The right-wing takeover of the Florida university system is nearly complete.
In Florida, the governor has virtually total control now. This makes it easy for him (and it’s always been a him) to politicize that control if he wants. And, Gov. Ron DeSantis badly wants to, judging from his actions.
I expect this to become a roadmap for other red states in the U.S. If I’m correct, then academia had better wake up to the fact and formulate strategies to protect their academic freedoms while they still have a few.
Who Selects the Board of Trustees in the Florida University System?
Let’s start with the Florida State University Board of Trustees. This is a 13-member governing board first created in 2001. It sets policy for the entire system.
How are these trustees appointed?
- Six members are appointed by the Governor of Florida
- Five members are appointed by the Board of Governors
- One member is elected by alumni (that is, the Chair of the Faculty Senate)
- One member is elected by students (that is, the President of the Student Body)
So, who Appoints the Board of Governors?
Alright, so the governor appoints six members of the Board of Trustees, but there are seven others. So, that’s not complete control, right?
Well, this raises the question of who determines who sits on the Board of Governors. I imagine you can guess.
Of the 17 members of the Board of Governors (which manages the Florida public university system), 14 are appointed by the Florida Governor. So, in effect, the governor determines 11 of the 13 members of the University Board of Trustees.
Has the Governor Always Had Total Power Over the Florida University System?
Nope. There used to be a Board of Regents, but that got abolished by back in 2001 by then Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida legislature. The Florida university system has been increasingly politicized ever since. It’s a pretty ugly story that goes like this, according to Yahoo!News:
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, state Sen. Charles Johns led a committee that attempted to identify civil rights activists and communists in the universities; eventually, the Johns Committee also expanded its witch hunts to include people in the LGBTQ community.
Many lives were ruined, and the intellectual climate on Florida campuses became very chilly indeed. This abuse of power was so egregious that the Florida Legislature established the Florida Board of Regents in 1965 to serve as a buffer between the state’s universities and its politicians.
However, even that buffer could be eliminated. In 2001, Gov. Jeb Bush wanted to abolish affirmative action in Florida’s universities, and the Board of Regents resisted the move. In frustration, Bush persuaded the Legislature to dissolve the Board of Regents and establish a Board of Trustees for each institution in the State University System. (All of its trustees were appointed by Bush.)
What Happens from Here?
From here, the governor seems determined to wield his nearly absolute power as aggressively as possible.
He has proposed a legislative overhaul that shifts even more power to the Board of Governors while limiting academic freedom and dismantling diversity initiatives at state universities. CNN reports:
The bill would put all hiring decisions in the hands of each universities’ board of trustees, a body selected entirely by the governor and his appointees, with input from the school’s president. A board of trustee member could also call for the review of any faculty member’s tenure.
In short, Florida academics’ freedom of thought and expression as well as any independence of action will continue to be whittled away for the foreseeable future. As in other increasingly authoritarian systems throughout history, academics will likely be targeted if they stick their heads above the political parapet.
The result will almost certainly mean a weakening of the state’s higher education system, but I don’t think that’s a concern for the Florida GOP. Indeed, they may believe that a less educated population will help ensure their long-term state dominance.
So, expect Florida politicians to give a lot of lip-service to idea of “strengthening” STEM (that is, science, technology, engineering and match) disciplines at universities while undermining anything that even subtly whiffs of art or culture-related issues (sociology, political science, history, anthropology, literature, liberal arts, etc.)
Anyone who is willing to think outside a very constrained and state-defined academic box will increasingly, I believe, be a target who lives in fear of being terminated from their positions, both at the university and K-12 levels of education.
Absolute power corrupts, and the power of Gov. DeSantis, who will likely soon run for president, grows more absolute by the day.
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