The Attack on Academic Freedom at the University of Florida Might -- Might -- Boomerang in a Good Way

by Neil H. Buchanan

The University of Florida, my home institution, is in serious damage-control mode.  As I explained in a column last Friday, the administration of the state's flagship campus recently decided that several of my faculty colleagues could not testify in lawsuits that have been brought to challenge policies enacted by Florida's current group of ruling politicians.  Late last week, the administration then partially reversed course after receiving tons of negative attention and condemnation from around the U.S. and the world.
I say "partially" because there is still some uncertainty as to what is and is not allowed at this point, with some possibly-expansive prohibitions against using "university resources" apparently still in place  The university's administration has created a task force to try to come up with a better policy, which should not be especially difficult, given that there are longstanding best practices at the top public universities in the country.  Even more simply, we could go back to the way things were before the politicians stepped in and messed things up this year -- although, as I will emphasize below, that will only work if it is part of a credible commitment to reassure everyone that this will not happen again.

In last week's column, I made two major points.  First, a university spokesperson had tried to justify the outrageous limitations on faculty activities by saying that testifying in cases where the defendant is the State of Florida is a matter of an employee of the state government doing things that are "adverse to the state."  I argued that "the state" for which my colleagues and I work is not personified by the current occupants of various political offices, and when any of us work to reverse or modify a state law -- most importantly the state's new voter-suppression law (substantially similar to the recent Georgia and Texas anti-voting laws) -- we are not being adverse to the state.  We are, in fact, doing exactly what the people should want us to do: using the expertise that made us worth hiring in the first place to point out when the state's politicians have made mistakes.

In other words, l'état n'est pas le roi.  Yes, I know.  Invoking a French term in a country where many politicians insisted on renaming pommes frites "Freedom Fries" is a risky move.  Seriously, however, just as the oath that military service members recite is a commitment to the Constitution rather than the President, so is a university professor's job the pursuit of the truth, not mindless support for the politicians currently in power.

My second major point in last Friday's column is where I want to pick up today.  I argued that the state's politicians who pressured UF's administrators to make this mistake -- unless, as one commenter on my column suggested, this is a matter of the administrators anticipating what the politicians wanted, without being asked -- now have a serious problem.  They have put a major blot on the reputation of this university, undermining the progress that was made possible by the university's supporters in and out of government, who for years have provided the resources necessary to allow UF to rise in the all-powerful rankings.  That damage, I argued, is very difficult to reverse.

Building on that argument, it is important here to take the next step and ask what the politicians in the state will do next.  As the title of the column suggests, this could paradoxically end up being good for the university.  If not, however, things could take a very bad turn.

How could this end well?  As I argued last week, the university is in a position of relative weakness.  The occasional bad PR at, say, the University of Virginia simply does not hurt them in the way that this will hurt us.  Because we do not possess the deep well of reputational capital that other highly ranked state universities enjoy, a world that knows very little about UF now knows one big thing: the politicians here tried to silence dissenting voices at the state university system's most important campus.

This means that the state's politicians -- if they wish to get back on track -- need to go big in undoing the damage.  This is not a case where they could get away with saying (again, assuming that they wanted to do so on the merits), "Oopsie, sorry about that.  We'll put everything back where it was.  Never mind us."  There is a loss of innocence involved here, and after such a loss, there needs to be extra work to rebuild.

And again, this is not just your garden variety bad political move, such as a governor saying something ignorant about the world having too many philosophy majors while cutting funding to non-STEM fields.  That is definitely bad, but this is as big as these situations come: A state-supported university now appears to be targeted by hostile politicians who are willing to breach essential academic standards to defend their legislative handiwork.  No professor or student can sleep well when they have reason to worry that their university suddenly has been told to toe an ideological line.
There is, in other words, political meddling and Political Meddling.  This is POLITICAL MEDDLING.
What now?  Consider an analogous case.  The current dean of the law school at Berkeley (one of the public universities that is ranked above UF, but I digress) is Erwin Chemerinsky, who has long had a sterling reputation as a scholar and whose substantive views on matters of policy and law are clearly on the American left.  He is, in other words, a liberal.  Before moving to Berkeley, he was hired as the founding dean of the law school at the University of California's campus in Irvine.
Late in the process of launching the new law school, some right-wing donors apparently made a stink about Chemerinsky's politics and moved behind the scenes, successfully convincing the university's chancellor to withdraw the offer to Chemerinsky.  The chanceller announced that the now-unhired dean was "too politically controversial."   (Chemerinsky was, in other words, canceled for being politically incorrect; but again, I digress.)  This was a stupid move.  Eventually, Chemerinsky was re-offered the job and was coaxed into accepting it.  All of a sudden, however, it was necessary to offer all kinds of additional assurances that this was a one-time thing, and so on.
The new law school is a success, and Chemerinsky is the biggest reason why.  My impression was, however, that one could not have scripted a better situation for the new dean.  (Those who are conspiracy-minded might imagine a false flag operation, but that seems preposterous to me.  Occam's Razor tells us the some rich university donors shoot off their mouths, because they have no idea what they are talking about.)  In any case, Chemerinsky was thenceforth the beneficiary of leeway that he might not otherwise have enjoyed.  And the law school prospered because of it.
Will UF do something like that?  Maybe.  I hope so.  A few months after I accepted the offer to join UF in 2019, one of the big donors talked to me at length about his dreams for the university.  Even though I no longer needed to be persuaded, he spoke passionately about the need for Florida to have a university "befitting the third-largest state in the country."  It genuinely bothers the backers of UF that their university does not receive the deference that universities in California, Michigan, and some other states receive.  Especially Texas.  That is the big one.  Even though UF's overall ranking is higher than UT-Austin's, almost no one without a closet full of blue and orange seems to know about that fact.  And that rankles.
One of the donors to whom I spoke pointed out that, when UF is able to hire a new professor or dean away from, say, Cornell, people in Gainesville say: "Oh, that's good.  We got someone from an elite place."  Why, my new acquaintance asked, can it not be the case that people at other universities say, "Ooh, we were able to hire an entry-level professor with a newly-minted Ph.D. from the University of Florida!"?  When will Cornell hire away, say, our provost because the good people in Ithaca know that doing so is a coup?  That, my guide told me, is the dream, and he hoped to see it happen in the next decade or so.

Whether or not that can ever happen, it is important to note that the people I talked to are all heavily tied in with this state's dominant political party.  The state's political class understands how the rankings game is played, and they cannot suddenly decide to risk UF's accreditation and think that this is somehow going to end well.

If they are still on board with all of that, then they will soon show it.  They will need to "pull an Operation Chemerinsky," if you will, proving that this was all a temporary misunderstanding, assiduously convincing current UF stakeholders that there is no reason to worry, while they assure the people from highly regarded places to come to Gainesville to enhance the university's reputation and reality.
In Friday's column, I mentioned the difficulty in recruiting entry-level and outside lateral faculty with this dark cloud hanging over the campus.  I should also have mentioned that there is a particularly vulnerable category of inside faculty who are likely to be poached -- especially (in the case of the law school, in any case) the just-about-to-be-tenured rising stars who are always on everyone else's radar screens.  They will be enticed to move away, and this might make it easier for some of them to say goodbye to us.

What is the alternative?  If the ruling politicians in Florida decide that they no longer care about UF's reputation, they can squander all of those sunk costs and go back to having a flagship university that never moves the needle.  Worse, more American politicians are beginning to make barking noises in the direction of academia more generally.
The fraudulent populaist J.D. Vance, for example, made news of the most troubling kind this week when he said during a speech at a conservative conference: "[T]here is a wisdom in what Richard Nixon said approximately 40-50 years ago. He said, and I quote, 'The professors are the enemy.'"  Nixon was speaking to Henry Kissinger at the time, by the way, as his presidency was beginning to fall apart.
I surely do not need to explain to the readership of a law-oriented blog how worrisome it is to hear pseudo-man-of-the-people politicians start to attack the pointy-headed intellectuals (in the words of the proto-fascist former Governor of Alabama George Wallace).  Rush Limbaugh railed against "[t]he Four Corners of Deceit: Government, academia, science, and media."  There have always been the makings of a movement in America to reject modernity, and it could now be in the process of putting together its strongest move yet.

I cannot, therefore, say with certainty that the people in positions of power and authority behind the scenes in Florida will stay the course, continuing to do the impressive work of turning what was once known as a party school (as one of my friends who received a B.A. here in the 1980's described it) into a formidable academic institution.  They might not, if they come to agree that the professors are the enemy.
I strongly suspect that they will do the right thing, however, which is why this mess is not making me walk away.  Moving ahead, however, there will be plenty of opportunity to see whether the university will sanitize itself from the stink of political meddling.  In order to do things right, they now have to do things extra-super-duper right, because someone decided to treat the entire University of Florida the way that some donors treated Dean Chemerinsky more than a dozen years ago.
If the powers that be follow that route, the boomerang effect will benefit everyone.  At this point, however, half-measures and not-quite-reversals will not do.  I do believe that the state -- by which I mean the entire state of Florida, not just the current politicians -- can continue to build a great university.  The people who brought all of this into question need to do everything they can to make that happen, and then some.