Is DeSantis following Orbán’s playbook on universities?

“Let’s understand, finally, one of the reasons that this [academic freedom] is such a hot topic. Why suddenly, universities are a burning issue of controversy everywhere in the world. Why? Because they are so important. The knowledge that drives the modern economy comes out of university research labs and seminars. And, he who controls knowledge has power.” – Michael Ignatieff, speaking at the “Academic Freedom in the Balance: Central European University and New College Florida” webinar hosted by the Open Society University Network (OSUN) on 10 March 2023.

Last Friday, as he was glad-handing potential donors and voters in Iowa, where the race for the Republican presidential nomination for 2024 will begin, Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis proudly repeated that “Florida is where woke goes to die”.

Just days earlier, referring to House Bill 999 (HB 999) and a series of laws passed last year against what he calls “woke” policies, DeSantis told Floridians: “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”

Once passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature and signed into law by DeSantis, HB 999 and a suite of laws passed last year will have banned the teaching of critical race theory (CRT), restricted academic freedom, mandated the teaching of a course in constitutional government (including specifying what the syllabus should cover), and ended programmes in gender studies and other “unproven” disciplines at New College of Florida (Sarasota), the state’s public small liberal arts college.

As well, the HB 999 defunds diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offices across the state’s public university system.

Using his executive authority, DeSantis has restructured New College’s board of trustees so that it is in line with his conservative and political priorities, and HB 999 gives the trustees at New College and the state’s 12 universities the power to appoint professors without taking into account the opinion of faculty, make decisions about tenure, and demand, without cause, reviews of tenure earlier than the normal five years.

As DeSantis sought support in Iowa (and plugged his new book, The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s blueprint for America’s revival), on 10 March, OSUN hosted the webinar titled “Academic Freedom in the Balance: Central European University and New College Florida.”

Two students from New College and Michael Ignatieff – who was rector of the Central European University (CEU) when restrictive laws passed by Hungary’s strong-man Prime Minister Viktor Orbán forced the university to move from Budapest to Vienna, Austria, in 2019 and is now university professor of history at CEU – mounted a rigorous critique of DeSantis’s actions that focused on what is happening at New College, and the national and international implications of the governor’s assault on academic freedom.

Throughout the hour-long webinar, the students’ feelings of hurt, of the loss of the college that they had grown to love and excel in, and danger were palpable.

Joshua Epstein’s reference to Hitler taking control of Germany’s universities (in Gleichschaltung between January 1933 and late 1934 during which the Reich’s institutions were Nazified) was not hyperbole.

For the third-year student, the reference was personal – he’s the grandson of Holocaust survivors – and apt to today’s situation in Florida: “Hitler banned books. Hitler understood that if you control what people learn, then you can control what people think.

“My greatest fear is that we are going to have politicians not legislating to create a university that’s more efficient and works better, but instead, a university that teaches what they want us to be taught.”

In an interview with University World News shortly before the webinar, Jonathan Becker, vice-chancellor of OSUN, which is based at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York (100 miles north of New York City), where he teaches political science, referred to his article, “The Global Liberal Arts Challenge”.

Published last October in Ethics and International Affairs, the article said that America’s public colleges and universities were hardly immune from the attack on liberal arts and science pioneered by Orbán, followed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Türkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and in Myanmar after the 2020 coup d’état.

During the Myanmar coup, the military arrested and killed thousands of students and put an end to education reforms that had seen Parami University partner with Bard to create a liberal arts and science college in Yangon in Myanmar. The moderator of the webinar, Kyaw Moe Tun, had been Parami University’s president; he fled Myanmar for his life and is now Parami University’s director in exile.

Becker said: “I didn’t imagine it [the attack on liberal arts and science] would come so fiercely, but one could see it coming. It’s important to focus on New College because it is the first major institutional challenge in what is likely to be a sequence of attacks on both liberal education, and college and universities more broadly.

“This attack represents the attempt to erode institutions that are democratic in nature.

“It’s a continuation of the assault on democracy we saw on 6 January [2021] and the idealisation of authoritarian leaders that we see increasingly in the US political environment.”

CEU a ‘hostage’ in Orbán’s battle

The webinar began with Ignatieff telling how CEU – which was funded by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros – was forced out of Hungary, a story, he emphasised, that could serve as a script for today’s culture war in Florida and Governor DeSantis’s re-election last fall and presidential ambitions for 2024.

“It was a straight attack on us for political purposes. Viktor Orbán had to fight an election campaign in 2018 and he needed an enemy. And his enemy was George Soros, founder of the university [and also founder of the Open Society Foundations]. We were taken hostage in his [Orbán’s] political battle to win an election. I suspect that your college has been taken hostage by the Republican governor of your state to make a similar point.”

In the past few weeks, Epstein explained, New College has seen its president sacked; the interim president is Richard Corcoran (who as Florida’s commissioner of education from December 2018 to May 2022 oversaw at the primary and secondary level many of the same changes currently occurring in the state’s public colleges and universities). Students and faculty watched helplessly as DeSantis fired six members of the board and appointed seven new ones who are there to do the governor’s bidding.

Among the new trustees are Matthew Spalding, vice-president and dean of Hillsdale College, a private Christian college in rural Michigan that has been praised by conservatives, including Virginia (Ginni) Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and one of the most prominent people to deny that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election.

Also appointed to New College’s board of trustees is Christopher Rufo, a member of the Manhattan Institute, who in 2019 was chiefly responsible for turning critical race theory (CRT) into a cudgel Republicans used in the 2020 election. Despite the fact that CRT was not being taught in Virginia’s schools, Governor Glenn Youngkin rode the moral panic Rufo instigated into the Executive Mansion in Richmond, for example.

Students dubbed ‘druggies’ and ‘weirdos’

Rufo’s characterisation of New College on 25 January of this year as being “politically correct” and filled with “druggies” and “weirdos” hardly squares with the school Epstein described. Pointing to himself, he noted that he’s politically in the middle and is majoring in economics and minoring in finance and wants to be a corporate banker.

The epithets, which were gleefully repeated by the National Review, the conservative journal founded by William F Buckley (perhaps best known for saying, “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop!”), hardly describe the other student on the webinar.

Second year pre-med student Fatima Ismatulla is majoring in neuroscience with a triple minor in applied mathematics, computer science and chemistry, and wants to work with under-represented minorities who are often misunderstood in healthcare settings.

Nor do the epithets match with what Nirvan Mullick, who graduated from New College in 1997, recalls about what even then was considered a funky liberal arts college.

“In terms for bang for your buck,” he says, “there was no better place to go in the country at the time. Classes were small and were filled with very smart students and faculty. You had the ability to study what you wanted, with its flexible tutorial programme and independent study programme.”

Mullick recalled that his undergraduate thesis was very rigorous and how the college’s openness to students creating their own pathway changed his life. Since New College didn’t have a film programme, he was able to design his own and make a film.

“I’ve gone on to become a filmmaker because of the flexibility that the school gave me to study what I wanted,” says Mullick, whose page on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) lists him as director of seven films and who between 2015 and 2016 directed the UN Foundation’s #EarthToParis Climate Change Campaign for COP21 and COP22.

Conservative views silenced by peers

About halfway through the webinar, Ignatieff accused DeSantis of rank cynicism when he speaks of academic freedom, which applies only to those with conservative views whom DeSantis claims are silenced on campus. (Studies conducted in both North Carolina’s and Wisconsin’s state university show that conservatives do feel silences on campus – but not by their professors; they point, rather, to their student peers as not wanting to hear their conservative views.)

Speaking of New College, Rufo, for example, told Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times that the board intended to “design a new core curriculum from scratch” and “encode it in a new academic master plan”.

Some of what Rufo and the government of Florida mean by this can be gleaned from HB 999’s banning of gender and intersectionality studies and from the clauses that mandate what texts are to be used in a course designed to cover “citizenship for a constitutional republic”: the Declaration of Independence, The Federalist Papers and the Constitution.

Indeed, while it is hard to imagine a professor teaching a course on the development of the US constitutional system without these texts, mandating them by law is entirely different as it puts the government’s nose directly into the lecture hall; so does the injunction in HB 999 against teaching “unproven, theoretical or exploratory content”, which would catch almost every school of American historiography – save for memorising dates and events.

Tellingly, HB 999’s statements about educating students for “citizenship in the constitutional republic” are undercut by changes to several clauses that were made to the text during first reading. The clauses “Provide students with an opportunity to be politically active and civically engaged” and “Nurture a greater awareness of and passion for public service and politics” were deleted.

“In the name of academic freedom, Ron DeSantis is fighting ‘woke’,” Ignatieff told the webinar.

“What’s particularly worrying is that by aligning himself with ‘academic freedom’, he’s essentially flying a false flag because he will simply destroy the academic freedom at New College and across the Florida academic system and rewrite the rules so that he can put into these jobs people more aligned with his point of view. That’s not academic freedom; that’s just a conservative counterattack on it.”

As did Becker, Mullick, Epstein and Ismatulla, Ignatieff tied DeSantis and other Republican governors (such as Texas’s Greg Abbott who has signed into law legislation similar to Florida’s) to illiberal leaders like Orbán.

The Hungarian leader’s successful battle with CEU not only opened the door to Orbán inviting the Chinese to open a university in Budapest, it positioned him globally as the warrior against liberal cosmopolitanism, against those who are pro-migrations, pro-gender studies, pro-racial equality.

“And now, Mr Orbán speaks at conservative gatherings in the United States and conservative pundits and Tucker Carlson [of Fox News] come to Budapest,” says Ignatieff, ruefully.

Focusing again on the situation in the United States, Ignatieff, who is a former member of the Canadian parliament (2006-11) and Leader of the Opposition between December 2008 and May 2011, continued: “These people don’t give a damn about universities. They’re after something else, which is to create wedge issues that build their brand with conservative voters. And if they smash up academic freedom in the process, they don’t care.

“We have to understand the cynicism of this. And it seems to me that Fatima and Joshua are being subjected to what can only be called vandalism. I’m calling it vandalism because it is vandalism.”

Both sides use military metaphors

Coming from someone as steeped in history as Ignatieff is, in this instance, the term “vandalism” is more than spray painting or throwing a rock through a window. Rather, it is redolent of the Sack of Rome in 455 and the destruction of the Roman Empire in the West by marauding Germanic tribes.

Not coincidentally, Rufo too uses military metaphors. On 6 April 2022, he gave a talk at Hillsdale College titled “Laying Siege to the Institutions” of higher education. On 6 January 2023, he tweeted: “Left-wing radicals have spent the past 50 years on a ‘long march through the institutions’. We are going to reverse that process, starting now. Gov[ernor] DeSantis has laid out a vision for recapturing the institutions and restoring them to American principles. Let’s do it.”

The reference to “long march” was meant to equate liberal and left-wing professors with the Long March Mao Tse Tung led his Communist force on between October 1934 and 1935. Rufo and others like him often deride liberal and left-wing professors as either Marxists or Cultural Marxists.

Two days before his 6 January tweet, Rufo tweeted that “Governor DeSantis is going to lay siege to university diversity, equity and inclusion programs”.

For students at New College, such language and the actions that followed have created fear and terrible uncertainty. After noting that the attack of the college’s new administration on the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) bureaucracy “didn’t find much”, Epstein says: “I think, right now, students and faculty are scared. They don’t know what the next steps look like for them.

“I’ve heard of a lot of students talking about transferring [a consequence welcomed by Rufo who wants to replace the student body with one attuned to DeSantis’s politics] . . .. They could find that the subjects that they were hoping to get their degree in no longer exist.

“I’ve never taken a gender studies class, but that [cancelling gender studies] is inevitably going to impact my political science professors and my economics professors and my finance and my accounting professors. Because it’s just, you either fall in line, or you don’t have a job anymore. That’s kind of how the faculty feel. It’s scary; it’s scary.”

Ismatulla, too, has heard of students and faculty who are planning to leave New College. She told the webinar that the professors could find places in other universities and that that could lead to the collapse of entire departments.

In measured tones, Ismatulla presented a scathing attack on Rufo’s claim that students could effectively vote with their feet.

“There’s the issue of tuition; there’s the issue of housing. There’s the transition period that those of us who want to go into postgraduate programmes [will face] to establish bonds or relationships with professors [at other schools] in order to have good recommendation letters and research experience.

“If the professors at our institution leave, they will take their research with them. And if we’ve been working on research projects for the past few years, that’s gone. We’re going to be put at a disadvantage at other schools [with] those students who have already established relationships with professors.”

Unlike students at other universities, with hurt in her voice, Ismatulla told the webinar that she and her classmates are not interested in “Greek life” (fraternities or sororities) or sports. “We’re a bunch of nerds. We love to study; we love to explore. We love to learn and make our own projects. And when you take that away, well, why did we choose New College? It’s frustrating, everyone’s being affected.”

Later, however, Ismatulla’s voice showed steel when she recounted that on a visit to the campus Rufo made clear that only his opinion mattered. As if speaking to him, she countered: “You know what, you can’t control how we’re going to continue community building [even in the absence of the DEI office]. We’re going to continue empowering one another and making sure, even if it’s not written in the code [campus regulations] to have diversity, equity and inclusion, we’ll still enforce diversity, equity and inclusion – because that’s who we are.”

Stop the WOKE Act ‘dystopian’

At the core of Ignatieff, Epstein, Ismatulla, Mullick and Becker’s critique of DeSantis is the concept of academic freedom. DeSantis, who graduated from Harvard Law School cum laude surely did not need Judge Mark E Walker, US District judge for the Northern District of Florida (which includes Tallahassee, Florida’s capital) to tell him that the law originally dubbed the “Stop the WOKE Act” offended both academic freedom and the US Constitution.

Walker summed up the state’s argument that since professors at public universities were state employees they “enjoy[ed] academic freedom so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the state approves” as “positively dystopian”.

Nor would DeSantis have needed a law professor to tell him that the state attorney’s argument that “the idea of affirmative action is so ‘repugnant’ [to the state of Florida] that instructors can no longer express approval of affirmative action as an idea worthy of merit during class instruction” was a constitutional bridge too far, not least because federal law authorises affirmative action in a number of areas, including university admissions.

HB 999’s restrictions on what can be taught and its mandate of what content and viewpoint must be taught offends the First Amendment, says Caroline Mala Corbin, who teaches at the University of Miami law school and is an expert on the First Amendment.

“Content- and viewpoint-based restrictions of speech, such as restricting classroom discussion of CRT, is presumptively unconstitutional; that’s the entire purpose of the First Amendment,” she told University World News.

The legal and constitutional defence of academic freedom is somewhat less absolute than most people assume – being grounded both in statements from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), such as its 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure (crafted mainly by the philosopher John Dewey, the AAUP’s president at the time) and a number of Supreme Court decisions.

These include, as DeSantis would have studied, a 1957 case originating in New Hampshire in which former associate justice Felix Frankfurter wrote that universities possess four essential freedoms, to determine: 1) Who may teach; 2) What can be taught; 3) How it is taught; and 4) Who will be admitted to the school.

However, since Frankfurter’s was a concurring decision, these freedoms were enunciated but not enshrined in constitutional law.

A decade later, the majority of SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) justices went somewhat further, stating that academic freedom “is a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom”, but stopped short of giving it definitive constitutional protection.

Yet, Mala Corbin stressed: “There are lots of decisions that acknowledge the importance of academic freedom. There is some debate about whether academic freedom belongs to professors or to the university. But, either way, there’s the idea that the university should have the authority to make the decisions about who it hires, what is taught and how it is taught.” In other words, universities and-or professors are a special class of government actors or employees.

(Further, Mala Corbin says, HB 999 is likely to be found “void for vagueness”. A law is void for vagueness when the court finds that its wording is so vague that anyone who is found to have violated it, could not have reasonably known in advance that they were about to violate it.)

In practical terms, as Ignatieff reminded the webinar, there are two parts to academic freedom. First, professors are able to research what they want and teach what they want – but are bound by the rules and norms of their profession.

“Every time a researcher publishes an article, it has to be reviewed. It has to be checked. You don’t get to say anything you want in academic life. Academic freedom depends on respect for academic standards of truth and evidence.”

The second part of academic freedom, Ignatieff explained, is institutional autonomy and independence that dates back more than a thousand years. Universities and colleges have been self-governing, he reminded the webinar’s viewers, longer than any country.

“Taxpayers do pay for public education at New College and Florida institutions,” he says. “But the deal is that universities should be free to set their own priorities. What Ron DeSantis is saying is I [not academics beholden to the rules of their disciplines] am going to decide who should be a professor. I’m going to appoint trustees who I like and they’re going to appoint who they want to teach. This is a recipe for mediocrity.”

Nor does Becker accept the argument that because DeSantis was re-elected by more than 20 percentage points, he has a mandate to reshape Florida’s public colleges and universities along his preferred ideology’s lines.

“I don’t think that those things were on the ballot. And even if they were, our institutions are meant to be more enduring,” he told me.

Becker, in addition to his role with OSUN, is Bard’s executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs and for him the attack by DeSantis and his acolytes on New College and the government of Florida’s actions are a twice, even thrice told story.

In 2021, Bard College was forced to close its campus in St Petersburg after being declared to be an “undesirable organisation” and a “threat to the foundations of Russia’s constitutional order”.

A year later, Smolny College, a small liberal arts college co-founded by Bard and St Petersburg University in 1998, was, as Becker writes, “placed under investigation for approving syllabi with inappropriate materials that may ostensibly violate educational norms, promote extremism and potentially violate national security laws.”

Fifty “leading experts” declared liberal arts and science education to be “tendentious”. They made the risible claim that the general education programme did “not meet the standards of academic rigour and formality”, writes Becker.

“Moreover, the committee declared” that the liberal arts programme “not only does not correspond to the classical Russian education tradition, but offers ‘highly ideological disciplines … in accordance with the worst Western stereotypes’.”

While this last is not defined, it was written during the first months of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine when the Russian media had stepped up its attacks on the West, and the United States in particular, for supporting what the Russians called the ‘Nazi’ government in Kyiv and for wanting to spread LGBTQ rights around the world.

Using the specific case of New College as a springboard, Becker told University World News that the ultimate goal of undercutting academic freedom is not just to officially limit what can be taught.

“The ultimate goal of what authoritarians do is to create uncertainty, which leads to self-censorship among the faculty who fear that their actions will be held against them, which, in turn, undermines their capacity to teach.”

He concluded by saying that higher education institutions across the country, both public and private institutions, are at risk.

“I don’t see it stopping at this institution. I don’t see it stopping at one college or at public institutions. My personal guess is that they will soon try to eviscerate the accreditors [eg, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which accredits colleges and universities from New York to Washington, DC]. And, thus, fundamentally undermine the system of higher education in the US.”

Students left feeling scared

Epstein, Ismatulla and Mullick spoke of their hope that Defending Educational Freedom for Youth (DEFY), a grassroots organisation formed over the past few weeks, will rally support for New College.

Speaking of the students at his alma mater, Mullick told me: “They went from focusing on their studies to trying to figure out how to defend their educational freedom from a very well-resourced, big government hostile attack, which left many scared and feeling unsafe.

“Marginalised students (ie racial, ethnic and sexual minorities) didn’t feel safe.

“The students understand that this is a big threat to educational freedom, but it is also a threat to democracy in the entire country.”

Ignatieff applauded the students’ efforts and recalled his experience in Hungary, where, though the protests failed to save CEU, in early May 2017 some 80,000 Hungarians turned out chanting “Free universities for a free society”.

He suggested a slight alteration to the slogan: “Free universities are a free society”. Don’t defend academic freedom from the hill of progressive ideas – because people disagree with our ideas, he argued.

Rather, make it clear that “we’re here for free inquiry. We’re here to give kids degrees in neuroscience and economics and social sciences and [to] treat and teach each of them as free citizens,” Ignatieff said.

In her last intervention, Ismatulla called on people to be active voters for candidates who are running at every level. Each level matters, she said, because there’s a chain of authority.

Thinking, I assumed, of the turnout – 54% – in the gubernatorial election last fall that returned DeSantis as governor, she called on people concerned about academic freedom in Florida to make their friends realise how important it is to vote: “Their freedom is at stake.”

For his part, in the last moments of the webinar, Epstein told us how, in working to establish DEFY, he takes much from his grandfather’s story.

“I never thought of my academic freedom, the ability to learn what I wanted as anything special. I thought, it’s just how the world worked.

“The key [for me] was talking to my grandfather. He grew up in a forced labour camp and had his Bar Mitzvah in a displaced persons camp – because Hitler was able to control what people learned and then was able to eradicate whomever he wanted because people stopped caring.

“We’re going to create a national organisation, we’re going to ensure that students know they are not alone – and give them the resources to fight back and protect faculty tenure, and take our message to the public. Our message is powerful and will strike back. And I think he’ll be sorry he picked on us.”