those that they find most “threatening” to conservative values.
In the meantime, more than 40% of faculty members have left NCF and more than 30 students have transferred to Hampshire College in Massachusetts (a college with values and culture similar to NCF’s pre-takeover).
Should the fate of this small public liberal arts institution in Florida concern us? Very much so.
I am co-chairing a special investigative committee put together by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a nonprofit association of academics from more than 500 U.S. campuses. Founded in 1915, the AAUP has helped develop the standards and procedures regarding academic freedom in American higher education. The task of this special committee is to look into the pattern of politically, racially and ideologically motivated attacks on public higher education in Florida. Our efforts thus far have led us to conclude that “academic freedom, tenure and shared governance in Florida’s public colleges and universities currently face a politically and ideologically driven assault unparalleled in U.S. history. Initiated and led by Governor [and Republican presidential candidate] Ron DeSantis and the Republican majority in Florida’s state legislature, this onslaught, if sustained, threatens the very survival of meaningful higher education in the state,” with catastrophic implications for the entire country.
Over the last couple of years, Florida (and, in its wake, several other states) has passed a plethora of legislation that monumentally impacts individual rights and freedoms. Those involving higher education and K-12 schools focus on severely limiting or outright banning DEI programs; limiting the teaching of race in K-12 and public higher education systems; preventing teachers and professors from challenging or restricting racist or hate speech in the name of “viewpoint diversity”; allowing students to secretly record their professors and turn in evidence of their “indoctrination”; preventing teachers and professors from teaching about structural forms of racism and employers from requiring diversity training (colloquially known as the Stop WOKE–Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees–Act); and prohibiting gender inclusive bathrooms and banning trans individuals from using bathrooms that match their gender identity, asserting that all schools must uphold the belief that “a person’s sex is an immutable biological trait” and “it is false” to use a pronoun other than what matches the sex on a person’s birth certificate.
Other legislative measures erode tenure protections, limit workers’ abilities to unionize in public institutions, coalesce power in the hands of the president and governing boards regarding academic appointment, and allow the board of governors and the state board of education to review all elective courses that cover “theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political and economic inequities.”
As one union leader and longtime faculty member in the Florida system stated during an interview with the AAUP special committee, “The legislative measures taken together are not a laundry list, but a strategic plan to implement [DeSantis’s] agenda.” That is to say, all of these bills work together to attack higher education on different fronts and serve to (1) threaten academic freedom as it relates to the teaching and research of certain topics, (2) weaken shared governance and workers’ rights by concentrating power in the hands of the boards of trustees and presidents, and (3) weaken educators’ ability to unionize, thus limiting their ability to fight the abuses of power that are bound to occur after the passage of these bills.
As we noted in our preliminary report, during the dozens of interviews conducted thus far by the AAUP special committee with faculty members across Florida, two sentiments and phrases came up frequently: the reality in Florida is “Orwellian” and Florida is the “canary in a coal mine.” Indeed, the threat from authoritarian politicians who use phrases like “Stop WOKE,” “DEI bureaucracy” and “indoctrination” to limit academic freedom while imposing their own worldview and censoring others cannot be overstated. Neither can the threat of Florida-style legislation spreading across the country and globally. As the conclusion of the preliminary report warns, “If there are those in academia who think this threat does not affect them because they are at a private institution, or because they are outside of Florida, or because they do not teach in a ‘controversial’ field, or because they are politically conservative, we urge them to pay close attention to the words of a professor at the University of Florida who self-identifies as a conservative and devout Christian. In an email message to his colleagues, he wrote, ‘Bottom line: Big Brother is watching. He is taking names. I’m on their ‘woke’ list! I’m the faculty advisor for the Federalist Society, for the Law School Republicans, and for the Christian Legal Society. If they find me threatening, the rest of you are dead in the water.Be wary and be aware. If I don’t have academic freedom, neither do you. If you don’t, neither do I. We are in this together.’” (Emphasis in original.)
But beyond the concerns regarding active forms of surveillance by politicians, administrators and governing boards, we must remember that authoritarian cultures and values are hard to contain—they have a way, through fear and intimidation, of creeping into the backs of our minds, into our classrooms, into our research, into our conversations, and into our thoughts and speech, eventually leading to self-censorship. And what is the U.S. educational system without academic freedom? Without the ability to pursue knowledge and teach and research and learn without interference from authoritarian politicians? What kind of worldview will the generations of students not taught the truth about slavery and race and gender and sexuality grow up with? What limits are we imposing on the freedoms of generations of future students, when we allow ideologues, not academic experts, to determine what will be taught and discussed in the classroom?
The attacks on higher education are not just confined to Florida or even the U.S. Currently, in India, history, political science and sociology texts are being revised as part of a “rationalization process,” but academics argue that the changes help promote the Hindu nationalist vision of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Part of their “rationalizations” have been to limit references to Muslim rule, anti-Muslim violence, and Hindu-Muslim unity in history, sociology and political science textbooks. Similarly, Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, has been on an anti-LGBTQ offensive, limiting the teaching of gender and sexuality in schools and reinforcing “Christian values.”
I grew up in Pakistan. Much of my childhood was spent living under a military dictatorship. I remember clearly, in the 1980s, when our curriculum, the media and free press were under attack and molded to reflect the values of an authoritarian, military, religious regime. It was suffocating.
We cannot sit on the sidelines for this one. I urge you to write to your politicians, state legislature and local school boards, and to get involved in your local communities. As horrifying as each individual piece of legislation is in Florida and beyond, the impact of such measures is much more than the sum of their parts. What is at stake is not just the movement toward a more just and equitable world, especially as it relates to minorities. Our future generations’ very ability to envision, desire and achieve such a world is in danger of being snuffed out.
Afshan Jafar is the May Buckley Sadowski ’19 Professor of Sociology, chair of the Sociology Department at Connecticut College and chair of AAUP’s National Committee on College and University Governance. She is the author of Women’s NGOs in Pakistan (2011) and co-editor of Global Beauty, Local Bodies (2013) and Bodies Without Borders (2013). Her public scholarship has appeared in numerous media outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, LA Review of Books, Inside Higher Ed and Ms. Magazine.