Academic freedom is under attack on the campuses of Florida’s colleges and universities, perhaps none more so than the University of Florida.
Recently, we sat down with three university faculty to discuss the current attacks, gain an historical perspective and learn what steps all of us can take to fight these attacks on academic freedom.
Paul Ortiz, Ph.D., Department of History, University of Florida and Author
Deandre Poole, Ph.D., School of Communication and Multimedia Studies, Florida Atlantic University
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Andrew Spar, FEA President: Hi, this is FEA president Andrew Spar. To stay on top of all the latest news and issues impacting our public schools, be sure to follow FEA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For more information on this podcast, visit feaweb.org/podcast
Sharon Nesvig: You’re listening to Educating from the Heart. Thank you for joining our lively conversations with teachers, support professionals, parents, and students, as they share issues that matter most in our public schools. Here are your hosts, Tina Dunbar and Luke Flynt.
Tina Dunbar, Host: Hello. I’m Tina Dunbar here with Luke, and welcome to another episode of Educating from the Heart. Hey, Luke, I don’t know if you’ve noticed most of our episodes have focused on issues related to pre-kindergarten to 12th grade education. But this episode is going to focus on higher education, which is a crown jewel for the state of Florida.
I don’t know if most people realize that our colleges and our universities are consistently ranked among the best in the nation. In fact, US News and World Report recently ranked the University of Florida as a top five public university in the country. Go Gators!
Luke Flynt, Host: Go Gators? I don’t know, Tina, did you hear about this? A little more than a month after they received the prestigious honor of being ranked the fifth public university in the nation, UF found itself back in the news for a much more concerning reason.
News broke that UF was preventing three professors from serving as expert witnesses in a trial on voting rights in Florida. This sparked some very serious concerns about academic and intellectual freedom being under attack.
Tina: And that’s why you’ll hear from our guests today as they tell us this lawsuit debacle is not an isolated incident. Instead, it’s a continuation of what many professors and faculty members of the United Faculty of Florida say has been an ongoing attack from state leaders on an essential principle in higher level teaching and learning. Basically, Luke, here’s the dilemma: as adults, should everyone have the right to exercise free access to all information, including all points of view and expression without limitation? I mean, how do we fully explore all sides of a question or an issue to gain understanding, and make good decisions?
Luke: To answer that question, we sat down with Paul Ortiz, an historian and professor at the University of Florida; Deandre Pool, who is a senior instructor in the School of Communications and Multimedia Studies at Florida Atlantic University; and Andrew Gotthard, an English instructor, also from FAU, who serves as president of the United Faculty of Florida. We start our conversation with Gotthard, who gives his definition of intellectual freedom.
Andrew Gothard, FAU English Instructor and UFF President: Because we’ve been talking about this a lot lately with, you know, our lawsuit against HB 233, the viewpoint diversity, which we call the Viewpoint Discrimination Law, this recent issue at UF with three faculty members who’ve been denied the right to participate as expert witnesses in a suit against the state.
You know, we’re dealing with this a lot, and in my view, academic freedom means that faculty, higher education faculty who are experts in their field, who have dedicated their lives to studying and understanding a specific issue as one of the foremost individuals in their field, have the right and the ability and the duty to choose the content that they teach their students, to choose what they write about and to not be hindered by political or corporate interests who are only prioritizing their own short term gains. And they’re forgetting about the role that higher education plays in promoting and securing the public good in Florida. That’s what academic freedom means to me.
Dr. Deandre Poole, FAU Senior Communications Instructor: Well, I would just add to what Andrew said and say that academic freedom also protects freedom of viewpoints, diversity of opinions. And the beauty of higher education is the higher education institutions serve as safe spaces to engage in the free exchange of ideas.
And one of the points Andrew made specifically touched on political issues. Academic freedom protects faculty members from a political partisan attacks potentially impacting them when they go up for tenure or promotion. It also protects the ability to engage in political discussions that may not be favorable to the party in power.
And when we think about this, we also have to remember that academic freedom protects individuals who engage in different class activities that may not be popular now in terms of K-12, in the college level. You’re dealing with young students versus adult students, and the idea then is when you’re dealing with adult students, that they’re able to make informed, reached informed decisions based on forming an opinion, whereas K-12, that’s a bit more structured and restricted. And especially with regard to parents having input in what they want their child to be exposed to and what they don’t want them to be exposed to.
Tina: What are some of the biggest threats that you’re seeing right now in terms of academic freedom, so people understand, what do those threats look like?
Dr. Paul Ortiz, UF History Professor: This is one of the reasons why historians don’t get invited to many cocktail parties because we always give these long-winded answers. People are like, “oh no, why do you have to explain that?” This is quite interesting, and Tina you know, it gets back to your original question.
Academic freedom is a really recent innovation in US society. We’re not born as a republic that values anything related to intellectual, academic freedom, and really the concept of academic freedom comes into play post-World War II. It’s the subject of a lot of struggles within institutions between public institutions and the state, boards of trustees. And right there, that’s kind of a key term: boards of trustees. Like right now, because we’re under so many different types of governing agencies, you know, depending on what state we’re.
So we’ll just take Florida. So, each of our universities is in a structure where we are subject to the authority of a board of trustees, which is by and large, primarily the trustees are appointed by who? The governor of the state of Florida, right. There is a student representative. There’s a faculty representative, but by and large, those boards of trustees are political creatures.
This is one of the sources of the problems that we’re facing right now. Many of our boards of trustees, and I can speak for the University of Florida BOT, this is also the, the folks who sit across the table from us when we bargain as a union, but also when we… you know, Deondre mentioned earlier, these critical things like promotions, tenure, um, even course approvals, things like this. Those all have to be routed through eventually boards of trustee. And if the boards of trustees see their loyalty, primarily towards a governor or to a legislature and not towards the students or to the faculty or to the community, that’s when a big problem really began. So, I think that’s part of the problem and the crisis, frankly, that we’re in right now.
Deandre: And, and I would just add to that, what Paul said about the boards of trustees. I know during the spring of 2021, one of the newest board members at Florida Atlantic University was on record at one of the trustee meetings, and I’ll quote you what this particular board member stated. And they stated, “When I was on the state board of education at the time we eliminated tenure at the community college level. We eliminated tenure. I am concerned about tenure moving forward. I speak not just for myself; I speak for the governor.” And what we have here is an appointee by governor Desantis who does not believe in tenure. And, as a result, this particular board member has to write to their own opinion, their own viewpoint, but this is just an example of what we deal with in higher education, with regard to the tenure and promotion process. Our students are exposed to all sorts of ideas and, you know, we have to move past this misconception that we are indoctrinating our students, right?
We’re not indoctrinating our students. We’re teaching students to think critically; we’re presenting them with a wealth of information for them to choose, to analyze that information, to think and process that information. That’s part of the critical thinking process. These are future leaders. These are folks who will be in leadership positions, leading institutions in our society, and they have to be prepared, and that’s our job.
Luke: Yeah, and you know, it’s interesting, you know, Paul, you mentioned that academic freedom is relatively new, but it seems like attacks on academic freedom have been around as long as academic freedom has. And you know, while now the fear might be that professors are indoctrinating, you know, white students to feel guilty or whatever. You know, back in the sixties, the fear was that there were homosexual professors who were trying to recruit students to that “devious lifestyle” or “deviant” I should say to use their words. Many people in Florida though, probably have no idea what I’m talking about, and are not at all familiar with the Johns Committee. Can you talk about that some and, and put the current attack on academic freedom in its historical context?
Paul: Well, yeah, great question. They better become familiar with the Johns Committee because, you know, history, history doesn’t move on upwards trajectory. It works more like a loop. You know, we take some steps forward, we take some steps back.
I mentioned earlier this list of books that representative Matt Krauss has identified for prescription and just Google that list, and you’ll find many of the books are on gender identity, LGBT issues. Those are just as prominent as the books on race, you know, such as you know, my scholarship. And so, the Johns Committee has never left the state. It’s impact still resonates.
You know, I taught at UC Santa Cruz for seven years, and when I first arrived here the first thing that my colleagues told me is “Paul, we just want to warn you: this is not California. We do things differently down here.” And the Johns committee, and other committees like it, and the Red Scare and the devastating impact it had on academic freedom and the state, cannot be underestimated.
A couple of examples. I can give you off the bat, even before the Johns Committee, we had faculty at the University of Florida who were fired or punished or physically beaten because they were perceived to be gay, or because they criticized Robert E. Lee, or because they critiqued secession of the South during the Civil War. And this was happening well into the 20th century, and UF has always been at the crosshairs of these national, you know, academic freedom issues because our universities down here, let’s be honest, we are universities located in the former Confederacy in the Jim Crow South, in places where issues like settler colonialism are still dominant. We wouldn’t even have University of Florida if it wasn’t for the rural land grant college act, which essentially stole land from Native Americans to build this institution.
We wouldn’t have a University of Florida without the labor of enslaved African-Americans. And then even after the end of slavery, the enforced low wages paid to African-Americans to build up this institution. And so, there’s always been an effort to suppress the viewpoints, the rights of African-Americans, people of color. And this is what makes this current case, I know I’m kind of jumping ahead maybe, but this is what makes the voting rights case so outrageous because our universities, sadly, have traditionally benefited the status quo. They have traditionally benefited greatly, you know, pharmaceuticals, agribusiness corporations.
And that’s fine, just as long as they benefit the entire state, right. And all these three faculty members are trying to do is say, “Hey, let’s, let’s expand democracy. Let’s talk about making voting rights accessible to all eligible citizenry.” That’s all they’re saying. And so, in addition to supporting agribusiness or businesses in general, let’s support all the people.And that’s why what’s happened recently at UF is so appalling. And so anti-democratic.
Andrew: And I would add to, from the historical perspective, something to remember here, when we think about attacks on academic freedom, and on the voices of academics. You know, historically the first step toward fascism has always been to silence the academics.
And the reason for that is because we are ideally supposed to exist in higher ed outside of political and corporate and other influences. We exist to generate knowledge and to try to understand the world as it truly is and to convey that to the next generation. So, if you are trying to be a bad actor in any of these roles and to control the public and to control the narrative, the first group that you have to silence are the experts.
You have to silence the people that are out there telling the truth. So when we think about attacks on tenure and academic freedom, we think about stopping these faculty members from participating in this voting rights case or by intimidating faculty into removing material from their curriculum, it’s all connected back to this idea to control the troop. And we want to fight that and push back against that because we want the truth to serve the public good and not the interest of a politician.
Tina: How do you respond to comments that suggest colleges and universities don’t value diversity of thought, that certain views are being held back? That’s basically what the House Bill 233 is about.
Andrew: Well, I would say it is very telling that during the legislative session, when these issues came up, and people were saying, “oh, universities are indoctrinating students.” I believe Governor DeSantis was quoted as saying, you know, we’re purveyors of stale ideology. Not one single example could be mustered of a classroom, a faculty member, or an institution who was doing this.
And now that the law has passed, we’re looking at a key example of the people who are sponsoring this bill pushing forward a case of that exact type of action against these three faculty members. You know, in reality, anybody who’s been in a university classroom, who has any experience teaching knows that what we do in higher ed is we present all of the viewpoints. We present all of the information and then we support the one that is supported by data. We support the one that’s supported by what we know and by our expertise.
And often that means we do pick a particular direction, but we pick it based on the facts.We don’t pick it based on what’s going to make a politician or a corporate interest happy. So, it’s not shocking that individuals who feel like maybe their ideology isn’t being represented would be frustrated. But I think that just points to the fact that we’re, we’re trying to exist outside of that political spectrum.
Deandre or Paul. I don’t know if, what you would add to that?
Deandre: I would just also add that the diversity survey, and in my opinion, and in the opinion of many of our union leaders, is nothing more than a scare tactic. It’s an attempt to scare faculty, to manipulate faculty, to try and control what ideas they engage in or introduced into their classroom.
And it’s also to cut down on a certain conversation maybe students want to have. I mean students, if they know they’re being courted, or if there’s a survey out there. They’re likely not going to engage in certain types of back and forth dialogue because they don’t want others. The students potentially could, you know, become a public statement.
And some faculty are also concerned about the kind of topics they introduce. So many of them tend to play it very safe, tend to be very mindful of what even class conversations or past discussions that they have. So that’s the really, the big thing is this is all about control manipulation and fear.
Tina: This bill also includes videotaping. Is that a concern you’re having here right now?
Paul: Yeah. I mean to echo Deandre’s point, it’s a concern that our students have. You know, I’m teaching a history research seminar this semester, and before class started, you know, three or four students approached me kind of, you know, very discreetly and said, “Look, if these sessions are going to be recorded by someone else in class, then I don’t know if I want to really participate because I don’t want my views being put up on YouTube,” essentially.
I mean, I can look back to when I was a college student. I was, you know, I’m a first-generation college student in my family. And so, I did record some of the lectures my professors gave because I couldn’t keep up with them when they were talking, and I’d play them back and stuff. So, I don’t have a problem with people recording lectures, it’s that this has been weaponized.
Looking at what Governor Desantis and the supporters of 233 have said, I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but almost every example I can remember of them giving to support HB 233 was basically saying that it’s conservative or right-wing viewpoints that are, are being disrespected in higher ed. That right away gives you the bias.
And the irony is, is that the university is a place where, you know, conservative right-wing viewpoints: they’re always being aired. I mean, they’re being aired much more in a free kind of way than any other place in society I can think of. And I mean, it’s really inspiring. I mean, this is why, by the way, people come from all over the world to attend universities in this country.
I mean, look, there’s a lot of things in the US that have broken down and need to be fixed, but higher education is a place that’s actually working. And that’s the thing that really is so disturbing about these attacks on our institutions, and they are attacks on institutions. And I don’t really think that the Governor or a leading state Senator believes that Paul Ortiz has so much impact, he’s going to change the outcome of the next election, right?
I just think that they want to have control over these institutions, but see, once they gain control, they’re going to destroy them. What they don’t understand is that those institutions were built up by the labor of ordinary people, of faculty, students, and staff who worked so hard and whose views are not being heard by, by the Legislature.
Andrew: Yeah. And if I could add too about the, you know, the point about students, our lawsuit against HB 233 emphasizes that this bill, this law now exists to chill freedom of speech and freedom of association on our campuses. And I think our colleagues in K-12 could understand, you know, this idea, which is that some of the most beautiful moments as a teacher occur when you’re talking about a really complex subject, and maybe even a controversial subject, and you’re listening to all the viewpoints, and then you finally reach that comfort zone in class where the student who has personal experience with that issue speaks up and shares how it has practically impacted them.
And that opens up the perspective of the people in the room. It adds to the conversation, and you really have those light bulb moments. But because of this law, and because of threats like secret recordings, students are actively telling their teachers, “I’m not going to speak up in class. I can’t have something that personal on that important to me, broadcast out for others to see.”
And so it’s reducing the quality of education, but it’s also reducing the quality of the human experience that we, that we love and cherish so much in our classrooms.
Tina: You have to wonder if our politicians really understand the long-term impact of what they are attempting to do. Florida has been recognized for having top universities and colleges, and here we are about to implement laws that water things down and hurt the whole process.
Andrew: Anytime you hear someone advocating, particularly from a position of authority from, from a position of authority that a particular idea or a particular concept should not be taught, or it should not be learned that it should not be out there in the public forum for debate and discussion and critical thinking, that should always set off a red flag, a little bit of an alarm bell in your mind.
Because the ideal of higher education is that every idea exists in the public forum to be debated, discussed, picked apart, and then decided if it holds up to scrutiny and to evidence. And if it does, we move forward with it, and we build on it and if it doesn’t, then we still learn about it to know what’s out there, but we don’t emphasize it, we don’t put it forward as important for the common good.
Deandre: And just to add, when I think about the attack, or the very idea that some were using critical race theory as a way to say, “well, the K-12 system they are teaching children, you know, how to be racist or that.” You know they’re making this stuff up. When you start seeing things like that, what’s next?
Will that impact higher ed? That’s one. When you start looking at K-12, when they start approving which textbooks you can use in some states and which textbooks you can’t use and how legislators get together and decide what they do not want to include about history in certain textbooks, another red flag.
And we’re fortunate that in a higher academic setting that professors oftentimes we select our own books. In most cases, in some cases, departments select books with having a team, but the curriculum is key. So if it higher ed administrators start scrutinizing curriculum, start scrutinizing textbooks, then that is also another red flag.
Florida being a state with some of the top notch, higher ed institutions, I do think that seeing what’s happening with the attacks on tenure, and the issue at UF right now with stopping those professors from being able to testify in these voting rights cases, people will question whether they want to apply to universities in Florida. I think people, at least some of the faculty that we have now, may decide to go other places.
And you lose as an institution, you invest in bringing these people in, you invest in resources to help them get tenure in state so that they can pass that knowledge onto their students. Those are concerns that many of us share.
Luke: So, I think that the attacks on Florida’s colleges and universities are quite clear now, what might not be as clear is the best way to fight back. So, whether it’s students or faculty and staff at the colleges and universities, or even just a member of the general public who wants to fight back against this nonsense, what would be the best way for them to get involved?
Paul: You know, the good news is that people are already doing this. You know, we have seen in the past few days, people were just… I mean, we had letters to the editor in support of intellectual freedom the moment almost that a decision about the three professors was announced. And so, people are making their voices heard.
Deandre: What can you do? Well, we have different community-based groups that you could be a part of. We have faculty who are engaged in educating folks in the community. Get to know them, get to know what the needs of the institution are and what many chapters have done, and we’ve done this at FAU, and UF has, we built stellar relationships with members of the press. And we write letters to the editor. So, we’re constantly engaging in community education and reaching out to community-based groups who are concerned with education in their community.
Tina: Since we recorded this, the UF administration has backed down and agreed to let the professors testify. Alumni, students, and concerned citizens have also signed petitions to stop contributions to the school. And the SACS Accrediting Administration has decided to investigate. However, there’s so much more work to be done at UF and all of Florida’s colleges and universities. Luke, we have to remember the original purpose of education was to maintain the status quo for the wealthy.
Luke: That is absolutely true. And that is why when educators try to disrupt the status quo, they will always come under attack from the state, and their unions will always be there to protect them. In fact, it was a UFF press conference that took place just hours before the University of Florida backed down. However, they had an entire list of demands at that press conference that have not yet been met. You can see that list of demands with a whole host of other resources we discussed today on our website, www.feaweb.org/podcast.
Before we say goodbye, Tina, why don’t you tell folks what’s coming up on our episode.
Tina: So glad you asked, Luke. Recently, we sat down with Representative Geraldine Thompson to discuss her proposed legislation to make sure that Black History is not only taught in Florida schools but that it’s taught accurately. It’s a conversation you won’t want to miss, and it’ll be coming up next time on Educating from the Heart. So, until we meet again, keep educating from the heart.
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Sharon: Educating from the Heart is a production of the Florida Education Association. FEA is the statewide educators’ union with more than 150,000 members, including teachers, education staff professionals, higher education faculty, graduate assistants, students preparing to become teachers and retired educators