Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ war on ‘woke ideology’ in higher education threatens academic freedom

We’ve seen this all before.

click to enlarge Orlando's Valencia College was one of the signees of the statement against against 'critical race theory, intersectionality and systems of oppression.' - Adobe
Orlando's Valencia College was one of the signees of the statement against against 'critical race theory, intersectionality and systems of oppression.'

In pursuit of what some call “academic freedom,” and what others describe as the literal opposite, the Florida College System released a vague joint statement on Wednesday pushing back against biased instruction on diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education institutions.

State college presidents on the board — including presidents of Valencia College, Lake-Sumter State College, Seminole State College and Polk State College, among others — said they would not fund any form of instruction, policy or academic requirement “that compels belief in critical race theory or related concepts such as intersectionality, or the idea that systems of oppression should be the primary lens through which teaching and learning are analyzed and/or improved upon.”

This comes on the heels of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ second-term inauguration speech earlier this month, in which he blasted “trendy ideologies” in higher education, as well as a litany of other threats to Florida’s public higher education system, and ahead of Thursday’s unveiling of legislation that Democrats have described as an attempt to defund public education.

"I am disheartened to witness our state college presidents bend over backwards and ignore principles of academic freedom and free expression which is the foundation of the modern college system,” Robert Cassanello, a professor of history at the University of Central Florida and a plaintiff in the first legal case against the so-called “Stop WOKE” Act, told Orlando Weekly.

“Political demagogues in Tallahassee periodically threaten academic freedom and use professors as props in their efforts to fabricate an imagined internal enemy for their political gain,” Cassanello, who’s also president of UFF-UCF, the full-time faculty union, added. “Whether it be the teaching of evolution in public colleges, offering vocal support for the Tallahassee Bus Boycott, or being terminated or expelled for being a gay or lesbian student or teacher, we've seen this all before.”

The joint statement from the Florida College System, supported by the presidents of 28 state colleges, is a head-scratcher.

“This is a tried and true method of fascism marching on,” says Rich Templin of the Florida AFL-CIO.

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It touts the importance of ensuring there is no suppression of “intellectual and academic freedom, freedom of expression, viewpoint diversity, and the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning,” while perpetuating the headline-grabbing notion that there is an existing mass campaign by Florida faculty and higher ed institutions to “push ideologies such as critical race theory and its related tenets” without offering critical analysis or, you know, actually doing one's job as an educator.

And it’s also awkward because, as the Orlando Sentinel reported, a news release from the Florida Board of Education regarding the joint statement overinflated its implications, framing it as an explicit rejection of “woke” ideology and “the progressivist higher education indoctrination agenda.”

Under closer scrutiny, the statement from the Florida College System, however, is comparably tame. It makes no such assertion. The statement acknowledges that critical race theory — a decades-old conceptual framework that’s become political red meat, as some working families struggle to afford to put actual meat on the table — can be taught in higher education instruction as “one of several theories and in an objective manner.”

The FCS adds that students and faculty “must be free to cultivate a spirit of inquiry and scholarly criticism, and to examine ideas in an atmosphere of freedom and confidence, free from shielding and in a nondiscriminatory manner.”

So: vague, confusing, and somewhat at conflict with the state Board of Education’s interpretation.

Rich Templin, director of politics and public policy for the Florida AFL-CIO, told Orlando Weekly that the Florida College System is in a bind. The college presidents’ task is to secure the resources necessary to do the job taxpayers have asked them to do, but because of how the system is structured, they’re beholden to DeSantis and his anti-woke crusade.

“They’re going to give a lot of deference to the governor on everything because he has now asserted complete control of the legislative process and everything else,” said Templin. “I actually feel bad for folks that signed this letter, because they know it’s wrong.”

Also reported on Wednesday were state audit results — from a probe first requested by the DeSantis administration in a memo last month — that showed state universities, including UCF, are spending millions of dollars on diversity, equity and inclusion programs, courses (all eight of which at UCF are listed as “optional”) and related expenses.

According to separate documents related Wednesday, the DeSantis administration is also requiring state universities to provide information about services they’ve provided to people with gender dysphoria over the last five years — as if Florida hasn’t done enough to alienate its transgender population, their families and allies.

DeSantis’s aggressive war on “woke” (whatever that even means anymore) is presumably laying the groundwork for a 2024 presidential campaign, but the implications of these policies affecting the higher education system (and other critical public sectors) is “devastating,” per Templin.

“The governor is willing to burn higher education to the ground in Florida, to you know, ‘own the libs’ in pursuit of his run to the White House,” Templin said. “And the problem is, he may get elected to become president, but Floridians are going to have to, they're going to have to pick up the pieces.”

“This is a tried and true method to, you know, fascism marching on,” he added.

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About The Author

McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, with a focus on state and local government, workers' rights, and housing issues. Previously worked for WMNF Radio in Tampa. You can find her bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, In These Times, Strikewave, and Facing South among other publications.
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