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Here’s why we fear a dystopian future for Florida’s universities | Column
It’s time for all of us to say, “Enough.” No more Newspeak. No more lies. No more censorship. No more indoctrination.
 
Long faces fall over a group of students as the New College's Board of Trustees as Richard Corcoran is voted in as the next president of the public liberal arts college on Oct. 3 in Sarasota.
Long faces fall over a group of students as the New College's Board of Trustees as Richard Corcoran is voted in as the next president of the public liberal arts college on Oct. 3 in Sarasota. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Dec. 16, 2023

Last week, the American Association of University Professors released a report on “Political Interference and Academic Freedom in Florida’s Public Higher Education System,” based on nearly a year of in-depth inquiry by a special committee that interviewed dozens of faculty, staff, students and administrators, including former university or college presidents, across Florida. The report concludes that the ideologically driven assault that Florida’s public colleges and universities have faced in recent years is “unparalleled in U.S. history” and “threatens the very survival of meaningful higher education” within the state.

Since the report’s release, a spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis has called the report a “hoax” and Richard Corcoran, the newly appointed president of New College of Florida and former speaker of the Florida House, has issued an unyielding response. Corcoran implies that the report is part of “the sensational press” and a reflection of those perspectives that oppose “educational freedom.”

Afshan Jafar
Afshan Jafar [ Provided ]
Anil Kalhan
Anil Kalhan [ ZAVE SMITH | Provided ]
Emily M.S. Houh
Emily M.S. Houh [ Provided ]
Henry Reichman
Henry Reichman [ MIKE FERGUSON | Provided ]

As members of the special committee that produced the AAUP’s report, we find these responses unsurprising. As the report discusses, one of the most frequent phrases used to describe Florida’s reality in recent years by many of the people interviewed by the committee is ”Orwellian.”

The reference, arising from George Orwell’s novel “1984,” evokes a state government intent on dictating people’s lives — from what books they can read to which bathrooms they can use. But the reference also calls to mind a dystopian society in which up is down, good is bad, evidence is hoax, censorship is freedom, propaganda is education, and education is indoctrination.

DeSantis, Corcoran and their supporters insist that they support “critical thinking,” “pursuit of truth,” and “free inquiry, expression and academic rigor.” They say they want “educational choice and freedom.” But their actions demonstrate otherwise.

They continue censoring discussions of certain identities and experiences (and even entire fields), banning books, sanitizing history, preventing students from being able to access ideas and knowledge freely, firing those educators who don’t share their ideology (and hiring only those who do), and seeking to impose a narrow-minded and stale curriculum, all of which signals the beginning of the dark ages in Florida.

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In short, they, not the faculty members whom they attack, are the ones using the tools of indoctrination and autocracy in an attempt to ensure that their views are never challenged. They are abusing their political and administrative positions by seeking to limit the ideas to which Floridians will be exposed, and by doing so, controlling not just people’s actions in the present but also their thinking in the future.

These methods of indoctrination and propaganda seek to prevent future generations from developing the knowledge or even the vocabulary to challenge the stories that are spun. Instead, catchy slogans and chants push people toward unthinking compliance and obedience, such that they never realize the absurdity of the world they are trapped in — a world very much like the one Orwell depicted in “1984,” where “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

Nowhere is this Orwellian approach more prominent than at New College of Florida, which has endured an aggressive, extreme takeover since DeSantis abruptly appointed six of the institution’s trustees at the start of 2023. The New College faculty, students, alumni and administrators who we interviewed often used glowing, superlative terms to describe New College before the DeSantis takeover — a “jewel,” a “unicorn,” a “hidden gem.” Indeed, its specialness was palpable from the first minute in which we started our interviews.

The rigorous, independent and creative curriculum of “the Old New College” (as our interviewees described it) produced students who were intrinsically motivated and invested in education — not for the sake of grades, since New College faculty provide narrative assessments instead of grades, but for the sake of pursuing knowledge. It is no surprise that the school has been one of the top producers of Fulbright scholarships and has some of the highest percentages of undergraduates going on to pursue doctoral degrees — especially in STEM fields.

To be sure, New College has long faced institutional challenges. A lack of funding and investment by the Florida Legislature had led to crumbling infrastructure, including leaky ceilings, residential buildings with severe mold issues, salaries that had been stagnant and facilities that had not been updated in decades. Amazingly, faculty, students and staff managed to thrive even under these challenging conditions. Imagine what they could have achieved under better circumstances?

But instead of addressing these real problems, DeSantis, his handpicked board and Corcoran have decided that the best way to deal with this “jewel” is by gutting its distinctive identity. Falsely attributing low enrollment to the school’s innovative and unique curriculum, they have insisted that a “classical liberal arts” model would make New College stronger — even as they announce plans to introduce subjects like Finance and Sports Psychology, that have nothing to do with a classical liberal arts education.

It is hardly surprising that in the wake of the takeover, faculty, employees and students who have contributed to New College’s success have been driven out of the institution in large numbers. By the start of the school year in 2023, more than 40 full-time faculty members had left New College either by resigning or taking an unanticipated leave of absence. Between Fall 2022 and Fall 2023, New College saw the lowest retention rate for students in its history (just under 65%), along with dropout rates across the student body totaling nearly 27% of the student population.

If the takeover of New College is a blueprint for similar changes at other colleges and universities in Florida — as DeSantis and others have made clear that it is — then what is to become of public higher education within the state? The majority of Florida’s politicians seem hellbent on dragging the Sunshine State into an abyss of ignorance. It’s time for all of us to say, “Enough.” No more Newspeak. No more lies. No more censorship. No more indoctrination.

There is still time to stem the darkness.

Professors Afshan Jafar, Anil Kalhan, Emily M.S. Houh and Henry Reichman are members of the special committee that produced the American Association of University Professors’ report.