Florida faculty fight grave threat to tenure, academic freedom

Tenure is on the chopping block in Florida, and faculty are fighting mightily to snatch it back to safety.

In a state where educators have faced repeated challenges to academic freedom and the right to teach true history, the Florida board of governors has proposed a five-year tenure review at public colleges and universities. One of the biggest problems it poses? It would probe not just performance but compliance with state law—including law that restricts how faculty can teach about systemic racism and gender discrimination.

Photo of a university building

United Faculty of Florida President Andrew Gothard calls the policy an “unprecedented” threat to tenure. It gives the power to fire tenured faculty to just one person—the chief academic officer; it is duplicative of existing tenured faculty reviews; and it overrules collective bargaining agreements, essentially stripping the union of its voice.

“Unchallenged, this regulation will devastate the quality of higher education in Florida, including harm to research and the recruiting and retention of faculty,” states UFF’s website. “It could also serve as a trigger and blueprint for similar attacks nationwide.”

UFF is circulating a petition against the tenure review proposal and urging faculty to comment on the board of governors’ website. The comment period is open until Friday, Dec. 9. In addition, the AFT and AAUP have submitted comments on the case.

Mounting threats to academic freedom

The threat to tenure is just one in a long line of attempts to gut academic freedom on Florida campuses. Chief among them is House Bill 7, previously known as the Stop WOKE Act. Championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, it restricts the way educators can talk about race and gender. A federal judge blocked HB 7 from applying in higher education contexts after a group of educators—including UFF/AFT members—filed a lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Tallahassee U.S. District Judge Mark Walker agreed with the plaintiffs, writing that HB 7 violates First Amendment free speech protections. He even quoted George Orwell’s 1984: “‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,’ and the powers in charge of Florida’s public university system have declared the State has unfettered authority to muzzle its professors in the name of ‘freedom,’” Walker wrote. “This is positively dystopian.” The DeSantis administration plans to appeal.

Meanwhile, the law has already damaged higher education in Florida. “Positions are beginning to go unfilled and searches are failing,” says Gothard. “Faculty don’t want to come to teach in Florida.” Some existing faculty are eliminating books and authors from their syllabi that could be considered controversial.

The state has mounted other attempts to control academia as well:

  • State leaders established an ideological survey to determine whether faculty are liberal or conservative; some have threatened to defund universities that do not align with their conservative views. The law establishing the survey, HB 233, also allows students to record professors without their prior knowledge. UFF sued over the statute.
  • The university system pushed professors to change the name of a course concentration called Critical Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Education, hinting that keeping the name could trigger far right state officials’ scrutiny and put faculty jobs in jeopardy. UFF filed a grievance on behalf of history professor and UFF member Chris Busey, and the grievance died when the course name was ultimately allowed.

Fighting back

“This is not a time to mince words,” says Paul Ortiz, a University of Florida history professor and president of United Faculty of Florida-UF. “This is repression.” Black and Latinx professors are particularly affected.

But Ortiz, who is Latinx, says he is “too old to self-censor” and prefers to stay, teaching classes on the African American diaspora and Latino history, and advising graduate students studying comparative race and ethnic studies. He heeds what colleagues in the Northeast are saying: “Your union’s got to hold the line because if you lose there on HB 7 and HB 233, the whole system is going to fall like dominoes.”

UFF regularly defends faculty targeted for teaching works by Toni Morrison, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Angela Davis. Many—especially members of the union—refuse to change their syllabi for administrators who are fearful of upsetting the state Legislature—and losing funding.

“It doesn’t change what I teach,” says Dana Thompson Dorsey, an education professor at the University of South Florida and one of the plaintiffs in the HB 7 case. Her classes on school law and critical race studies include student questions about what the so-called Stop WOKE law and the “Don’t Say Gay” law allow and don’t allow, and discussions of “myths and tropes” about different racial groups, religions and gender identities. Dorsey encourages students to share a broad range of perspectives. “That’s how we grow and learn from each other.”

“Many faculty want to show up to that moment when students have tough questions,” says Jennifer Sandoval, a communications professor who teaches intercultural communication at the University of Central Florida and is a plaintiff in the HB 7 case. She was thrilled when one student was learning so much new content he told her, “This class is tearing the fabric of my reality.”

The fact that HB 7 and tenure review are worrying her colleagues, chilling classroom discussions like the ones influencing her students, and even “changing the face of education,” says Sandoval, is terrifying. “If you can’t ask tough questions here, where else are you going―the University of Google?”

Sandoval leans into her union activism to fuel her determination to engage her students, without fear. “We have to rely on each other,” agrees Ortiz. “For us, the union has been the place where we’ve been able to come together and find some resolve. Mutual support is everything.”

“We believe higher education is a public good,” says Gothard, explaining the energy behind the union’s fight. “We are fighting so that Ron DeSantis’ authoritarianism, his disdain for the protections of the Constitution and his flippant way of stepping on the citizens he is supposed to be representing doesn’t move to a national scale. … We have to keep fighting. We can’t give up.”

[Virginia Myers]