There is a movement occurring in more than 30 states that seeks to prohibit discussion in higher education settings of topics deemed “divisive” or “inappropriate” by some often ill-defined metric. Nowhere has this movement had more traction than right here in Florida.
In the past two years, Florida has adopted several legislative measures that restrict higher education in our state. Taken together, they forbid faculty members from including a set of so-called “divisive concepts” about race, gender and identity in their classrooms; ban most diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives; restrict general education curricula and university mission statements; and limit the power of higher education accreditors to perform quality assurance at Florida colleges.
As seven former presidents of Florida public higher education institutions, we write to express our alarm at the impact these laws may have — are already having — at colleges and universities in our state. These measures erode academic freedom, prohibit instructors from accurately conveying history to their students and, ultimately, limit students’ access to the full range of information and ideas they need to become engaged citizens.
Florida has long been a national leader in its commitment to and investment in higher education — a record of which most Floridians, left and right, are justly proud. Similarly, we welcome robust debate across party lines about the role of particular initiatives and priorities within colleges and universities. Such dialogue across differences is the essence of a college education. But Florida’s recent legislative output has served not to encourage dialogue, but to diminish educational institutions and silence ideas on campus.
Although the severity of these recent legislative attacks is unprecedented, attempts to censor educational content in the state of Florida have a history. In 1956, the state Legislature created a Legislative Investigation Committee to investigate civil rights activists, LGBTQ+ individuals and alleged Communists on college campuses in Florida. The Legislative Investigation Committee, better known as the Johns Committee, continued until 1964 with the release of the committee’s report, colloquially called the Purple Pamphlet for the color of the cover. The public had finally had enough.
Nearly 60 years after the Johns Committee concluded its work of censorship, the Florida Legislature once again threatens academic freedom and free expression on campus. The rhetoric currently being aimed at the education sector at all levels is eerily reminiscent of that earlier time, again questioning the legitimacy of certain topics, again moving to ban books, again putting lesson plans under intense scrutiny and adding a new approach allowing anyone to register a formal complaint against any teacher they consider guilty of teaching taboo material.
For the past six decades, Florida higher education has approached the reality of a changing state and country with honesty. It takes courage to be willing to understand the world we live in, and to navigate it with our eyes open. The cowardly approach is to prohibit what we fear. And such prohibitions inevitably fail, as the Johns Committee’s work did — for two reasons: the curse of unintended consequences and because they are undone by the force of human curiosity.
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Two likely unintended consequences we can reasonably predict. First, the ability to participate in debate and discussion in a future Florida Legislature or in the public arena cannot happen if people never learn about their history, their fellow citizens, and the world they live in. Second, prohibition of certain content could well place graduates from Florida’s educational systems at a competitive disadvantage in the global talent hiring pool. Most global corporations value experience in understanding and navigating diversity across all dimensions. This is especially crucial in Florida, long considered the U.S. economic gateway to Latin America.
And what of human curiosity? Humans, quite simply, are just too curious for prohibitions on ideas to prevail. The most powerful thing curiosity provides is the drive to close information gaps. Research consistently indicates that when faced with censorship, for instance, adults of all ages are incentivized to seek alternative sources about the banned topics, often on social media. People will always seek out banned knowledge and ideas; it is simple human nature.
Given Florida’s past failures at suppressing ideas and content, and the importance of protecting everyone’s fundamental right to learn about and openly discuss them, we urge Floridians to make it clear to the Florida Legislature that, as it was in 1964, enough is enough.
Wilson G. Bradshaw is former president of Florida Gulf Coast University; John C. Cavanaugh is former president of the University of West Florida; Charles R. Dassance is former president of the College of Central Florida; Lars A. Hafner is former president of the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota; Michael V. Martin is former president of Florida Gulf Coast University; Eduardo Padrón is former president of Miami Dade College; and Dale Whittaker is former president of the University of Central Florida.