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I Moved to Florida to Teach Despite Right-Wing Censorship. Here’s Why.

I’m confident our union can organize sufficiently to fight back against Gov. Ron DeSantis’s war on public education.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis takes questions from the media after signing three education bills on the campus of New College of Florida in Sarasota, Florida, on May 15, 2023.

Next week, I will begin teaching at a public university in Florida. When I announced my move to friends and colleagues, they were horrified. Wasn’t I terrified? Didn’t I know what Gov. Ron DeSantis was doing to public education in that state? In May, Governor DeSantis told Fox News that he would “destroy leftism in this country.” A week before that, Florida Sen. Rick Scott issued what he called a “formal travel advisory for socialists visiting Florida”: He proclaimed that the state was “openly hostile” to socialists.

It wasn’t a once-off remark either. In late June, Senator Scott repeated his threat: “Let me give you a travel warning: If you’re socialist, ‍communist, ‍somebody that believes in big government, ‍I would think twice ‍if you’re thinking about taking a vacation or moving ‍to Florida.”

Was I a socialist? Check. A communist? If the c was small, then absolutely. Did I believe in big government? I’m no fan of states, but I certainly wanted to see social spending augmented. Was I moving to Florida? I signed a lease on Monday.

The Florida GOP certainly hasn’t been subtle. In February, Republican Rep. Alex Andrade introduced House Bill 999, which would have gone far beyond the state GOP’s typical assault on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. This bill was an all-out offensive against the very principle of shared faculty governance. It would have removed hiring from faculty control, and perhaps most chillingly, it would have effectively ended tenure, allowing members of each university’s governing board to “review tenure status of faculty members” at any time, for any reason.

Thankfully, this version of the bill was modified. The original law would’ve prohibited the teaching of critical race theory, gender studies, intersectionality, “radical feminist theory” and queer theory. A modified version, Senate Bill 266, which was ultimately passed and signed into law by DeSantis, banned “theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political and economic inequities.” The law was sufficiently vague in its language, however, and for now, these subjects are only banned from core courses.

This zeal for censorship is particularly rich given that it’s Republican politicians who have been sounding the alarm bells over “cancel culture” for years. In fact, it was Representative Andrade himself who introduced HB 233, signed into law by DeSantis just over two years ago. The bill “prohibits the State Board of Education and the Board of Governors, respectively, from shielding certain students, faculty, or staff from certain speech.” It clarifies that this “certain speech” is about ensuring “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity,” which “means the exposure of students, faculty, and staff to … a variety of ideological and political perspectives.” In other words, the very legislators wringing their hands about so-called cancel culture turn out to be the ones doing the canceling.

It’s almost as if right-wing culture warriors aren’t concerned with counteracting any actual censorship in higher education. Rather, it’s a pragmatic approach to politics: They know what they’d do if they were in power — because they’re doing it before our very eyes — and so they assume their adversaries would do the same. What they’ve pulled off so brilliantly then is to institute state censorship under the banner of “free speech.”

DeSantis notoriously pressured the College Board to drop discussion of reparations, intersectionality and Black Lives Matter from its Advanced Placement (AP) African American studies course — and the cowardly Board complied. More recently, AP Psychology was temporarily dropped from the state’s high schools after it was determined to be in contravention of HB 1557, the state’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in K-12 schools. While the course has since been reinstated by the state’s education commissioner, teachers could still face third-degree felony charges for violating HB 1467, a law that prohibits the teaching of “objectionable” content that hasn’t been reviewed by a government “media specialist.” As a result, many Florida schools haven’t returned AP Psych to their course offerings.

In higher ed, a similar pattern prevails. Legislators continue to go after various bogeymen, from “critical race theory” to “intersectionality.” They of course have no working knowledge of what these concepts entail; rather, it’s what I like to think of as CTRL+F politics: They open a syllabus, search for a few hot-button keywords, and proceed from there. So, as bizarre as it sounds, “DEI” is more likely to be targeted than “Black radicalism” or “anticolonial revolutionaries.” This is the basis for the assault on gender studies, Black studies and other disciplines in Florida: These are viewed as sites for the dissemination of propaganda. If they controlled the reins, certainly Republicans would disseminate propaganda. Why wouldn’t liberals, let alone radicals, do the same?

If you don’t believe me, take a look at what’s happening to public universities in GOP-controlled states across the country. We’ve just witnessed the partisan takeover of Florida’s New College, with Christopher Rufo installed on the institution’s Board of Trustees — the same Rufo who initiated the war against “critical race theory,” proudly telling The New Yorker in 2021, “‘Critical race theory’ is the perfect villain.”

We’ve also seen right-wing donors create an institute out of thin air for the study of “Western civilization” at the state’s flagship campus: the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education. The Center’s homepage proudly proclaims its mission as one of counteracting cancel culture by centering the “ideals and institutions of the American political order.” Tellingly, the page brags about teaching both conservatives and radicals — with the first “radical” listed being one of the most foundational conservatives imaginable: David Hume.

Even if censorship in the name of combating censorship is most egregious in Florida, many other states aren’t far behind. Last year, I was based at the University of Texas at Austin. During my stay, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick proudly proclaimed his intention to eliminate tenure altogether. He alleged that professors were “indoctrinating” students with critical race theory, “but we’re not going to fund them. I’m not going to pay for that nonsense.”

Right-wing lawmakers and donors collaborated to create the Civitas Institute at UT-Austin, which is explicitly partisan in its very mission statement. Meanwhile, the president of Texas A&M resigned after she was involved in blocking the hire of one new faculty member (a Black journalism professor who was initially offered a tenured position) and trying to fire another (for criticizing the state’s opioid policy in a talk). Both were targeted because the president and a number of trustees disagreed with their politics.

Before Texas, I taught for four years at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The UNC system’s Board of Trustees is currently overseeing the creation of yet another privately funded conservative think tank — this one called the School of Civic Life and Leadership — to the tune of millions. Much as in Florida, the Board of Governors and state legislators are going after so-called compelled speech — as if this is a real threat in higher ed. Having taught at the university level for 15 years — five of them as a tenure-track professor — I can’t think of a single actual instance of a student or faculty member being forced to articulate a progressive viewpoint. It’s the idea of cancel culture that has come under fire. Once again, the right-wing playbook is restricting speech in the name of counteracting imagined assaults on free speech.

Right-wing legislators and funders claim these policies are about elevating excluded voices, a sort of affirmative action for conservatives. In practice, these snowflakes already dominate economics departments and business schools, and now they’re seeking funding for safe spaces to enforce their reactionary views. These people don’t want a diversity of viewpoints; they want exclusive control.

That’s where things stand. Unless we organize a coherent campaign to expose this threat and mobilize against it, we’re doomed. These people control the reins of the state, and they have billions in their coffers. Yes, to those not involved in universities, the specter of indoctrination by professors sounds scary. That’s why it’s incumbent upon us to expose what’s really going on: Conservatives are attempting to restrict speech in universities, and they’re doing so while pointing at professors and screaming, “Stop censoring us!”

Doing this kind of work requires building a broad coalition involving faculty (all faculty without the employer’s ridiculous divisions), staff, other campus workers, students and the broader community: all those who make the university function on a day-to-day basis. It is also essential that workers organize to strengthen their unions. When the New College Board of Trustees attempted to fire a number of faculty on political grounds earlier this year, it was the United Faculty of Florida (UFF) that pointed out that this violates the collective bargaining agreement.

This is one reason among many to work to fortify our unions, and it’s more important now than ever. Just as faculty speech is coming under fire, Florida’s public-sector unions are being directly targeted by the state government. In May, DeSantis signed bill SB 256 into law, which requires unions to share membership data with the state. If dues payment falls below 60 percent at any point, the union is autonomically decertified, voiding its collective bargaining agreement, thereby rendering faculty more vulnerable to termination.

Of course, cops, firefighters and corrections officers’ unions are exempt from the law. SB 256 is clear retaliation for the fact that public-sector unions tend to contribute financially to Democratic campaigns, and the few GOP-leaning unions are immune from the decertification threat. It is therefore essential that faculty work to build the power of their union — the UFF — as well as build broad coalitions with other campus unions, non-unionized workers, and student- and community-based movements. Only by casting the widest possible net can we work to both expose this project of political censorship and, more importantly, flex our associational power and defend the right to public education against political interference from right-wing operatives.

Ultimately, it’s the union that allows me to breathe a sigh of relief. Yes, it is currently under attack, but I am confident that we can organize sufficiently to weather the storm of SB 256 in order to fight back against DeSantis’s war on public education. Am I scared? Of course I am. I’ve worked tirelessly for over 15 years to get where I am, and knowing some government official or trustee could end my career with a snap of their fingers is terrifying.

But I also don’t have much of a choice: This is my third university in a row where free speech, tenure and public-sector unions are under threat. These states might be in the vanguard of the assault, but the strategy is spreading, and even public universities in blue states are beginning to clamp down.

I would much rather fight these policies on the frontlines of the struggle here in Florida than hide out until they make their way to wherever I happen to be teaching, already well entrenched. So yes, I’m scared. But I feel much better mobilizing against the onslaught now than waiting until it’s too late.

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