Professors’ Group Speaks Out about Changes at Florida College

02 March 2024

College professors and their students often say they should be permitted to pursue knowledge without too many restrictions from the government.

One organization that supports the idea of academic freedom is the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The AAUP is a non-profit group based in Washington D.C. that aims to support academic freedom and tenure. The group is concerned that national and state political leaders are interfering too much with colleges and universities.

AAUP expresses concern

FILE - A student makes her way past the sign at New College of Florida, Jan. 20, 2023, in Sarasota, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)
FILE - A student makes her way past the sign at New College of Florida, Jan. 20, 2023, in Sarasota, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)

In early February, the AAUP spoke out about what it said were attempts to control "what may be said, taught, or thought" in American colleges and Universities.

It pointed to hearings at the U.S. Congress in December that brought the presidents of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania to Washington. They each were asked if they would punish speech calling for genocide against the Jewish people.

In the days and weeks after the hearing, the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard stepped down from their jobs. Some said the answers they gave to Congress played a part.

At first, Harvard president Claudine Gay received support from a number of Harvard professors. But she decided to leave her job after being accused of plagiarism in her academic writing. After Gay left her position, the AAUP spoke out about the way influential people worked to push her out.

Irene Mulvey is the head of AAUP. She said the way Gay was pushed out of her job "(did) not bode well for academic freedom."

Research into New College of Florida

On February 26, AAUP released a statement about its concerns over academic freedom. It said actions at the New College of Florida, a small school in Florida's State University System, did not meet "widely accepted standards of academic government."

The group said Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, had changed the college's top leadership group to restrict academic freedom. AAUP described some of the changes that began in early 2023 in a report released last December. The report is called "Political Interference and Academic Freedom in Florida's Public Higher Education System."

After studying the report, AAUP's top leaders, known as the governing council, voted to speak out against, or sanction, what it called "an unprecedented politically motivated takeover" of the school. The group has only sanctioned 12 other universities in its history.

The December report said DeSantis targeted New College of Florida because he believed it was too "woke." The report says conservatives now define the word as: "politically liberal or progressive...especially in a way that is considered unreasonable or extreme."

The governor appointed a group of six new people to the college's board of trustees. The board is a college or university's top leadership group.

That group pushed out New College of Florida's president and worked to restrict the kinds of study programs the school could offer. The new trustees also worked to change the way professors applied for tenure, which guarantees those who have it a job for life. Many of the new trustees had written papers and made comments criticizing critical race theory (CRT). The theory centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the country's institutions and that most social interactions can be explained by race.

The board members also spoke against DEI, or diversity, equity and inclusion, a movement aiming to change how society is made up.

No longer safe

One law professor in Florida, LeRoy Pernell, told AAUP what was happening in the state was a "reign of terror." Pernell teaches law at Florida A&M University. That term was first used to describe the French Revolution, which took place more than 225 years ago.

New College is a state school, which means Florida provides part of its budget and it is governed under state laws. For years, New College had been permitted to be "quirky." That means it welcomed students and professors who had unusual interests and wanted to follow study programs outside of normal ones.

Many students who felt uncomfortable at more traditional colleges went to New College of Florida and said they felt happy and safe. LBGTQ students say they chose the school because it was open to those who did not follow traditional sexual or gender ideas.

Elizabeth Leininger is a science professor. In a 2023 story, she called New College "one of the most unique places ... that exists in American higher education."

The AAUP talked with professors at other Florida universities who said they were concerned about the changes at New College of Florida. They said professors are worried about their own ability to seek academic freedom. Some are looking for jobs in other states.

Carolyne Ali-Khan is an education professor at the University of North Florida. "These governmental attacks from the State of Florida have made us unsafe," she told the AAUP.

Kenneth Nunn is a former law professor at the University of Florida. He said good job candidates who are Black are no longer considering Florida schools, "because they see attacks on CRT as attacks on what they do."

What comes next?

In its report, the AAUP said it offered the chancellor, or top leader, of the Florida College System, a chance to present Florida's side of the story. The chancellor, Kathy Hebda, said no because, she said, the AAUP would not "fairly and fully consider any testimony."

When the sanction came out, a representative from New College of Florida noted that the AAUP's decision has no ability to force changes or prevent a university from operating. In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, New College spokesman Nathan March called the report an attempt to get attention.

The AAUP did say it is not too late to prevent what happened at New College of Florida from happening in other places.

"The time for intervention has not passed—yet. We call on all professional organizations, unions, faculty, students, staff, administrators, and communities across the country to fight such "reforms"," it wrote. The group called academic freedom an important part of democratic societies.

I'm Anna Matteo. And I'm Dan Friedell.

Dan Friedell wrote this story for VOA Learning English based on AAUP's report and news reports and information.


Words in This Story

pursue v. to seek something that is difficult to find or catch

academic adj. related to education especially college education; something that is found in schools but not in professional life or the real world

tenure n. the right to have a job for life that exists mainly in academic jobs

plagiarism n. the charge of having copied someone's writings without their permission, outside of normal rules

bode –v. to be a sign of the future

standards n. (pl.) a level of quality or ability that must be reached and maintained

sanction v. to speak out against something

unprecedented adj. something that has never happened before

quirky adj. having unusual qualities that are not generally considered normal

We want to hear from you. Are you worried about restrictions on academic freedom? Do you feel there is academic freedom where you live?