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A State Attacks Its Universities
A playbook for autocracy
One of the greatest strengths of the United States has been our institutions of higher learning.
They have become globally recognized symbols of excellence. They have served as incubators of thought, engines of economic growth, and laboratories for transforming human knowledge about the mysteries of life and the wonders of the universe.
They have not been perfect, beset by the same biases, struggles, and systemic injustices that hamper and churn the rest of our society. But they have also been agents of positive change, pushing and prodding the nation to think differently.
Whereas once they were the exclusive domain of the most privileged (originally a majority were explicitly open to white males only), they have come to more closely reflect the diversity of our society and the planet as well, drawing students and faculty from around the world.
These same attributes render colleges and universities dangerous to autocrats like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the pitchfork-wielding wave of like-minded Republican officials in other states who are targeting academic freedom, free speech, and the very need to reckon with reality. The health, vitality, and future of our nation are at risk.
It is common for despots to attack intellectuals and universities. Free thought is anathema to the slavish obedience that authoritarians demand. So it should come as no surprise that DeSantis has put Florida’s schools in his sights as he wages a cynical and destructive culture war that he believes will one day deliver him the presidency of the United States.
At Steady, we have written before about DeSantis, race, and education — how he has blown “the ‘Anti-Woke’ Dog Whistle” and “delighted in division.” Well, he’s at it again, and it is vital that America realizes what this man intends to do — and indeed is actually putting into place.
A few days ago, DeSantis signed a bill that bans the study of diversity in public higher education. The Washington Post described the effects of the new law:
Under the new law, Florida’s public colleges are prohibited from spending state or federal money on DEI efforts. These programs often assist colleges in increasing student and faculty diversity, which can apply to race and ethnicity, as well as sexual orientation, religion and socioeconomic status. The bill does not prohibit colleges from spending money on such programs if they are required by federal law.
The law also forbids public colleges from offering general education courses — which are part of the required curriculum for all college students — that “distort significant historical events,” teach “identity politics,” or are “based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, or privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, or economic inequities.”
Understandably, this action has met a fierce backlash both within Florida and beyond. The chilling effects of this bill are likely to be considerable as professors look over their shoulders at the coercive power of the state, wondering whether teaching about the true, complicated history of this nation and our modern society will run afoul of the law. DeSantis’s intent is clear: He wants to reverse the progress by which institutions of higher learning represent and serve the needs of a changing America.
The role of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at universities and in the culture more generally have been controversial. After all, their aim is to right some of the wrongs of centuries of injustice by challenging entrenched privilege. They are agents of change, and change can be scary, especially if you are part of a group that fears losing power. As we reckon with the more unsavory chapters of our history and culture, many will see narratives they had learned as children contradicted by new currents of thought.
We can have a debate about how we find balances between the old and new. We can recognize that certain efforts may go too far or become too dogmatic in their own right. But that is not what DeSantis and his ilk are trying to do. They want to stifle any reckoning, preserve whitewashed narratives, and protect their interests over the needs of those who think or look different.
We are seeing similar efforts in other red and purple states, including, sadly, Texas. And here we must contend with other damaging implications of these crusades of intolerance. What will happen to the wonderful public colleges and universities in these places? Will they be able to recruit top faculty? Will students who have the means to go elsewhere, including leaving the state, choose to do so? Will there be a brain drain?
“If you want to do things like gender ideology, go to Berkeley,” DeSantis snarled in signing the law. Demeaning one of the most illustrious public universities in the history of the United States as a basis of comparison? We’ll see how that turns out. But DeSantis wasn’t finished. “For us, with our tax dollars, we want to focus on the classical mission of what a university is supposed to be.” Well, Governor, that “classical mission” would be free thought and new ideas, not the dogmatic fantasies of small-minded intolerance.
Perhaps most tragically, we are left to wonder what this will mean for the students for whom local public universities are ladders of social and economic mobility. Many don’t have the resources to go to private schools or out of state. Many of these are students of color, the ones who have been traditionally excluded and marginalized. They will now have to attend institutions that diminish or even banish their narratives … under state law.
The crowd that countenances racism, denigrates science, and undermines democratic values is eager to remake higher education to serve their craven interests. They are weakening their states and our nation in the process. But one has a feeling — perhaps hope is the more apt word — that they will ultimately lose.
Younger generations are rejecting intolerance and those who would push us back into the darker realities of our past. Also, the truth eventually has a way of prevailing. Unfortunately, even if it does, a lot of unnecessary damage and loss will occur along the way. How much damage and loss is now in the process of being decided in extreme-right political strongholds such as Florida and Texas.