In George Orwell’s 1984 dystopia, everything is the opposite of what it is named:
The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy; they are deliberate exercises in doublethink.
America is witnessing a 2023 version of doublethink in Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ attacks on higher education, with his so-called “Individual Freedom Act” and other bills and actions that signal his own enmity to freedom of thought in schools and universities. Essentially, he wants anything at odds with his particular vision of America to be illegal.
His current actions include the following unprecedented threats to freedom of speech and university autonomy — threats so unprecedented that the Chronicle of Higher Education recently noted that even conservatives should be terrified. HB 999, now moving through the Florida legislative process, would do the following:
- Ban public universities from teaching politically “disfavored thought” (whatever that is).
- Eliminate majors in gender studies or “critical race theory” (a catchphrase for courses that explore systemic racial barriers).
- Ban “identity politics” in general education core courses.
- Ban “unproven” or “theoretical” content from general education courses. (Good-bye to all theorists including Plato and Albert Einstein?)
- Ban “any programs or campus activities” that “espouse diversity, equity, and inclusion.” (And here I thought these were good words, promoting a fair and welcoming campus.)
- Empower politically-appointed boards of trustees, along with the university presidents they oversee, to hire and fire faculty.
In addition, DeSantis has personally gutted the New College of Florida, a public liberal arts institution. He removed six of the 13 trustees, replacing them with allies holding strong conservative views. He and the trustees forced out the college president, replacing her with a career politician — at double the previous president’s salary. DeSantis’s goal is to transform New College into a Florida replica of Michigan’s private Hillsdale College, a darling of the right wing.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m entirely in favor of the existence of Hillsdale College, a private, Christian institution free to establish and implement its own mission. A strength of U.S. higher education is the wide choice it provides.
What’s wrong in Florida is DeSantis’s dismantling of a public college to fit his personal values, thereby reducing choice in his state.
Why is this so dangerous?
Ron DeSantis is not alone in his 1984 tactics. Other red (or purple) states are following his lead, including Texas, South Carolina, Virginia and Alabama. He clearly sees this attack on universities as his pathway to the Presidency — and then to federal laws suppressing freedom of speech and attacking universities. As Princeton University professor Keith Whittington, chair of the Academic Committee of the Academic Freedom Alliance, put it in a Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed: “Florida may also become the proving ground for policy proposals that Republicans in Congress, or a future presidential administration, might take national.”
I hasten to say, although the danger is not equivalent, that threats to academic freedom are coming from the left, as well. As just one example, FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, reports the threat to First Amendment free speech and academic freedom rights by the University of Utah’s policy articulated in their Anti-Racist /Code of Conduct, requiring the “eradication” of certain speech from teaching and curricula. It’s important to note a difference, though: the University of Utah’s inappropriate restrictions are coming from the university itself, not from government (Big Brother).
“Indeed, the power to suppress speech is often very quickly directed towards suppressing the views of marginalized groups,” Stanford Law School Dean Jenny Martinez wrote.
Beyond anyone else in the nation on the right or left, DeSantis is attacking long-held, core values of U.S. higher education — values that have made us the envy of the world. Conservatives, moderates, progressives — everyone — should support these principles and defend higher ed from internal enemies.
In 1957, concurring with the majority opinion in Sweezy v. New Hampshire, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter clearly and effectively defined a higher education institution’s First Amendment right to decide on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study. In 1978, the Supreme Court majority in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke used similar language, noting that academic freedom is a “special concern of the First Amendment.”
To elaborate and explain the core values of U S. higher education, the American Council on Education (ACE) and Pen America have published a guidebook, Making the Case for Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy in a Challenging Political Environment. The report focuses on state government efforts “to shape, limit or regulate the presentation and discussion in educational institutions of topics such as race, gender, American history, and LGBTQ+ identities,” as “educational gag orders.” It references 140 bills in 2022, “seeking to restrict teaching and training in K-12 schools and on college campuses.”
These repressive actions go against what the majority of the general public believes. In the summer and fall of 2022, ACE conducted extensive research involving focus groups and a national survey, including registered Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. The research affirmed broad agreement on keeping elected officials out of shaping higher education curriculum and on academic freedom and free speech on campus.
Universities must stand strong for freedom
The document does not let universities off the hook. It quotes a report from the University of North Carolina and University of Wisconsin systems demonstrating that conservative students sometimes feel silenced on campus — “yet primarily by their peers, rather than their teachers.” And there are several cases in which universities have punished — even fired — professors who seem to fall outside progressive principles and speech.
The situation of Ilya Shapiro, senior lecturer and executive director for the Georgetown Center for the Constitution, demonstrates this peril. Shapiro’s tweets about potential replacements for Justice Breyer last January led to condemnation from the Georgetown Law School Dean, and a 122-day investigation, which finally determined that the Law School could not punish him for a tweet he posted before the start of his employment. Shapiro resigned on June 6, 2022.
In these perilous times, higher education leaders must practice what we preach about First Amendment rights and academic freedom. This is what Jenny Martinez, the Dean of Stanford Law School, demonstrated — with courage and leadership — amid a fraught campus situation after students shouted down Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan during a speech in early March.
Two days later, Martinez and Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne apologized to Duncan for not enforcing Stanford’s own policies against the “heckler’s veto.” Martinez observed, “Heckler’s vetoes involve shouting down a speaker to prevent them from speaking. That’s not ‘counter-speech.’ It’s censorship. Exercising one’s right to free speech must not entail denying others that same right.”
I’m entirely in favor of the existence of Hillsdale College, a private, Christian institution free to establish and implement its own mission. A strength of U.S. higher education is the wide choice it provides. What’s wrong is DeSantis’s dismantling of a public college to fit his personal values, thereby reducing choice in his state.
In a 10-page letter to student protesters shortly after, Dean Martinez affirms students’ rights to peaceful protest “as long as the methods used do not prevent or disrupt the effective carrying out of a University function or approved activity.” She goes on: “Indeed, the power to suppress speech is often very quickly directed towards suppressing the views of marginalized groups.”
To follow up, Stanford Law will hold a mandatory half-day session for all students “on the topic of freedom of speech and the norms of the legal profession.” And DEI Dean Tirien Steinbach — who encouraged the hecklers — has been placed on leave.
Closer to home, the situation at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School concerning Professor Amy Wax poses an extreme example of free speech in competition with the equally important principle of students’ rights not to be insulted or demeaned in the classroom. Wax, a tenured law professor, invited a White nationalist to speak in her class. She told a Black law student, who had also attended Yale, that she “had become a double-Ivy because of affirmative action.” She has also said publicly that “on average, Blacks have lower cognitive ability than Whites,” and that the country is “better off with fewer Asians, as long as they tend to vote for Democrats.”
Penn Law Dean Theodore W. Ruger has filed a complaint and requested a faculty hearing to consider imposing a “major sanction” on the professor. While Pen America has said that Professor Wax should not be fired because of her public statements, I would argue that hostile, insulting, and overtly political classroom statements should be judged by a different standard. As the ACE/Pen America Guidebook (quoted above) asserts, academic freedom entails academic responsibility.
While protecting students from personal insult and coercion, colleges and universities must redouble their efforts to support open inquiry and free speech for all. The University of Chicago’s Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression makes this point loud and clear:
In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive.
That principle applies to ideas on both the right and the left. It does not apply to outright misinformation or lies, including those of the Holocaust denial or election rejection variety. And it does not protect a professor who verbally attacks students or uses the power of the classroom to convert students to a political viewpoint.
Yes, democracy is hard. When does offensive speech cross the line into personal insult and indoctrination?
Unscrupulous elected officials, like DeSantis, manipulate the public’s legitimate concern that universities and colleges be truly inclusive and welcoming of open, evidence-based discussion. The ACE/Pen report describes the challenge to campus leaders “to demonstrate clearly that the policies being advanced (by DeSantis and company) are irresponsible intrusions on academic autonomy and would dangerously undermine the core values of academic freedom, free speech, and civil discourse.”
DeSantis’s promotion of doublethink threatens the core values of U.S. higher education. Independent of political party, everyone should defend these core values and hold accountable those who would destroy them.
What you can do
- Support candidates who understand the importance of academic freedom.
- Support The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a Philly-based organization tracking — and advocating for — free speech on campuses.
- Encourage colleges and universities to double down on inclusivity, diversity, and fairness — and also freedom of expression.
- Talk with young people about being open to differing points of view.
Elaine Maimon, Ph.D., is the author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Her co-authored book, Writing In The Arts and Sciences, has been designated as a landmark text. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on Twitter.
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