The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

DeSantis aims to scare academics. Unfortunately, it’s working.

Gov. DeSantis’s Stop Woke Act is trying to keep Florida’s academics from teaching what’s true and right

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) addresses the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit in Tampa on July 22. An Ivy League graduate, he has called higher education "elitist." (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

For professors, the advent of the fall semester means nailing down the course syllabus as you gear up to engage a new set of sharp, eager young people. But with the passage of the Stop Woke Act in Florida, it also means that if you make the wrong choices in your course prep, your university could lose millions in state funding, and you could be disciplined or even fired for teaching something Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) doesn’t like. And there are a lot of things he doesn’t like: interrogating traditional gender roles, studying how slavery was baked into our founding documents, exploring the stories of transgender people and acknowledging that America enshrines inequality even as it celebrates liberty.

Last year, DeSantis made a point of crowing about Florida universities’ impressive U.S. News & World Report rankings. Florida State (where I teach) was No. 19 among public research institutions; the University of Florida hit the heights at No. 5. But this is an election year. DeSantis is running for a second term as governor and positioning himself as a 2024 presidential candidate. Branding himself an anti-education belligerent in the culture wars may be a winning strategy. The Ivy League graduate says higher education is, by its very nature, “elitist.” He’s taken to calling a college degree a mere “piece of paper” that can “cost too much anyway,” and accusing Florida universities of promoting “a radical political agenda” and “indoctrinating” students into Marxism.

Well, if academics aim to inspire the youth of Florida to seize the means of production and overthrow the bourgeois order, we’re doing a bad job of it. Most of my students are too busy working to pay their rent, trying to land a decent internship or studying for the LSAT to foment revolution.

Anatomy of a book banning

Like most of us in history, social science, the arts and the humanities — topics at which DeSantis, who has a BA in history, constantly sneers — I’m aware that subjects I raise in my classroom might fall into the state’s list of dangerous “concepts.” I teach creative-writing workshops in which I encourage students to tell uncomfortable stories about people on the margins. I also teach literature by the likes of William Faulkner, James Baldwin and Octavia Butler — authors who struggled with this country’s unfinished civil war and unfulfilled promise of racial justice. If I ask my class to analyze how Mark Twain satirizes White privilege or to think about ways Toni Morrison’s novels lay bare the systemic racism that has poisoned the American body politic, will I be hauled before some tribunal, accused of causing a White student to suffer — as the Stop Woke Act puts it — “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex”?

I’ve taught for 30 years in Southern state universities where the undergraduates are rich, poor, White, Black, Brown, Asian, gay, straight, queer, trans, on the right, on the left and everything in between. I’ve never seen a White student paralyzed by guilt or anguish from reading Frederick Douglass’s account of being viciously whipped by the plantation overseer. I’ve never known a student of color to blame her or his White classmates for Jim Crow. I have seen them come to understand that America often does not live up to its promise. We can study how great writers challenge hatred without getting our feelings hurt; we can examine a full spectrum of thought from Abraham Lincoln’s assurance that America is “the last best hope of earth” to Baldwin’s charge that, as a Black person, “the country to which you have pledged allegiance along with everyone else has not pledged allegiance to you.” Young people want not to worship their country but to investigate it as they strive to advance that more perfect union politicians like to talk about. Students aren’t haplessly seduced into socialism by college professors. That’s not how it works, and DeSantis, conservative alumnus of those liberal fleshpots Yale and Harvard, surely knows as much.

DeSantis is trying to scare Florida’s academics. Unfortunately, it’s working. The University of Central Florida recently removed statements promoting inclusivity and racial justice from its department websites. Talented young scholars hesitate to take jobs in Florida, while some of the state’s most eminent thinkers are getting out, as I know from my own conversations with some of those who’ve left or are planning to leave. As for those national rankings the governor was so proud of? They’ll almost certainly suffer.

I'm a Florida school board member. This is how protesters come after me.

Florida has a tradition of self-defeating and frankly embarrassing assaults on higher education. In the early 1970s, conservative Democrats in the Legislature tried to shut down FSU’s Center for Participant Education, a “free university” that they claimed was run by anti-American “radicals.” From 1956 to 1965, a legislative committee led by state Sen. Charley Johns scoured Florida campuses looking for what he saw as deviants and promoters of racial integration. The Johns Committee, modeled on the House Un-American Activities Committee, targeted Florida A&M University, a historically Black college, in an attempt to uncover “communists” in the NAACP and supporters of the 1956 Tallahassee bus boycott. The committee then expanded its scope to all of Florida’s public institutions, hunting “reds” and homosexuals, demanding that anyone rumored to be gay, anyone who taught evolution, or anyone who assigned “subversive” books such as “The Catcher in the Rye and “The Grapes of Wrath” be fired or even prosecuted. More than 400 students were forced to drop out of college, and around 100 faculty members lost their jobs. Far from supporting his people, UF’s then-president, J. Wayne Reitz, colluded with Johns in persecuting them.

Sixty years later, cowed college administrators are still caving to zealots in Florida’s government. In 2021 a pediatrician at the UF College of Medicine was told he could not testify in a lawsuit challenging the state’s ban on school mask mandates. The university also refused to allow three voting rights scholars to appear as expert witnesses in a case involving Florida’s new election laws. The university informed the political science professors that “outside activities that may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the State of Florida create a conflict for the University of Florida.” Though UF later relented and allowed the professors to testify, Kent Fuchs, the school’s president, did little to protect academic freedom on his campus. The chairman of UF’s Board of Trustees, a big-money GOP donor, called the professors “disrespectful” and threatened them: “Let me tell you, our legislators are not going to put up with the wasting of state money and resources, and neither will this board.”

DeSantis and his political vassals are not finished with us, either. Draft legislation unearthed by investigative reporter Jason Garcia reveals a plan to force universities to “promote the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization” and give university trustees — many of whom are political appointees chosen by DeSantis or former governor (now senator) Rick Scott — the power to hire and fire faculty at will. These proposals were shelved but may be back at next year’s legislative session.

DeSantis likes to call Florida “the freest state in these United States.” University faculty wonder if that freedom extends to the mind. Many, perhaps most, of us will continue to teach the way we always have, raising difficult questions and encouraging debate. But junior faculty not protected by tenure may think they must censor themselves in the classroom. That will be a shame. Education demands that we search for truth, even painful truth. I will continue assigning books by Herman Melville and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alice Walker and Alison Bechdel, Claudia Rankine and Richard Wright — writers who confront America’s past sins to help new generations shape America’s future. That’s my job. I might even use the words “critical” and “race” in the same sentence.

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