Professors are victims as DeSantis’ culture war hots up
“It’s a drive-by firing,” says Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education programs at PEN America, not mincing words when referring to the firing of Helene Gold, a librarian at New College in Sarasota, Florida.
Gold, whose position was terminated without notice and without cause, was also the associate dean of academic engagement for the library at the only liberal arts college in Florida’s public system of higher education.
Like Gold, both Young and Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida (UFF), place the termination of Gold’s position in the context of the ‘culture war’ that Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has been waging for the past several years as he has geared up for a presumed run for the Republican nomination for the 2024 presidential election.
As University World News has reported, since 2021, DeSantis has moved to restrict academic freedom: by trying to prevent professors from appearing in court as expert witnesses opposed to voter restriction laws; signing laws limiting tenure; banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory in universities; overriding the normal (collegial) process of appointing presidents to public universities and instead appointing ideological soul mates; and banning the Advanced Placement history course from high schools because he considered it ‘woke’ and indoctrinating due to its coverage of slavery and racial issues.
On 3 May, the day I interviewed Gothard, the lower house of the Florida legislature passed the bill banning diversity, equity and inclusion offices and programmes that were designed to support racialised and LGBTQ+ students and faculty.
Gold, who has 20 years of experience as a librarian and who was an open member of the LGBTQ+ community, says: “In the last four or five months, the people who have been fired have been women, people of colour and members of the LGBTQ+ community. So, they’re either incredibly cruel or they’re just not thinking about what they’re doing, which I have a hard time believing.”
Gold is “a person whose personal beliefs and personal way of living does not align with the governor’s agenda”, says Gothard.
“They, according to these individuals [DeSantis and the board that fired Gold], don’t belong in higher education. So her firing is about a broader purge of anyone who is not white, male, Christian and straight.”
Young, too, linked Gold’s firing to the ‘culture wars’ in the US.
“PEN’s research shows that the majority of books banned in primary and secondary schools reflect some sort of minority identity, characters of colour, characters of LGBTQ identities and so forth, and that this is not accidental because those books are deeply threatening to people who are interested in engaging in a culture war,” he explained.
In colleges and universities, according to Young, librarians provide critical support “for adults, students, who don’t see themselves reflected in many parts of mainstream culture, who don't see themselves reflected in their literature, who really viewed those books as a lifeline.
“Libraries in many cases are a welcoming place for people of all identities. That’s part of what’s on the chopping block here, and it’s especially true at New College, where the college itself has a reputation of being extremely friendly to queer students and faculty and staff members.
To see those senior staff members and the people who are being fired, certainly sends a message to the students who are there and the faculty who are there.”
Bid to block tenure
The firing of Gold follows by a week the unprecedented decision by New College’s Board of Trustees to deny tenure to five professors who had already been approved by committees made up of their colleagues, chairs and faculties. Two professors, Rebecca Black and Lin Jiang, teach organic chemistry; Nassima Neggaz teaches the history of religion (with a focus on Islam); Gerardo Toro-Farmer teaches coastal and marine science, while Hugo Viera-Vargas teaches Caribbean and Latin American studies and music.
The 6-4 vote against each professor was carried by the six new members of New College’s Board of Trustees whom De Santis appointed after firing six trustees in January.
The replacement of these progressive trustees was a necessary step in the governor’s overall fight against what he calls ‘woke’ education (ie, what he calls the indoctrination of students with anti-American and liberal ideals) and his plan to refashion New College, which has long been one of the most liberal colleges in the nation.
As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote at a meeting on campus shortly after his appointment to the board, Christopher Rufo (who rocketed to fame in 2020 when on Fox News he publicised his personal fight against Critical Race Theory), characterised the New College’s student body as being made up of politically correct “druggies” and “weirdos”. Goldberg summed up Rufo’s plans as “the hostile takeover of a liberal college”.
Shortly after being installed, the new board fired New College’s president Patricia Okker. She was replaced, at twice her salary, on an interim basis by Richard Corcoran, the former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and a DeSantis ally.
According to a 26 April report by Curt Anderson in the Associated Press (AP), prior to the trustee’s meeting, Corcoran had circulated a memo telling the board to either deny or delay the professors’ tenure because the administration was in the midst of being changed and it had been tasked with “ensuring the college is moving towards a more traditional liberal arts institution”.
Though Corcoran and Rufo use the terms ‘liberal arts’, their conception has nothing to do with well-known liberal arts colleges with leafy campuses like Oberlin, Mount Holyoke, Vassar or Bard, all of which are known for their progressive politics and intellectual rigour.
Rather, they are remodelling New College along the lines of Hillsdale College, a small evangelical Christian college in Hillsdale, Michigan, that had close ties to former president Donald J Trump and is known for its ‘patriotic curriculum’.
DeSantis and Corcoran may take their inspiration from a college with under 1,500 students and a faculty of approximately 170 in rural Michigan, but the refashioning of New College is linked to the alarming international trend to undermine liberal education, Young underscored.
“What we’re seeing at New College has direct parallels with the attacks on Central European University (CEU) in Hungary. (In 2018, attacks by Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister Viktor Orbán forced CEU to announce that in 2019 it would move from Budapest to Vienna.)
“In fact, Rufo has spent the last month in Hungary talking with the people who carried out those attacks about directly exporting those attacks [on liberal education] to the United States,” Young said.
“This is something we’ve seen among authoritarian governments not just in Hungary, but in Poland, in Brazil [under former president Jair Bolsonaro] and Russia and China. And now we are seeing them here in the US.
“It’s a challenge to try to explain to Americans that they really are seeing the same thing. This isn’t something that happens there; this is something that can happen right here in the United States,” Young said.
As if to prove Young’s point, the majority of the board was unmoved by shouts of “Shame on You!” by audience members, including students, who stood, turned their backs on the board and held up signs saying, “Protect Academic Freedom.”
No reason given for denying tenure
As was the case with Gold’s firing, according to AP, New College’s trustees gave no reason for denying tenure other than Corcoran’s statement to the board “You’ve got a brand-new president, a brand-new provost. You have literally a change in direction.”
When asked about the absence of a reason to deny tenure to the five professors, Gothard made two points. The first echoed what he had told me about the firing of Gold.
“What we’re seeing playing out here is Governor DeSantis’s gameplan around how higher education needs to function. The decision to deny tenure was not about the credentials of these faculty members. It was not about skills they displayed as researchers and teachers. This decision was about who they were as people and whether their politics aligned with the politics of Governor DeSantis.
“It was a clear partisan action by those who wish to retaliate against individuals who don’t look and think and act like them.”
Gothard’s second point concerns the arbitrary nature of the board’s vote against granting tenure.
“The Board of Trustees and President actually violated the tenure process in the contract. In our collective bargaining agreement, once these faculty members have been approved by all members of the administration, if there’s nothing in the file that shows why they should be denied tenure, they can’t be denied tenure.
“They can’t just arbitrarily be denied tenure. And that’s exactly what has happened here. These ideological extremists on the board of trustees denied tenure to these highly qualified faculty for what can only be described as a political call.
“It’s upsetting and disgusting. It is a display of bad partisanship as a means of trying to govern an institution,” he said, before telling University World News that the UFF has filed grievances and that “going to court is not off the table, not at all”.
Firing is ‘devastating’ for students
Gothard’s strong condemnation of Gold’s firing notwithstanding, there is nothing the UFF nor Gold herself can do. When Gold accepted the position of dean of the library, she left the faculty union, which is why when Bradley Thiessen, interim provost, and Erika Worthy, chief human resources officer, told her at noon on 1 May she was being terminated, Gold knew she had no recourse.
“In Florida it is called an ‘at will employment state’. It’s baked into our legislation that anybody who is not protected by a union or contract can be fired at any time for any reason and not be told why.”
Gold’s firing within three weeks before the end of the spring semester has left many students in the lurch. According to biology professor Elizabeth C Leininger, Gold is more than an excellent librarian, she is a “masterful teacher” with whom she co-taught a neuroscience course.
“Her termination with just weeks left in the semester is devastating for my course as well as for the many students that she has helped with research consultations this semester,” Leininger told Samantha Gholar of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on 3 May.
“I had dozens and dozens of students that I was supporting with their final research projects, assignments and coursework. It is incredibly problematic for our students, and that’s putting it lightly. I mean, who fires a librarian with three weeks to go in the semester,” says Gold.
Gothard too drew attention to the fact that Gold’s sterling reputation did not protect her.
“My understanding is this faculty member, this librarian, has done incredible work, was beloved by students and faculty alike. There’s no reason for this individual to be terminated, other than because of who they are as a person,” Gothard said.
“That’s what we’re continuing to see from these bad actors and partisan extremists on the board of trustees at New College and in President Richard Corcoran.”
A ‘test run’ for national politics?
Towards the end of our interview, Gold underscored how what’s happening in Florida and states like Texas that have passed similar legislation is a test run for what politicians like DeSantis want to do on the national stage.
“Rufo tells us this overtly in his writings and speeches. He just spoke at Stanford and said that at the federal level we [ie, right wing ideologues] need to recapture the federal Department of Education and the federal budget Management Office.”
A few moments later she addressed the culture war, at least as it is being waged against the LGBTQ+ community.
“This is a culture war to create an enemy that we can put all our fears onto because the LGBTQ+ community is [perceived as being] weird. We represent something that’s unfamiliar and it’s easy to point at to distract people from looking at the real problems and that is eroding the educational opportunities of our students.
“And it’s dangerous. It gets people killed. And that’s what’s going to happen with the trans bathroom laws [that require individuals to use the bathrooms that correspond to their gender as listed on their birth certificates] that were just passed here in Florida.
“And that’s not how we support our students. And it’s not how we build a strong competitive economy, despite what DeSantis thinks he’s doing.”