November 5, breaking news, the head of the University of Florida reversed the earlier decisions barring the professors from testifying. Watch this space.
If you hadn’t noticed, there is a well-organized campaign particularly targeting high school and college campuses concerning free speech/academic freedom. The effort is energized by individuals and organizations, mainly conservative, challenging their perception that control of academic speech is in the firm grip of liberals. The allegation that academic institutions are biased to the left in faculty, curriculum, administration, and governance is a long-standing one.
The current conflict has been amplified following the national engagement over race, critical race theory, and BLM, among others. The Reston, Virginia,-based Young America’s Foundation (formerly Young Americans for Freedom/YAF) is a prominent leader. The nexus of politics, ideology, race, et al, with academia, received wide attention this past year over the proposed appointment of Nikole Hannah-Jones to an endowed chair in journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Hannah-Jones was a master’s degree graduate of UNC (2003) and received the Pulitzer Prize for her development of the 1619 Project, which described the history of slavery in America. Following her application for tenure in January to complement an appointment to the faculty, a trustee subcommittee offered instead a five-year term of appointment. Tenure had been recommended by the administration of the journalism school and was widely expected to be granted, given the accomplishments and prominence of the candidate and her work. Several months later, a trustee advised that the tenure application was “halted because she didn’t come from a ‘traditional academic-type background.’” Although by June 2021, the trustees voted 9-4 to offer her tenure, Ms. Jones rejected the offer and joined the faculty at Howard University.
1619 sparked an intense national discourse questioning the nation’s founding values and reliance upon slavery to develop economically. Since then, the focus has shifted to critical race theory in schools and at school board meetings. While it may be true that politics and education have always had tension, this renewed emphasis has begun to seep into other, not always related, aspects of that relationship.
The Jones dust-up in North Carolina was not referenced or seen to resonate in the appointment of Dr. Joseph Ladapo by Gov. Ron DeSantis as surgeon general of Florida in September. The appointee had previously served at UCLA medical school and hospital. The governmental role was preceded by a few weeks by his appointment also as a professor with tenure at the University of Florida, championed by the head of the Board of Trustees, a close associate and fundraiser for Governor DeSantis. The new surgeon general closely allies with the Florida governor on health mandate resistance. His academic credentials appear impeccable though his public health opinions are not mainstream. At worst, DeSantis engaged in a questionable deal to further his political ends. Academic freedom may have been a bit bruised but the injury was not fatal.
Concurrently, the state of Florida is the object of a lawsuit challenging its recently adopted voting rights and procedures legislation. In the course of any litigation of this type, opposing parties generally obtain expert testimony, often from academia. However, three University of Florida professors have been barred from participating as experts in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the recent legislation. According to an article in The New York Times, the three were told by university officials that, “because the school was a state institution, participating in a lawsuit against the state ‘is adverse to UF’s interests.’” One of the academic experts participated in testimony in a successful 2018 challenge to a state ban on early voting at polling places on university campuses.
The professors have attacked the ban against their participation as an infringement upon academic freedom and First Amendment rights. One of the experts was told by a college dean that “outside activities that may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the state of Florida created a conflict for the University of Florida.” Governor DeSantis has been named as a person to be queried about the development of the voting rights legislation. Now, the banned experts have demanded testimony from DeSantis as to whether he exerted pressure upon the university administration to preclude their participation in the lawsuit.
What we have here is no communication that isn’t what DeSantis wants it to be. So, the governor of Florida secures academic tenure for a state post appointee to promote his political interests. At the same time, the state executive bans the protected speech of state university faculty who are not likely to agree with him.
It is not at all like the chain gang boss in Cool Hand Luke commenting that “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” What we have here is no communication that isn’t what DeSantis wants it to be. So, the governor of Florida secures academic tenure for a state post appointee to promote his political interests. At the same time, the state executive bans the protected speech of state university faculty who are not likely to agree with hm.
The lesson is that conservatives have much to learn about the core values of free speech and academic freedom from school boards to college campuses but, most importantly, to appreciate that both freedoms are lanes on a broad thoroughfare with traffic in both directions. Loud voices and screeds contribute little or nothing to promoting either of these twin values.