Alex Constantine - March 8, 2023
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is fueling his White House ambitions by launching a blitzkrieg of measures aimed at derailing the on-campus fight against racism, sexism and anti-LGBTQ actions, and whitewashing United States history.
In his budget speech on 31 January, on the eve of Black History Month, Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis announced that the state would ban its publicly funded universities and colleges from spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offices and programmes.
This decision will likely set up a potential legal battle with the federal government, which requires colleges and universities that accept federal funds to work actively to prevent discrimination based on race and gender.
DeSantis also announced that the state would require all students in its colleges and universities to take a ‘Western Civilisation’ course; this is also likely to set off a court battle over students’ and professors’ academic freedom.
The announcements came just hours before the College Board was set to unveil its new Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies course that was revamped to placate DeSantis who, 11 days earlier, on the eve of Martin Luther King Day, rejected the widely used course claiming it “lacks educational value and is contrary to Florida law” that bans the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) and soft-pedals America’s racist past, including Florida’s.
Referring also to the fact that under a law passed last year, every book in the libraries of Florida’s primary and secondary schools is now being examined to ensure that it is not informed by CRT, supports LGBTQ persons or uses such concepts as intersectionality, Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, placed DeSantis’s actions in the context of the presidential election in two years.
“Governor DeSantis has clearly decided that he is willing to burn Florida’s public education system, including our world-class colleges and universities, in the fire of his political ambition. It is also clear that he believes that by 2025 he will be in the White House, so he won’t have to stay and clean up the mess he has created. Instead, it will be the people in Florida who will be left to deal with decades of destruction in this dictator’s wake.
“Florida’s students and families don’t need their government telling them which classes they can take, which degrees they can complete, or what kinds of campus activities they can engage in. The constitutional rights promised to all Americans do not come with an asterisk that says, ‘unless Governor DeSantis disagrees with you’.”
Dr David J Johns, executive director of the Washington DC-based National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), also says that DeSantis’s moves should be understood in the context of the coming presidential election. (To defeat former president Donald Trump for the Republican nomination, DeSantis, who presently is polling about 15 points behind Trump, will need the support of the party’s largely white, evangelical wing that favours rolling back LGBTQ rights, women’s rights and the rights of racialised minorities.)
“What’s going on in Florida is that Governor DeSantis is preparing to launch his presidential candidacy. He is preparing to be our nation’s next Confederate president.” (The Confederacy was the name the 13 southern states, including Florida, gave themselves after they seceded from the Union in 1861, sparking the American Civil War.)
“He has rolled out a suite of legislation that mirrors a number of military regimes that we have been critical of, including North Korea, China and Nazi Germany,” says Johns.
In his budget speech, DeSantis said that by preventing colleges and universities from spending money on DEI offices and programmes they would “wither on the vine”. Like CRT, he said in a press release, DEI and other unnamed programmes were “discriminatory” and a “barrier” to learning. On 3 January, the governor declared: “We will never surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die.”
‘Indoctrination’ claim angrily disputed
Gothard angrily disputes the claim that either DEI officers or the state’s professors are engaged in “indoctrination”.
“‘Indoctrination’ is not occurring in college and university classrooms, and if it were, someone – anyone – would have been able to provide at least one example. Governor DeSantis’s lack of examples and his emphasis on ‘zombie studies’, which also do not exist, show that truth is not on his lips when he speaks of Florida’s colleges and universities.
“The false boogeymen of evil DEI programmes and coordinators will be used to attack everyday Floridians who have no dog in the governor’s fight with all things non-white, -male or -Christian,” says Gothard.
The legal challenge that could be mounted turns on federal civil rights law, including Title IX that bans discrimination based on sex. According to Risa Lieberwitz, general counsel for the American Association of University Professors, the legal question is whether closing the DEI offices “constitutes sex discrimination affecting students’ or employees’ ability to engage in the benefits of higher education at the institution”.
Additionally, Lieberwitz says that DeSantis may already be in breach of Title IX by his previous actions, including requiring universities and colleges to report how much they spend on DEI offices and programmes.
“The requirement, providing information on all the money that’s spent on anything that could be considered diversity, equity and inclusion, certainly is not only an intrusion on higher education carrying out its functions, but it also creates pressure for universities to engage in self-censorship and self-regulation that reduces funding and the programme areas that deal with diversity, equity and inclusion,” says Lieberwitz.
“That action as well as any direct impact on Title IX-related offices could be the basis of a Title IX complaint” to the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
Were an OCR investigation to determine that Florida was in contravention of Title IX, the federal government would have the power, without first going to court, to stop providing federal funds to Florida’s colleges and universities, as well as to students who attend Florida’s universities.
“If institutions lose accreditation [that they are in compliance with federal regulations], students lose access to Pell Grants [made to the nation’s poorest students], among other scholarships. We are worried about how these policies will impact research funding from other national institutions that require DEI components,” says Gothard, who also pointed out that the loss of this funding would lead to an exodus of the state’s best faculty.
Johns told University World News that he believes that the closing of DEI offices and termination of DEI programmes violate federal law and the NBJC “is considering all options as it relates to Governor DeSantis and his totalitarian regime”. Yet, Johns was adamant that, despite DeSantis’s attempt to derail the on-campus fight against racism, sexism and anti-LGBTQ actions, the work of DEI programmes would continue.
“The work that is sometimes captured in the DEI category, a lot of that has been done by black, poor and Indigenous folks before they were given money to do it, especially money provided by the federal government. So, I want to be clear that the legacy of resistance and finding ways to fill the unnecessary gaps will endure. It will be made more difficult by the changes the governor has already pursued, but it won’t stop the work.”
DeSantis’s Republican Party has super-majorities in both houses of the state’s legislature. Accordingly, the bill DeSantis unveiled on 31 January is expected to be approved by the legislature without amendment.
Mandatory ‘Western Civilization’ course
The press release that accompanied DeSantis’s 31 January speech makes clear that the ‘Western Civilization’ course was not going to be a southern version of Columbia University’s famous Core Curriculum, now called ‘Contemporary Civilization’.
Instead, Florida’s course is “push back against liberal elites who suppress freedom of thought in the name of identity politics and indoctrination”. The course will “ensure Florida’s public universities and colleges are grounded in the history and philosophy of Western Civilization”.
Though DeSantis offered no details of what the course would cover, it is expected to follow along the lines laid out in the ‘Stop Woke Act’ that was renamed the ‘Individual Freedom Act’ (IFA), passed last year; the government of Florida is appealing an injunction that was placed on the implementation of the law last November.
Under the IFA, Florida banned the teaching of CRT. In addition, it supported the notion that affirmative action in employment was “repugnant” to the people of Florida and professors “can no longer express approval of affirmative action as an idea worthy of merit during class instruction”, even though at the federal level and in many states, affirmative action is the law of the land.
While mandating a course in Western Civilization may be constitutional, mandating its curriculum would likely offend the precedent set by the Supreme Court of the United States in a 1957 case that defined academic freedom.
According to Lieberwitz’s gloss, the Supreme Court made “clear how important academic freedom is in higher education and that when the state intrudes on the area of who is hired on the faculty, what the curriculum is, what needs to be taught within the curriculum, and how the university carries out its functions, this raises [constitutional] problems”.
Johns also pointed out how a Western Civilization course is likely unconstitutional. And, while saying he was “loath to try to imagine the machinations in DeSantis’s mind” and that he’s waiting to see what is in the curriculum, he finds the whole idea redundant at best and an educational version of the police who murdered George Floyd at worst.
“I've been saying that I hope that people can appreciate that white supremacy simply doesn’t look like black bodies and dying at the hands of police. It also looks like governors single-handedly deciding that their history is a core curriculum, while my history [Johns is an African-American] is, maybe at some point, possibly an elective.
“So much of American history, to the point of needing an AP African American History course, whitewashes the contributions of non-white people including Native, Indigenous, black, Hispanic and Latinx people. (AP courses are taken in high school but provide college and university credit.)
“So much of the curriculum reflects that which Ron DeSantis and so many others want to hold on to. It is important for me. And I think that I want everybody else to be clear that this is about defending democracy, a democracy that reflects the diversity of people that exist in a community.”
Academic freedom’s status challenged
Three other actions of DeSantis’s government raise questions about academic freedom and its constitutional status.
The first is the new requirement for the State University Board of Governors and the State Board of Education “to review and realign general education core courses to make sure they provide historically accurate, foundational and career relevant education” and that they “do not suppress or distort significant historical events or include in the curriculum identity politics”.
DeSantis did not provide examples of significant historical events that are not covered in existing general education courses. Professional development sessions held last summer for the state’s high school teachers give a good idea of the State Board of Education’s thinking on this subject, however.
The Tampa Bay Times quoted Tatiana Ahlbum, a 12th-grade government and economics teacher, as saying that facilitators tried to make slavery in America seem “less bad” because only about 4% of enslaved Africans were transported to the United States, meaning the vast majority of enslaved blacks in the United States were native born.
A slide used in the training session said that both presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson wanted to get rid of slavery – without mentioning that both were actually wealthy slave holders, with the former owning 123 slaves and Jefferson 600.
The session also did not include information from the report of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Using DNA and historical evidence, the report concluded that Eston Hemings, whose descendants are still alive, was likely Jefferson’s son – meaning that two century-old rumours about Jefferson using his slave Sally Hemings as a concubine were accurate.
Whatever else their relationship was, the evidence shows that Jefferson exercised his prerogative over his ‘property’, as Hemings’s owner, to rape her.
‘Hostile takeover’ of liberal college
Equally troubling to DeSantis’s critics is what on 9 January New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg called “the hostile takeover of a liberal college”. She was referring to the appointment a few days earlier of six new board members to Florida’s only liberal arts college, New College of Florida in Sarasota.
Long considered a liberal bastion, DeSantis appointed six conservatives to the board, including Christopher Rufo.
Rufo, who lives in Washington State, on the other side of the country, is a senior fellow with the right-wing think tank the Manhattan Institute, and is best known for instigating, while appearing on Fox News, the moral panic against CRT and the teaching of LGTBQ issues in schools.
At a meeting on campus on 25 January, Rufo said that a consultant’s report said that the three terms that best described New College are “politically correct”, “druggies” and “weirdos”, reported the conservative National Review.
It did not take long for Rufo’s promised top-down restructuring and his plans, as Goldberg quotes, to “design a new core curriculum from scratch” and “encode it in a new academic master plan” to materialise.
On 31 January, at its first meeting, the new board terminated the contract of New College’s president Dr Patricia Okker and installed Richard Corcoran, the state’s former commissioner of education.
Corcoran oversaw the writing of House Bill 7, the ‘Stop Woke Act’, which, during the trial that led to the injunction, saw the state attorney argue that “because university professors are public employees, they are simply the state’s mouthpieces in university classrooms” and, therefore, that the state has an “unfettered authority to limit what professors may say in class”.
“What the state is engaged in here,” Lieberwitz says, “intrudes on academic freedom. The firing of the president of the college and through the government’s control in placing certain conservative ideologues on the board, the government is attacking, is violating, academic freedom.”
Gothard was equally critical. “Governor DeSantis appointed seven right-wing ideological extremists to the New College board of trustees for the express purpose of enforcing state-sponsored conservative ideology upon the student and faculty body.
“As part of this effort, he and his cronies have spread lies and misinformation about this world-class institution [including drug use on campus] in an effort to further erode public confidence in Florida’s higher education system. These are the actions of an authoritarian dictator, not those of a democratically elected governor.”
Testing ground for tenure ‘reform’
New College is also likely to be the site where DeSantis’s efforts to ‘reform’ tenure are first tested, as Rufo has indicated that professors will be held to the new curriculum the board will approve. Critics expect the curriculum to largely follow that of Hillsdale College, whose dean of the Van Andel Graduate School of Government at the college’s Washington DC campus, Professor Matthew Spalding, is among DeSantis’s new appointments.
Hillsdale, a small Christian college, was known for its deep ties to the Trump administration and is known for its ‘patriotic’ curriculum. With a nod toward the faculty, Rufo told Goldberg: “We anticipate that this is going to be a process that involves conflict.”
DeSantis has armed the trustees with a new weapon. While hiring, promotion and tenure decisions are signed off by college and university presidents, in practice recommendations for each comes from the institution’s faculty senate; the relationship between this power and academic freedom was, as noted above, underscored by the Supreme Court of the United States.
The bill DeSantis announced on 31 January strips this power from the faculty and places it the hands of the board of trustees and the president that they appoint.
The bill requires 1) “institutions’ presidents and boards of trustees to take ownership of hiring and retention decisions, without interference from unions and faculty committees”, and 2) allows “institutions’ presidents and boards of trustees to conduct a post-tenure review of a faculty member at any time with cause”.
Though cause is not defined, given that these two clauses come immediately after the one banning “DEI, CRT and other discriminatory practices”, it is not difficult to determine what DeSantis has in mind as “cause”.
As Jeremy Young, senior manager for free expression and education at PEN America, told University World News last June, faculty differ from other public employees because a key part of their job is to conduct research and analysis, and teaching that is independent of their bosses.
“They can be critical of their university or colleagues or supervisors if that is where the evidence takes them. That’s different from working for a company or even a government agency where your job is essentially to advance the interests of the organisation. The interest of universities, frankly, is to employ faculty who sometimes work against the university’s interests and so tenure is absolutely necessary to protect that kind of disinterested search for truth.”
For his part, Gothard says: “Tenure protects faculty to teach and research honestly and accurately without the threat of politicians who would fire them for doing their jobs, and it protects the rights of students to learn about whatever interests them without being told by big government how to live their lives.”
Revised course on African American history
On 1 February, the first day of Black History Month, the College Board (best known for the Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT that until recently has served as a proxy national college entrance test) released its revised AP course in African American History.
While at the time of this writing, Florida’s Department of Education is still evaluating the new course, it would appear to have satisfied DeSantis’s objections.
Among the scholars and writers who have been deleted from the course are: Kimberlé Crenshaw (legal scholar and one of the founders of CRT); Angela Davis (philosopher and activist); Binyavanga Wainaina (Kenyan novelist); Nell Irvin Painter (historian); Henry Louis Gates Jr (Harvard professor and filmmaker); Ta-Nehisi Coates (scholar who has argued for reparations for slavery); Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple and other novels); and bell hooks (philosopher).
Additionally, the course no longer includes a required section on the Black Lives Matter movement, a required section on Black Queer Studies and a module that examines the question of reparations.
Gone too is the module on black incarceration from the passage of the 13th Amendment (which banned slavery) to the present. Blacks are 13% of America’s population, but 38% of the nation’s prisoners are black; 17% of the population of Florida is black, while blacks make up 39% of the people in jail (awaiting trial) and 47% of the prison population.
A few days before the new curriculum was released, three high school students in Florida announced that they intended to sue the state over its rejection of the original curriculum.
“By rejecting the African American history pilot programme, Ron DeSantis has clearly demonstrated that he wants to dictate whose history does – and doesn’t – belong,” National Public Radio quoted Democratic state representative Fentrice Driskell saying.
Ben Crump, the well-known civil rights lawyer who represents the students, told a news conference in Tallahassee, Florida’s capital: “We’re here to give notice to DeSantis that if he does not negotiate with the College Board to allow AP African American studies to be taught in the classrooms across the state of Florida that the three young people will be the lead plaintiffs in a historic lawsuit.”
After noting that the numbers of students who take AP courses is extremely small, Johns characterised DeSantis’s rejection of the previous AP curriculum as a “weapon of mass distraction. What DeSantis is doing is playing into culture wars and hyping up previous schisms between communities to try to score political points with his base.”
Defence of democracy goes on
At the end of our interview, I asked Johns what these educational and legal battles say to students and professors outside the United States.
“Our democracy is set up such that there’s not one party or power at this moment. What we’re talking about is an evangelical-funded right-wing political party. Their messaging is attempting to suggest that democracy is not worth defending or protecting, and that white supremacist ideology is what should be protected.
“What should be also clear,” he said in a fiery tone, “is that the legacy of African descendants is one of resistance; that a part of that legacy has shaped the Democratic Party, which has often been responsible for doing the work of ensuring that our democracy is solvent. And regardless of the attacks that we continue to face, that work will continue to endure.
“That legacy also exists in a lot of the other countries that you named, including those that are more powered by colonisation, but that also benefit from the labour of black people.”