Host: This morning, outside the chambers of the Florida Legislature in Tallahassee, the American Association of University Professors – known under the acronym AAUP – held a press conference to denounce what they call a “political and ideological assault” on higher education. Our news team closely read the report the organization presented today. Spoiler alert: New College figured prominently.
Henry Reichman: I’ve now been involved with the AAUP for over a decade, and I was chair of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure for nine years. I participated in a good number of AAUP investigations, including all three of the special investigations the AAUP has conducted in this section. And I will have to say that nothing, nothing I have been involved in has moved me – both frightening me and inspiring – as much than what I learned and seen in talking to more than 65 faculty members in the state of Florida.
Johannes Werner: This was Henry Reichman, during a press conference organized by the AAUP, in the cavernous lobby outside the Florida Legislature chambers. The historian from California headed a special committee that has interviewed dozens of professors in Florida since the beginning of this year.
Responding to the political interference in higher education playing out in the Florida of Ron DeSantis, the AAUP formed the special committee to investigate what they call an “apparent pattern of politically, racially, and ideologically motivated attacks on public higher education”.
That committee has now produced a final, 53-page report, probably the most comprehensive summary of the major changes happening in Florida’s public university system.
HR: The report has five major conclusions, the first of which is that academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance in Florida public colleges and universities currently face a politically and ideologically driven assault unparalleled in U.S. history, which, if sustained, threatens the very survival of meaningful higher education in the state, with dire implications for the entire country.
JW: New College was a key reason for the AAUP’s engagement in Florida. In a preliminary report in May, the AAUP said that the “hostile takeover” of New College is both a “test case” and a “blueprint for future encroachments on public colleges and universities across the country”.
In the final report, New College figures prominently. The first chapter is all about what is happening to the small campus in Sarasota, and it makes up about one-third of the 53-page report. It begins with a quote by Bernie Machen, former president of the University of Florida, from an interview with the committee: “What’s happening at New College is a disgrace.”
The report focuses – given what the AAUP is – on challenges faced by professors, and the list of grievances at New College is long. Here are some of the committee’s findings:
• Denial of tenure for five professors who ranged from good to excellent;
• termination of a historian, followed by demeaning comments by a New College trustee;
• firing of a librarian;
• implementing a “classical liberal arts curriculum”, with little advance towards that goal;
• massive recruiting of athlete students with marginal academic interests;
• termination of the gender studies program, with one trustee calling it “pseudoscience” while expressing disdain for shared governance;
• the college president’s and trustees’ interference in the hiring of new faculty; and
• the hiring of politically connected people for administrative jobs.
All this has led to the departure of 40 percent of the faculty, and that is something beginning to happen throughout Florida, the AAUP report says.
“By mid-August some forty-one faculty members at New College had departed, a bit more than 40 percent of the faculty. Some resigned, some retired, others took unpaid leave. Only a handful have been replaced. … The committee spoke with many of these departing faculty members as well as with some who remain but are looking for positions elsewhere. Several have found such positions; others are leaving academia entirely. While the exodus is most extensive at New College, it extends across the state.”
The concluding paragraph of the report’s New College chapter puts in doubt the future of the campus.
“Several faculty members who spoke with the committee feared that New College’s current direction was unsustainable. At least one prominent statewide faculty leader ventured to predict that the college would no longer exist within a year or two. While that prediction may be exaggerated, it is sobering to note that a 119-page business plan presented by New College to the state board of governors’ strategic planning committee, which calls for increasing enrollment from roughly 800 to 1,200 students over five years, has been deemed ‘not financially viable’ by University of Florida business professors who reviewed the plan at the request of the faculty member of the board.”
State Rep. Anna Eskamani was one of the speakers at the press conference. The Orlando Democrat has been a constant presence on the campus of New College and other campuses in recent months. Eskamani said that what is happening at New College puts in doubt the future of public higher education in the state.
Anna Eskamani: You don’t have to go that far to see those examples. You can find those examples across the state and especially at New College. The claims by the far right and my colleagues in the legislature that higher education is indoctrinating students is projection. And you can see that taking place in the K-12 environment and in higher education, any accusations of indoctrination. Folks need to look in the mirror and self reflect, because they are the ones who are pushing their propaganda into our classrooms. We are losing talent in the Sunshine State. We are losing the top talent of students and faculty. This is bigger than grifters at New College, … [this] is bigger than the partisan rhetoric out of this legislature.
JW: This has been Johannes Werner, reporting for WSLR News.
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