The Attack on Florida's Universities is Hidden by the Governor's Failing Candidacy
Two Sundays ago, The New York Times ran an article on what is still known as its front page, "In Florida’s Hot Political Climate, Some Faculty Have Had Enough," which carried this sub-headline: "Liberal-leaning professors are leaving coveted jobs with tenure. And there are signs that recruiting scholars has become harder." Even casual readers of Dorf on Law might have looked at that headline and thought, "Wait a minute, I think I've read about this lately. I wonder if that Buchanan guy has anything to do with the story."
Good guess! In fact, the very first sentence of the article reads as follows: "Gov. Ron DeSantis had just taken office in 2019 when the University of Florida lured Neil H. Buchanan, a prominent economist and tax law scholar, from George Washington University." The excellent education reporter for The Times, Stephanie Saul, used my situation as the motivating anecdote around which to build her bigger story, which in part means that my situation closed the piece as well. The final four paragraphs quoted me at some length, including these words at the very end: "The Republicans who are running Florida are squandering one of the state’s most important assets by driving out professors who otherwise wouldn’t have wanted to leave."
She also linked to one of the Verdict columns from this past summer in which I explained my decision to leave. The article includes a lot of interesting information and quotes from other faculty in Florida as well, and even setting my personal interests aside, the overall story was well researched, compellingly written, and provided an important service.
One of the people Saul quotes is DeSantis's confederate Christopher Rufo, who has neither the knowledge nor the experience to be formulating higher education policy anywhere, much less at the public university system in the country's third-largest state. Rufo is better known for having created right-wing panic against critical race theory out of whole cloth (and has no other connection with Florida other than having been put in power by DeSantis), and he came through with the most predictable response possible:
To Christopher Rufo, a conservative writer and activist whom the governor appointed a trustee of New College of Florida this year as part of a campus shake-up, faculty departures are a plus.
“To me, this is a net gain for Florida,” he wrote in a statement, railing against diversity programs and transgender medical care. “Professors who want to practice D.E.I.-style racial discrimination, facilitate the sexual amputation of minors, and replace scholarship with partisan activism are free to do so elsewhere. Good riddance.”
The governor himself has taken a similarly defiant position. The Tampa Bay Times offers this tidbit:
In his remarks on Tuesday [December 5], DeSantis acknowledged talk of professors leaving the state, but said it wasn’t a concern.
”Just understand: If you have Marxist professors leaving, that is a gain for the state of Florida,” he said. “That’s not a negative.”
No, the professors in question are not facilitating the sexual amputation of minors, nor are they Marxists, but that is obviously beside the point. Gay-baiters and red-baiters don't need no stinkin' accuracy when there's outrage in them thar hills. Again, these responses are entirely predictable, so much so that I wrote (in the Verdict column linked above) all the way back in August:
[I]t is fair to describe my situation as one in which “the other guys won.” The departure of a left-leaning legal scholar and economist who studies inequality and who argues that government debt and spending can be good is hardly going to make the people running the show in Florida shed a tear. They have shown in every way possible that they want to get rid of people like me. In this case: Mission accomplished.
I used more muted language, of course, but Rufo and DeSantis said exactly what everyone should have known they would say. I also received a couple of unsolicited emails that similarly delivered the goods. One email had no subject line and got straight to the point: "Thanks for leaving Florida libfukk, never come back, to even visit. Stay north with your commie ilk and continue to fukk yourself idiot. Good lord." It was nice of him to spare my virgin eyes by using a nearly indecipherable code for the word "fuck," but I somehow figured it out (and I am absolutely scandalized).
Another fan wrote under the subject line "Good Riddance": "Saw your whiny little article about leaving Florida. You should take the rest of your Marxist ideologues with you- don't come back. The world needs less incompetents like you and your indoctrination policies." This one was a wee bit puzzling because the writer identified himself by two different last names in different places in the email, and he claimed in the sign-off that he is a "Comedian." Even so, he met expectations by joining in the red-baiting, which is all that truly matters.
The key point is that both hate-mailers knew the standard talking points -- commie, Marxist, indoctrination -- without having to think even for a moment (a key requirement for such people), and they even delivered them more memorably than their political leaders did.
While this is not the first time I have appeared in The Times (as subject or author), it is the first time the subject matter is so politically loaded. Even so, those two emails constitute the entirety of the hostile responses to date. What surprised me was not their content or tone (or illiteracy or ignorance) but that they were so few in number. When Professor Dorf and I were being republished in Newsweek from 2015 through early 2017, there was a steady stream of hostility (especially when either of us wrote anything at all positive about Hillary Clinton). What happened here?
That is not to say that I have missed the vitriol, but I was bracing myself for it. After all, this was The New York Times, not a faded news magazine that I was surprised to learn still existed in 2015. While there could be more negative emails yet to come (perhaps even motivated by this column, which could be viewed in some quarters as a dare, I suppose), even if that were to happen, why the relative silence to this point, more than a week later? One possibility is that almost no one in that echo chamber reads The Times, but given the unrelenting ugliness on the comments boards for that newspaper's liberal columnists, that seems unlikely.
The more believable explanation is that DeSantis is simply no longer a political force nationally, so even his ideological allies have mostly stopped paying attention. In fact, I was honestly surprised that The Times ended up running the article. Even though its subject matter is important in ways that go far beyond Florida and its governor, the idea for the piece most likely bubbled up earlier this year, when it was still possible to take DeSantis seriously as a presidential candidate. The article's publication date was pushed back almost two months by the Gaza/Israel horrors, but even by early October it was an open question whether editors at The Times would view the story as having any sizzle. To their credit, they ran it anyway; but it seems mostly not to have generated much buzz, positive or negative.
Had DeSantis been politically relevant, then, it would have been a very big deal to explain to people what his policies as governor are doing to his state. A similar fate seems to have befallen a larger, systematic analysis of the attack on Florida's universities that was published last week by the AAUP (American Association of Law Professors) Special Committee on Florida (on which our co-blogger Professor Anil Kalhan served). The press release accompanying the report ends with this:
Among the report’s key conclusions are that the unprecedented takeover of New College of Florida and the imposition of an aggressively ideological and politically motivated agenda, marked by improper denials of tenure and a faculty member’s dismissal without due process, stands as one of the most egregious and extensive violations of AAUP principles and standards at a single institution in recent memory, and that the state government’s assault on diversity, equity, and inclusion and on so-called “woke” disciplines not only reflects a blatant disregard for academic standards of governance and academic freedom but is also part of an assault on the rights of racial minorities and LGBTQ communities.
That sounds bad, and it is. Even so, other than the article that I cited above from The Tampa Bay Times (which has an obvious local interest in the story), the national response has been disappointingly minimal, to say the least. The most prominent exception is an important op-ed by Philip Bump in The Washington Post, who explained this past Friday that what is happening in Florida is a very big deal indeed. He also explains that attacking higher education serves ambitious politicians on the right specifically by allowing them to be seen as pushing back against those nasty, nasty elites.
DeSantis is proving to be a terrible politician (even setting aside what he is doing to his state), but he knows that his followers are primed to believe that professors like me are indoctrinating young people (see, e.g., my second friendly emailer). Why should he ease up, even when people are more interested in the lifts in his boots or his inability to smile like a human being? He is all in on culture wars, and he has made it clear that he has nothing else to say.
What if DeSantis at some point were to realize that he has no future as a politician? After all, being term-limited means that he must leave the governorship no later than three years from now; both US Senate seats in his state are occupied by fellow Republicans who will not move aside for him; and he has burned his bridges with Trump (thus ruling out a cabinet position). Even so, he will surely never reverse anything that he has done. All of his culture warring, not only as applied to universities but to everything else, seems to come from genuine hatred, not merely political opportunism. And even if he honestly does not care about "saying gay," there is no way that he would ever have reason to announce, "You know what, I'm never going to be President, so I'm just going to undo all of this nonsense." Moreover, his gerrymandered Republican majorities in the state legislature would never go along.
At this point, then, DeSantis and his co-conspirators are happy that people like me are leaving. I am happy to have left the state -- and no one need worry that I will return. So everyone is happy. Right? Well, maybe not the people who will watch their state universities' national reputations plummet while seeing their best students leave the state to enroll at better colleges. The quote from me at the end of the piece in The Times is serious: Florida's Republicans are destroying a key asset, and it will be nearly impossible to rebuild it once it has been reduced to rubble.
The larger point in Bump's column in The Post is that there is an interesting link between the Florida situation and the recent controversy over the congressional testimony by the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and Penn. I have thoughts about all of that, of course, but they will have to wait until my next column.