Opinion | ‘Propaganda Factories and Intellectual Wastelands’ Are Not What They Had in Mind

Over the past decade, a liberal faction within America’s colleges and universities, corporate America and the media have promoted goals of diversity, equity and inclusion, endorsed regulations restricting “harmful speech,” encouraged the ostracization of dissenters and sought to grant enhanced status to the previously marginalized.

Now, in reaction, comes the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, his allies in the state legislature and Republican politicians across America with a blunt force counter-agenda that uses the coercive power of government to impose its own speech code and ideology on education, including higher education, as well as on private businesses.

In this, DeSantis and his emulators are demonstrating that the hard right is willing not only to jettison the conservative principle of restrained government, but to endanger the accreditation of a state system of higher education — a crucial pillar of economic growth — in order to promulgate their own repressive version of permissible language in America’s universities and colleges, which have traditionally been bastions of academic freedom.

“We want education, not indoctrination,” DeSantis proclaimed recently while simultaneously setting out what cannot be taught and what must be taught in Florida’s extensive network of postsecondary schools.

Many who have in the past been sharply critical of progressive excess now see DeSantis as promoting excess on the right.

Amna Khalid, a history professor at Carleton College in Minnesota, has written extensively in the Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications on such subjects as “Yes, D.E.I. Can Erode Academic Freedom. Let’s Not Pretend Otherwise” and “The Data Is In — Trigger Warnings Don’t Work.”

However, when I asked Khalid about legislation in Florida (HB 999) that would codify DeSantis’s higher education proposals into law, she emailed back:

HB 999 is an abomination. It’s the most comprehensive attack on academic freedom we’ve seen. From banning concepts and theories that can be taught, to limiting faculty and student speech outside the classroom, to the erosion of tenure and faculty involvement in hiring decisions, this bill, if passed, will turn Florida colleges and universities into state propaganda factories and intellectual wastelands.

What’s most dangerous about the bill, Khalid continued,

is its vagueness. Calling for general education courses to ban “Critical Race Theory” and the teaching of “identity politics,” without defining what exactly those terms mean, is a most devastatingly effective way of intimidating instructors. Anyone who wants to keep their jobs will no doubt have to self-censor and toe the line.

In addition, Khalid wrote, the measure “empowers university presidents and boards of trustees” (board members are appointed by the governor)

to make hiring, firing and post-tenure review determinations, making it impossible for faculty to critique any policy or challenge any position that runs counter to that of state officials. HB 999 targets the very core of academic freedom, the very thing that has made U.S. universities the envy of the world. If passed this bill will sound the death knell for higher education in Florida.

Khalid is by no means alone among those who have turned their fire on DeSantis.

Musa al-Gharbi, a sociologist at Columbia and a research fellow at the Heterodox Academy, noted in an email that

there is a vast and growing literature showing that existing D.E.I. programming used in many schools and corporations is not just ineffective, it’s actually pernicious. It demoralizes people, reduces trust, increases hostility and conflict, and even sometimes reinforces stereotypes or legitimizes prejudicial behaviors.

Al-Gharbi, however, is equally critical of DeSantis:

What is the main complaint of DeSantis et al.? Not that knowledge being produced is unreliable, or that students are failing to get good jobs, etc. No. They don’t like that institutions seem to bolster the cultural and political power of their rivals. And they want to instead leverage these institutions in the service of their own agenda. They’re not committed to academic freedom.

Many of the laws being passed, al-Gharbi wrote,

prevent teachers from discussing certain areas of research, or force them to toe particular lines, or drive them toward self-censorship, or weaken tenure protections. These are not moves that enhance academic freedom but undermine it. They aren’t concerned about academic freedom. They’re concerned about power.

What is the central focus of the controversy?

On Jan. 31, the DeSantis administration issued a set of proposals under the headline “Governor DeSantis Elevates Civil Discourse and Intellectual Freedom in Higher Education,” to “Further push back against the tactics of liberal elites who suppress free thought in the name of identity politics and indoctrination” to ensure that

Florida’s public universities and colleges are grounded in the history and philosophy of Western Civilization; prohibit D.E.I., C.R.T. and other discriminatory programs and barriers to learning; and course correct universities’ missions to align education for citizenship in the constitutional republic and Florida’s existing and emerging work force needs.

DeSantis’s proposals were subsequently introduced in legislative form as HB 999 by Representative Alex Andrade of Pensacola.

Among the provisions:

State university boards of trustees appointed by the governor will be responsible “for hiring faculty for the university.”

“Each state university board of trustees may, at the request of its chair, review any faculty member’s tenure status.”

“General education core courses may not suppress or distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics, such as Critical Race Theory, or defines American history as contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”

Mandatory removal from college and university course offerings of “any major or minor in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems.”

DeSantis is playing with fire.

In a February Inside Higher Education article, Brian Rosenberg, president emeritus of Macalester College in Minnesota and a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard, raised the issue of accreditation. Rosenberg cited the standards used by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which suggest that DeSantis’s proposals could result in the revocation of accreditation by the commission.

Among the standards Rosenberg points to are:

“Effective governing boards adhere to the laws and regulations that underpin the institution’s legitimacy while championing its right to operate without unreasonable intrusions by governmental and nongovernmental agencies and entities. This applies to any governing board, whether public, private not-for-profit, or private for-profit. The board protects and preserves the institution’s independence from outside pressures.”

“Because student learning is central to the institution’s mission and educational degrees, the faculty has responsibility for directing the learning enterprise, including overseeing and coordinating educational programs to assure that each contains essential curricular components, has appropriate content and pedagogy, and maintains discipline currency.”

“The essential role of institutions of higher education is the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. Academic freedom respects the dignity and rights of others while fostering intellectual freedom of faculty to teach, research, and publish. Responsible academic freedom enriches the contributions of higher education to society.”

I wrote to a number of experts in education policy — across the ideological spectrum — asking for their “take on Ron DeSantis’s latest education reform proposals and the legislation introduced by his allies in the Florida House, HB 999. Are his proposals a legitimate effort to restrain liberal ideological excesses or do they represent the use of the coercive power of government to impose an agenda on schools and colleges, or somewhere in between?”

Very few conservatives voiced concern, in response to my inquiry, over the use of government to set an ideological agenda.

Yoram Hazony, chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, replied to me by email:

We are supportive of DeSantis and Christopher Rufo’s attempts to find ways to improve the ideological balance within the university system. The university system relies heavily on public funding, and so it should be roughly balanced between left-leaning and conservative professors. The fact that under 10 percent of professors are drawn from conservative academic circles means that academic research is too susceptible to groupthink and that a university education is at this point too similar to indoctrination. We would like to see a variety of means adopted for rectifying these problems.

Along similar lines, Nate Hochman, a staff writer at National Review, emailed to say:

I’m a fan. I think the bill is right on the merits, but I also don’t recognize the allegations of “authoritarianism” that are made about these and related efforts from DeSantis as it pertains to higher-education reform. To the contrary, this is democracy in action; the fact that its effects are at odds with the policy preferences of progressives doesn’t make that any less true.

Hochman argued that

These are state or state-funded institutions we’re talking about, and DeSantis and the Florida legislature are the representatives that Florida’s voters (overwhelmingly!) elected to govern said institutions. To suggest that they should be insulated from oversight, reform or accountability to elected lawmakers is to reject a basic principle of democratic self-determination — that the voters, via the representatives they elect, get the final say in how their tax dollars are spent.

One of the conservatives I contacted raised constitutional questions about DeSantis’s approach, while voicing overall approval.

Adam Kissel, a former deputy assistant secretary of education in the Trump administration and now a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy, wrote: “Rather than respond in terms of ideology, I would say his proposals are a welcome effort to return public colleges and universities to their traditional, core mission of seeking out and transmitting knowledge.”

But, Kissel added, HB 999 “has some constitutional infirmities, especially viewpoint interventions that are likely to fail in court. The unconstitutional provisions can easily be reworded or omitted, leaving several excellent features intact.” Kissel described how to deal with those infirmities in an essay published by the Federalist, “The Smart Lawmaker’s Guide To Writing Anti-Critical Race Theory Laws That Will Stand Up In Court.”

What is striking about most of the responses I received from conservatives is the minimization or complete absence of concern over the politicization of higher education when the driving force is from the right.

One exception is Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who addressed the complexity of the debate in an email:

Higher ed and K-12 are different. States are on much firmer ground in seeking to establish or constrain what gets taught in K-12 education, where the concept of academic freedom simply doesn’t exist. Public schoolteachers aren’t independent free agents or independent professionals who can exercise free speech in public schools; they are generally regarded by the law as ‘hired speech’ delivering a curriculum set by school boards, districts, or state authorities.

In contrast, students in colleges and universities, Pondiscio continued,

are adults and generally enrolled by choice, not compelled or coerced by the state to attend. So even if states are within their rights to exert their authority (and even if higher ed tends to be politicized or an intellectual monoculture) there’s a risk of overreaching. What is appropriate and defensible for K-12 education starts to feel less so at the college or university level.

DeSantis, in turn, has demonstrated the quintessential politicalization of higher education in his takeover of New College, a small progressive public college on Sarasota Bay that has described itself as a “community of freethinkers, risk takers and trailblazers,” while winning relatively high marks from ranking organizations like U.S. News&World Report, Forbes, Kiplinger’s and The Princeton Review.

In January, DeSantis replaced six of the 13 members on the college’s board of trustees with such conservative ideologues as Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute; Matthew Spalding, professor in constitutional government at Hillsdale College; Charles R. Kesler, professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College and editor of the Claremont Review of Books; Mark Bauerlein, senior editor at First Things and professor of English at Emory University; and Jason “Eddie” Speir, co-founder of the Inspiration Academy, a Christian Charter School in Bradenton, Florida, and the author of “’Florida, Where Woke Goes to Die,’ What Does It Mean?”

On Jan. 29, Speir posted on his Substack his plan, as a member of the board of trustees, to “declare that all hiring, and salaries changes be frozen” to “employ a zero-based budgeting policy of terminating all contracts for faculty, staff and administration and immediately rehiring those faculty, staff and administration who fit in the new financial and business model,” to ask “for a legal opinion regarding our ability to remove tenure from New College of Florida” and to “create a curriculum review committee.”

Speir called on the board to root out from the New College curriculum

Aspects of wokeness that are dogmatic. These aspects should not be incorporated into a curriculum, nor supported through school sponsored programs or activities. One example of a dogmatic expression of wokeness is the assertion that America and its institutions are systemically racist and must be torn down.

He also called for a prohibition of “aspects of wokeness that are in essence pledges of fealty,” which, he argued , “are antithetical to Floridian’s shared values. One such example of a pledge of fealty is the demand that woke pronouns are used.”

On Feb. 28, Rufo posted his own plans for New College on Twitter:

We will be shutting down low-performing, ideologically captured academic departments and hiring new faculty. The student body will be recomposed over time: some current students will self-select out, others will graduate; we’ll recruit new students who are mission-aligned.

In some respects, DeSantis has been on target in his critique of contemporary education both at the K-12 level and in colleges and universities. Many D.E.I. initiatives have been found to be ineffective or counterproductive. Some of the leading proponents of critical race theory make intellectually questionable assumptions.

DeSantis promises to “elevate civil discourse and intellectual freedom in higher education, further pushing back against the tactics of liberal elites who suppress free thought in the name of identity politics and indoctrination.” As he leads the charge against what he describes as a corrupt and bankrupt left, however, DeSantis not only calls for the substitution of one ideology for another, but appears to be willing to potentially damage the credentials of Florida’s highly ranked public university and college system.

DeSantis faces a strategic problem. As a graduate of Yale College and Harvard Law School — bastions of the liberal intellectual elite — he fully understands “academic rigor” and “standards of excellence.” Nonetheless, he has adopted tactics for his expected presidential bid that — in the Trump era — require the abdication of reason. He is now feeding red meat to an enraged, predominantly non-college Republican electorate.

So far, politically speaking, this strategy has worked well in Florida, but what he sees as the need to continually outflank Trump has pushed DeSantis into dangerous territory, where his proposals threaten to become liabilities in a general election. He faces the dilemma of going too far or not far enough. Does he really need to use a bludgeon to make his point?

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