‘Demonised’ professors seek exit from right-wing states

Almost 65% of professors surveyed in Florida, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina would not recommend their state as a desirable place to work, says a survey conducted by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which was released last month.

Forty per cent cited concerns about tenure, which has been severely restricted in these states, as well as bans on diversity, equity and inclusion offices and programmes.

Three in 10 of the 4,250 professors surveyed cited concerns about the abrogation of shared governance at their universities, their states’ restrictive policies on LGBTQ+ people, as well as restrictions on access to abortion as reasons they are considering leaving their universities.

Fully 80% of respondents rated the political atmosphere surrounding higher education as either ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’.

“Higher education in America, especially in the South is under attack,” said Associate Professor at the University of North Georgia (Gainesville) Matthew Boedy, who is president of the Georgia AAUP conference. “This survey shows that the faculty aren’t willing to sit around and wait for retirement. A lot of faculty want to leave.

“They may not be able to (because in many disciplines positions are scarce) but they are applying across the country, trying to get out of the state they are in,” he said.

Attacks on academic freedom and ‘wokeism’

For the past several years, led by their Republican governors Gregg Abbott and Ron DeSantis, Texas and Florida, respectively, have been at the forefront of attacking academic freedom and fighting what right-wing Americans call ‘wokeism’.

In 2022 DeSantis’ so-called ‘Stop WOKE Act’ forbade professors from teaching anything that would cause students to feel ‘guilt’ or ‘anguish’ for actions that members of their race or sex had taken in the past (for example, enslavement of Africans).

Earlier this year Florida’s Department of Education rejected Advanced Placement History (a course taken in high school that counts as a university credit) because it contained material on critical race theory, the discussion of which is illegal in the state’s schools and universities, and such issues as intersectionality.

Florida Senate Bill 266 banned general education courses that “distort significant historical events” or teach “theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States”.

In January DeSantis’ budget cut funding for diversity, equity and inclusion offices and programmes across the state. That same month he appointed a conservative board of trustees that has reoriented the state’s only public liberal arts college, New College of Florida (Sarasota), along hard-right ideological lines. In March the state significantly weakened tenure.

Led by Dan Patrick, the state’s lieutenant governor, who sets the agenda in the legislature, Texas has passed bills banning the teaching of critical race theory, gutted limited tenure protections (teaching critical race theory was made a legal cause of dismissal) and has defunded diversity, equity and inclusion programmes and courses.

The attack on academic freedom in North Carolina has come from a different quarter: the Republicans who control both chambers of the state’s legislature.

In 2014 after gaining a supermajority, which allowed them to override the vetoes of the governor Democrat Roy Cooper, Republican legislators arrogated to themselves the power to appoint members to the governing board of the University of North Carolina system.

Through these new board members the Republicans effectively controlled appointments to each college and university’s board of trustees. They, in turn, have worked to reorient the public universities toward conservative priorities.

According to Professor Jay M Smith who teaches French history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and is the university’s AAUP conference president, among the most radical suggestions being considered by the Republican legislature is the ending of tenure and the hobbling of academic freedom by interrogating what the Republicans are calling ‘non-instructional research’.

“It’s unthinkable at any university for non-instructional research to be interrogated and for faculty to be forced to explain themselves [to legislature appointed officials] and justify every cent. It will be the end of the public research university,” said Smith. UNC is an R1 elite research university ranked 69th in the world by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

Two of the pillars of academic freedom in the United States are that the faculty determine the curriculum and that governance of a college or university is shared between faculty and the administration.

The legislature plans to mandate that students at community colleges and four-year universities be required to take a course (as Floridians are now required to) in which they will study the nation’s founding documents, for example, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

This course will violate the principle that faculty, who are hired for their expertise, control the curriculum, a principle recognised by the United States Supreme Court. So too does the stipulation that the legislature will determine how much of the final exam will involve assessment of those documents.

The School of Civic Life and Leadership that is set to open next spring, said Smith, was not an initiative from faculty or even from the administration. Rather, it came from the board of trustees. By pushing it through over faculty objections the trustees have run roughshod over the principle of shared governance of the university.

“The administrators rolled right over when our board of trustees decided to foist this new school on us,” said Smith, who added that this decision is one of the reasons for the high level of dissatisfaction amongst his colleagues.

“As the poll shows, we’re all depressed about the state of the campus and the state of the relationship between our own administration and our boards of trustees and the legislature. None of us believe that our administration is doing enough to protect us and to advocate for us and our values,” he said.

‘Frustrated’, ‘downtrodden’ and ‘demonised’

In Florida almost 300 of the 642 (48%) surveyed faculty members plan to seek employment in another state within the next year. Fully 84% say they would not encourage a graduate student or faculty colleague in another state to come to teach in Florida.

The 95.3% (612) who indicated that the political atmosphere around higher education in Florida was either ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ are reacting to statements from DeSantis and others, including Christopher Rufo, the firebrand that led the fight against critical race theory and is now a New College of Florida trustee, that professors are indoctrinating students with Cultural Marxist doctrines about gender, identity politics and teaching them to be ashamed of American history.

In an effort to gather data to support these claims, in 2021 DeSantis signed into law a bill that requires professors to fill out surveys about their political views and allows students to tape lectures and seminar presentations without the professors’ knowledge.

According to Andrew Gothard who teaches English at Florida Atlantic University (Boca Raton) and is president of the United Faculty of Florida: “Faculty are frustrated and downtrodden. They have been unfairly and unjustly cast as political ‘indoctrinators’ for simply doing their jobs.

“They have been demonised by a governor [DeSantis] who is using his authority to tear down our state’s colleges and universities. They are seeking opportunities elsewhere, and I don’t blame them,” he said.

Gothard drew particular attention to the political censorship of faculty and student speech. “No subject or research specialty is immune to the state’s overreach. Because of ‘antishielding’ laws, faculty are required to give equal time to ideas in class that are not factually sound or supported by evidence,” he said.

The ‘antishield’ law is part of House Bill 233 (passed in 2021), which prohibits “shielding certain students, faculty or staff from certain speech” that “they may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable or offensive”. In practice what this means, said Gothard, “is that when faculty present a theory, such as natural selection, they are required to open up equal space for another idea”.

It is an indication of how ill thought-out DeSantis’ ‘War on Woke’ is that the ‘antishielding’ law is in conflict with bills banning the teaching of critical race theory or queer theory because they might cause ‘anguish’ or ‘guilt’ in some students. “There is no way that faculty can navigate between these two laws,” said Gothard.

STEM professors also have concerns

Given that the culture war in the United States is usually fought out in humanities departments, it is generally assumed that STEM professors feel less threatened by the rhetorical attacks of Republican governors and pundits on conservative radio and television.

The AAUP study shows, however, that this is not the case. Professors in these programmes are equally upset about the political atmosphere around higher education in the south. And, as Boedy explains, unlike most humanities professors, because many STEM professors are recipients of large research grants, they can vote with their feet, that is, they can move to another university and by doing so, impact their former university’s financial health.

“Here in Georgia, we have big research universities like the University of Georgia (UGA, Athens) and Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech, GT, Atlanta). For some of the faculty of these schools, the majority of their salary comes from research grants from different government agencies,” Boedy told University World News.

“They are some of the superstars in their disciplines – and are also some of the biggest income generators for the university. They can take their grants with them to any school that will hire them. And that’s what a lot of them are doing,” he said.

These professors, the survey showed, are concerned about a number of things. As do their colleagues in the humanities, the STEM professors see the relentless chipping away of tenure as an attack on academic freedom. Far from being holed up in their laboratories, science professors are well aware of the political temperature beyond their universities’ gates.

“The people who make the grant money and make those big dollars don’t want to be in a state where higher education as a whole is not being supported or defended. They see that their role is under attack as a professor, whatever discipline they are in,” said Boedy.

The exodus of senior faculty may not immediately affect course offerings since the pipeline is still filled with young scholars. However, said Boedy, the five superstars who have recently left GT are not replaceable either in terms of grant money or “the cachet of the brand, if you will, that that person has, which is why somebody else wanted them in the first place. The overall effect will be a lesser quality of education at Georgia Tech”.

In fact, the AAUP survey, which was published on 7 September, shows that senior professors are already concerned that junior faculty are less committed to GT and UGA.

“One of the comments we got from senior faculty in Georgia was that our top schools are revolving doors for young scholars. They come in, do a few years here, get a couple of grants and then go somewhere else because of the issues we have in Georgia. They’re using Georgia for a couple of years and not really investing in it because they don’t want to be in Georgia and deal with what's going on,” said Boedy.

The story is much the same at UNC.

“The feeling is that people are looking; people have their eyes open. There are a lot of wandering eyes in my cohort. We’ve lost several really good people from my department in the last 18 months or so due to the climate at the university and in the state,” he said.

Universities reduced to rubble?

Of the four states surveyed, North Carolina was the one that is most surprising because it had not been on the national radar in the same way Florida and Texas have been. In fact, Boedy said, North Carolina was added to the list to be surveyed only after an AAUP report issued last year strongly criticised the University of North Carolina system for weakening academic freedom, “mounting political interference in university policy” and institutional racism.

Accordingly, Smith was asked whether the Republicans who control the state care how their actions damage schools like UNC. In short, do they want their major universities to become shadows of themselves?

“That’s what some of us suspect; some of us are afraid that this is their endgame,” he said. “They’re [the Republicans] tired of backtalk from faculty and of the very concepts of academic freedom and free speech on campus,” he added.

“Since the early 2010s, there’s been a war between the legislature and the law faculty because there are a number of law professors who have been outspoken about the terrible policies in the state. They’ve been outspoken about the need to train law students to litigate against the state if need be and to take up public policy positions and to be able to argue over public policy,” Smith explained.

“I think what we are seeing here is simply a continuation of that war against outspoken faculty and against faculty seen as voices of fundamental progressive policies or something like that.

“And, while I’m speculating here, I know that I share with a lot of people on campus a fear that they really don’t care. They really don’t care if our public system just collapses or at least is reduced to rubble,” he said in a rueful tone.