The Takeover of the Florida University System

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 Impact

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.

On Why Gen Z May Have a Great Future After All

Poor Gen Z. In the United States, the oldest members this generation (born between 1997 and 2012, give or take a few years) have only recently entered adulthood, and it’s been a pretty rough ride so far.

Let’s say the eldest are 25. That means that since their 18th birthdays, they’ve seen the divisive Trump years, the turmoil of the pandemic, an attempted insurrection, a sudden surge in inflation, record global warming, a couple of recessions (yeah, I’m calling this one even if the NBER isn’t), an invasion in Europe, the greatest amount of political polarization since the U.S. Civil war, and the descent of the U.S. political system into the category of flawed democracy.

It’s little wonder that they’re turning out to pessimistic about the future. The world in general and the U.S. in particular has looked like a real shit show in recent years, and the immediate future isn’t looking all that bright, either.

But will Gen Z really be the generation that comes to adulthood just in time to see economies collapse, the world burn up, nation states fall apart, and Orwellian authoritarian states become the norm?

Sure, it could happen, especially if they (and the rest of us) don’t fight against those dystopian futures. But here’s the thing. If you squint a bit, you can detect signs that the Gen Zers might have a pretty great future after all.

Here are just a few of the trends we can point to:

  • The emergence of a go-go green world: Few have commented on the trend so far, but renewable energy is growing at exponential rates. If we only confine ourselves to solar and wind globally, the rate of growth is doubling every 3.75 years. Even if we round this up to 4, these two energies alone will provide more power in 2034 than was generated globally in 2021. The future will be renewable, and soon. That’s not a bad way to spend your early adulthood.
  • The rise of the smart (and hopefully super helpful) machines: Artificial intelligence is advancing at remarkable rates, which may have massive implications for productivity, innovation and more. Recently DeepMind announced it had successfully used AI to predict the 3D structures of nearly every catalogued protein known to science: over 200 million proteins found in plants, bacteria, animals, and humans! Sure, it was hard to hear that astonishing news amid all the hubbub about the end of the Chaco Taco, but history will judge this a major historic event (DeepMind, not the Taco). If AI can so quickly be productive in this one extremely challenging area of science, then imagine the impact it can have on worker productivity in general. As productivity rates rise over the next decade or more, so will income per capita (in theory). Of course, those gains need to be properly redistributed throughout the workforce, but that’s a different challenge. Yes, powerful AI could potentially have a number of truly terrible repercussions as well, but let’s focus on the bright side here.
  • The dazzling advances in microbiology. The protein-folding achievement just noted is one part of a much larger set of advances in microbiology. CRISPR, for example, is an astonishing technology. The rapid creation of the Covid-19 vaccination was just one the modern miracles brought to you by microbiology. These advances will continue and, in fact, speed up due to aforementioned machine learning techniques. If we can avoid the specter of bioterrorism, these advances might well mean that Gen Z will be the healthiest and longest-living generation in history. Death? Hah. That was so 2020s!
  • The renaissance in reformed political systems. Yes, the U.S. as well as various other nations are in danger of turning away from democracy and toward totalitarianism. Based on the popularity of scary-ass demagogues like my governor Ron DeSantis, we might well see the Orban-ization of America in the near future. However, at the same time, there are various grassroots movements (e.g., RepresentUS) that are seeking to reform the more corrupt and dysfunctional aspects of government. Perhaps if the U.S. can build up its immunity to demagoguery and neo-fascism quickly enough, there could be a flowering of pro-democracy movements here and abroad. This could eventually lead not just to more democracy globally but to more functional forms of democracy than have ever existed.
  • The rise in environmental protections and the strengthening of Earth’s ecosystems. Humanity has done an enormous amount of harm to the global ecosystem, but, along with the advancement in renewables, there will also be more programs such as 30×30, which is is a worldwide initiative for governments to designate 30% of Earth’s land and ocean area as protected areas by 2030. Now it even looks as if the U.S. might be able to pass the The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which would put about $385 billion into combating climate change and bolstering U.S. energy production through changes that would encourage cuts in carbon emissions. So, Gen Z may be the first generation to spend its early adulthood in a global culture that finally takes serious steps to heal much of the environmental damage humanity has already wrought

Sure, there are lots of things that could go disastrously wrong. Some of them surely will. But there are also a lot of things that could go very right. Since the Gen Zers can’t tell for sure, they can join one of the many movements to make things better.

At the very least, they’ll be able to enjoy the comradery of people trying to improve things. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to help create a way better world than the one they’ve inherited so far.

Featured image: By Dian Dong, Toronto climate change activist Alienor Rougeot calling upon the public, with the youth, to take action in one of Fridays for Future's earlier climate strikes, 15 March 2019