The Attack on Higher Education Heats up from Simmer toward Boil

by Neil H. Buchanan

Pending legislation in Florida would, if enacted, make it illegal to teach Economics in the state's universities.  It is not being described that way, of course, but what else could one conclude about a bill that prohibits the state's colleges and universities from offering general education courses "with a curriculum based on unproven, theoretical or exploratory content"?

If that sounds like snark, it is.  It is also true even on its own terms, however, because even the most true-believer orthodox economists -- the ones who insist that theirs is the only true science outside of the STEM curriculum, making the field in which I earned most of my advanced degrees "the queen of the social sciences" -- would certainly embrace the idea that economics as they understand it is both theoretical and exploratory.  Many of the rest of us know that it is also unproven (and unprovable), but even setting that aside, the people who glory in the idea that "theory" is the most exalted of the sub-fields of economics -- intellectually akin to theoretical physics -- and that they are "exploring" the contours of modern economies, have habitually violated two of the three prohibited items on a list that is connected with an "or."  Oops.

Oh, and speaking of theoretical physics ...  Gone from Florida's GenEd courses too, right?

No one imagines, of course, that this is where things will go.  The new legislation -- HB 999, which might more accurately be called HB 666 -- is all about extending and intensifying the attacks on academic freedom and making Florida's universities teach only content that is approved by political appointees of the Republican governor.

So although it can be fun to point to the clumsy wording and the illogic behind such legislation, this needs to be taken seriously.  This column will begin to explain what is happening, and what might happen next.  Unfortunately, it will almost surely be necessary to write many more such columns.

It has been more than a year since I wrote about an earlier salvo in the right's culture-war-inspired targeting of Florida's universities.  (The most recent of four columns, with links to the earlier ones, is here.)  My silence since then has not been a matter of having nothing to write about, because the political heat has only increased in the intervening time, as I will explain below.  The problem is, in fact, that the attacks on academic and intellectual freedom are intense and relentless, and there seems to be nothing that anyone can do to stop them.

After all, Florida's Republicans now hold super-majorities that they gerrymandered into existence in both houses of the state legislature.  Legislators do not in fact need those super-majorities, of course, because they are hardly going to find themselves needing to override the veto of their White House-eyeing governor.  And because he won reelection in 2022 -- with the national press treating his win as "impressive" and a "show of political appeal" rather than the result of rank (and blatant) voter suppression, including what was effectively a legislative override of the state's own constitution -- everyone in power in the state capital is rowing in the same direction.

The courts are of no use, because the state's judiciary is dominated by the same people who put the legislative and executive branches in current hands, while the federal Eleventh Circuit has a majority not just of Republican appointees but specifically of Trump appointees.  There are some federal district judges (including the chief judge of the Northern District of Florida) who are trying to hold the line on the rule of law.  But of course, there are other federal judges who are willing to say that up is down and lies are true.  On top of all of that, the United States Supreme Court hardly seems likely to step in to save higher education.

With all of the levers of power in the hands of people who are willing to turn them to fully politicized ends, it might seem that the only response remaining is to protest.  Of course, Florida's governor in 2021 signed an "anti-riot bill" that "grants civil immunity to people who decide to drive their cars into protesters who are blocking a road."  And even if protesters manage to stay inside the free-speech zones, the people in power treat any protests as proof that they have successfully provoked the lefty snowflakes  When students at the flagship university campus protested the appointment of the campus's president, the result was bad press coverage and scoldings from administrators.

Again, plenty has been going on to write about.  There was the "Stop WOKE Act," signed last year, which treats as legal discrimination any training of students or employees that "espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels such student or employee to believe" any on a list of eight sloppy and vague categories of offense, for example:

7. A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel 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.

If you were teaching in Florida right now, and you cared about your job security and had been accused of violating that provision, would you reply breezily that you never said that anyone "must" feel any of those things?  Again, the anti-intellectual forces are not going to go after the conservatives in the Econ department or anywhere else.  This is about owning the libs -- where "owning" in this case means "having the power to take away the financial security of."
Speaking of job security, one of the moves from the state's political leaders has retained tenure only in name.  Final changes to the university's regulations appear to be ready to go (if, in fact, they are not already in force) that create post-tenure review procedures for all professors every five years.  Again, this is not going to be wielded against professors randomly.
Even that, however, is apparently not enough, because the newly proposed bill "would put all hiring decisions in the hands of each universit[y's] board of trustees, a body selected entirely by the governor and his appointees, with input from the school's president. A board of trustee member could also call for the review of any faculty member’s tenure."  Again, that bill has not yet been passed, but the track record here does not leave much room for optimism.
It is grimly amusing to note that "[t]he legislation, filed this week, would also require that general education courses at state colleges and universities 'promote the values necessary to preserve the constitutional republic' and cannot define American history 'as contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.'"
As I wrote on Verdict last October, however, "The Declaration of Independence Was a Call for More Government and More Taxes—And That’s Still an Important Lesson for Us Today."  Is that what the legislation would have us teach?  Forgive me if I doubt it.  On the other hand, the most shameful passage in the Declaration -- the assertion that King George III "has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions" -- would suddenly be acceptable again, indeed, a "universal principle stated in the Declaration of Independence," per the pending legislation.

At the K-12 level, Florida's teachers have preemptively taken books from the shelves and submitted them for approval by political appointees or their agents.  And at the root of all of this, of course, is that the legislature has the power to de-fund state-supported educational institutions at all levels.  Old-style conservatives used to warn us that putting too much power in non-private institutions would inevitably lead to abuse of those institutions by politicians, and new-style conservatives are proving them right.

Of course, private institutions are never in fact in the clear.  Even outside of the educational context, the state's largest private employer fell afoul of the governor and paid a steep price -- for what it said, not what it did -- so it is not as though the public/private distinction has any meaning here or provides any protection beyond what the state's government is willing to grant.

Is this hopeless?  In a sense, yes it is.  As we have seen time and time again in the last few decades, it turns out that the things we thought were rock-solid are ephemeral.  Supreme Court nominees are given hearings and are voted upon?  Presidents cannot profit from high office?  Administrations cannot pressure defense analysts to change intelligence to justify starting wars?  Paramilitaries in unmarked uniforms do not kidnap people from the streets of American cities?  Losing candidates do not encourage rioters to storm the Capitol, and half of Congress does not then excuse and justify their actions?  All of those once-obvious timeless truths have been casually tossed aside.

So hopelessness is a relative concept.  That is, it has always been a fantasy to believe that a sufficiently motivated group of people would be prevented "by the strength of our institutions" from breaking every norm and changing every law that they find inconvenient.  Those of us who work in the nation's universities invoke ideas like academic freedom as if they are sacrosanct, because we want them to be (and they should be).  Once the checks and balances are gone, however, all bets are off.
Are we there yet?  I doubt it, but I am honestly not sure.  If we are not, will we get there soon?  Current trends suggest that the answer might be yes.  Time will tell, of course, but if it does go in that direction, the most immediate victims of this will be the scholars who are targeted for their unacceptable views, while the ultimate price will be paid by the students who will be denied exposure to critical thinking and the society into which we send those ill-equipped future adults.