Monday morning, American democracy became more brittle, at least in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that prohibits the state’s public colleges and universities from continuing their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs. It accomplishes that goal by prohibiting spending state or federal dollars on that work. The bill also restricts, to the point of extinction, meaningful discussion of the history of racism, sexism, and other forms of what the bill deems “oppression” in this country in core classes. It ends funding for programs that have been used to increase and retain diverse faculty and students.
Welcome to the new Florida, the one where you can’t learn about anything that makes the narrow-minded governor uncomfortable. The talented parodist Randy Rainbow promptly crowned DeSantis a hero of the culture war for trying to erase what DeSantis calls “woke” education. DeSantis’s view, apparently, is that teaching the history of race in our country makes things worse. “DEI is better viewed as standing for discrimination, exclusion, and indoctrination,” DeSantis, with no basis for his assertion, said at a news conference. Does he also believe that teaching about the Holocaust makes Jews worse off? Teaching about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is harmful for them? Oppression certainly includes the treatment of American women, waves of immigrants, the LGBTQ community if DeSantis wills it.
Let’s not make any mistake about it, DeSantis is not trying to fix racial inequity or achieve anything else that would be positive by ending academic freedom in Florida’s public institutions of higher education. He’s trying to win power and the presidency for himself. That means what’s happening in Florida affects all of us.
The new law requires the state Board of Governors, stacked with DeSantis allies, to review courses and majors offered to students. Reviewing classes may sound innocuous, but in fact, it’s ominous. The law speaks the bland language of authoritarianism. The new law starts with prohibitions on “teaching certain topics” or “presenting information in specified ways.”
Then, more clarification. Here’s what’s out: “any curriculum that violates s.1000.05 or that is based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities.” So, apparently, large parts of our history. Key insights into our institutions. If you cannot learn about why and how things are broken, you cannot hope to fix them. That’s probably what DeSantis wants.
DeSantis justified his new rules for education, saying at a press conference that it’s necessary to make students employable. He went so far as to blame the student loan debt issue on colleges that teach what he views as “woke” stuff, leaving students without jobs. Again, no facts to back up his claims. The bill wraps the prohibitions on teaching in language about Florida’s important economic role on the world and national stages, as though justifying censorship in the name of economic progress.
Here’s the bill’s mechanism for ending academic freedom: no money can be spent on programs (beginning on line 311) that “promote, support, or maintain any programs or campus activities that… advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, or promote or engage in political or social activism.” And we all know that the political or social activism language is targeted at only a certain segment of the population—folks Florida’s governor has made it abundantly clear aren’t entitled to the same rights as people who look like him.
To make sure that faculty members are forced to comply, the bill strips the protections for academic freedom out of tenure, by mandating post-tenure review with criteria so vague that DeSantis and his minions can find fault with anyone who runs afoul of their political dogma. The bill is replete with restrictions, like prohibiting general education courses in the required curriculum that “distort significant historical events or teach ‘identity politics.’ ” It’s open season on academics, professors, and administrators the governor, for whatever reason, doesn’t like.
The drafters of the bill appear to have contemplated and made at least some effort to head off legal challenges. For instance, students can spend their own money on otherwise prohibited activities, and university facilities can be used. But the bill itself also contemplates the bill’s impact on rights like the First Amendment, noting that “student fees to support student-led organizations are permitted notwithstanding any speech or expressive activity by such organizations which would otherwise violate this subsection.” [my emphasis] Florida knows its new law impacts free speech. There are sure to be legal challenges. There is a little good news. Florida’s 2022 Stop WOKE Act is partially enjoined by the 11th Circuit while litigation continues. That act limits how instructors can discuss race and gender in public universities and K-12 schools. The Courts have blocked its application to higher education. It’s difficult to imagine that the Supreme Court wouldn’t act to protect freedom in education, but as we’ve so often been forced to contemplate since Trump recomposed the Supreme Court, nothing is certain anymore. What rights are at risk? Florida seems bent on trying to take out a few more.
In other words, Trumpism is going to survive Trump. It would flourish in the hands of a Ron DeSantis. Today’s bill signing drew protests, but they were quiet and largely limited to the academic community and local folks. Academics and people who value education were not out in the streets protesting in support. With so much going on all at the same time, I worry, again, that we are out of bandwidth to watch it all and to reserve action for the most critically important stresses on democracy. The time to stop DeSantis is now. Although some reporting has his presidential fortunes waning, at 44, he has a long political future ahead of him. That’s unfortunate for the rest of us if this is a taste of his “leadership.”
“If you want to do things like gender ideology, go to Berkeley,” DeSantis said this morning. “That’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that per se, but for us, with our tax dollars, we wanna focus on the classical mission of what a university is supposed to be.” It’s not clear whether he was referencing what’s often called the classical Christian education approach, popular with Evangelical parents and centering education on a Christian view of the world in more than 300 schools across the country. DeSantis continued, “We don’t want to be diverted into a lot of these niche subjects that are heavily politicized… How employable are you with some of these majors?” He went on to equate a university education with employability, suggesting there is no other reason to study.
Yale and Harvard, where he attended undergraduate school and law school respectively, would probably like a word. As a political science major with a concentration in international studies, I wonder whether DeSantis would denigrate the four happy but intense years I spent at a small liberal arts college in New England. I had to go to law school to become employable, but then, apparently, so did he. You can view more of his comments from today here.
The new Florida law amounts to a takeover of education, one that affords control over and censorship of education to conservatives. They’ve taken a stop towards asserting ownership over what can and can’t be taught, something that’s fundamentally un-American. DeSantis said students who don’t like his new approach can go elsewhere. But just like his political ambitions don’t stop at Florida’s borders, there’s no reason to believe his anti-democracy agenda does either. One way to think about the new law is to consider how DeSantis would react to a law that prohibited classes that taught Christian ideology or discussion of biblical principles. What if some future governor deemed those values and any mention of history or literature related to it as antithetical to a flourishing economy and banned them? As lawyers say, res ipsa loquitur: the thing speaks for itself. We know how DeSantis would react.
We do not need a DeSantis presidency.
As if the fates wanted to make sure we do not forget just how bad a presidential administration that accumulates power for itself without concern for the rights of the people it is supposed to serve is, DOJ released the Durham Report today. You may recall that former Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham was tagged by Trump Attorney General Bill Barr with the task of proving there was a deep-state plot against Trump. Trump himself repeatedly promised that Durham would deliver for him, in an enormously inappropriate but entirely unsurprising display of his commitment to bending DOJ to his will and working for his reelection. Four years, and millions of taxpayer dollars later, Durham found . . . nothing. It reminds me of when Trump set up an “election integrity commission” after the 2016 election with the purpose of finding evidence of voter fraud and had to shut it down because there simply wasn’t any.
What did John Durham accomplish? He didn’t recommend filing any new charges against people he investigated in his 300-plus-page report. Despite criticism of the FBI, he did not recommend revamping the investigative procedures the Bureau uses in politically charged investigations. But Hillary Clinton is mentioned 44 times in the report, which, as you’ll recall, is supposed to be about whether investigation into not Trump himself, but Russia’s support for his campaign, was merited (“Russia, if you’re listening”).
In the report’s executive summary, Durham asserts, “our findings and conclusions regarding these and related questions are sobering.” But he never backs that up. He weakly concludes that, “this report does not recommend any wholesale changes in the guidelines and policies that the Department and the FBI now have in place to ensure proper conduct and accountability in how counterintelligence activities are carried out,” leaving us to wonder why he agreed in the first place to conduct an investigation when DOJ’s Inspector General was already reviewing the FBI’s conduct of its investigation.
Durham, was tasked with conducting a policy review until Barr expanded his role and gave him criminal authority. He had only one success, if you could call it that. He charged a junior FBI lawyer who mischaracterized the status of a CIA source. The lawyer acknowledged the error and pleaded guilty. Durham indicted two more cases, dressing them up with lots of fanfare and extensive narrative that read more like political payback about matters unrelated to the indictments than criminal charges. He lost both cases at trial.
The Durham investigation was always a fever dream for Republicans. It was meant to find a conspiracy against Trump that didn’t exist.
Durham, a Trump appointee, reached his conclusions only after his longtime colleague Nora Dannehy, who had returned from private practice to work with him on the investigation, resigned in protest when she learned he had worked up an “interim” report to be released ahead of the 2020 election. In her resignation letter, she wrote that the interim report Durham was ready to sign off on took unproven, disputed information as true and presented it as fact.
That’s the stock in trade of Donald Trump. It’s the key to Trumpism. The Durham report serves as a reminder, as Ron DeSantis increasingly shows us who he is—someone who is willing to truck in damaging disinformation to gain power. We cannot permit this to happen again.
A strong system of public education is fundamental to keeping the Republic. Any elected official, whether local, state, or national, who tries to dismantle it should be called out and routed in future elections. That’s our job.
We’re in this together,
I won’t be setting foot in Florida until their governor is replaced. Authoritarianism must be stopped. It is antithetical to personal freedom. What Republicans mean by freedom is absolute freedom for *white men*. Full stop.
My hope is that a large number of athletes decomit or transfer from Florida universities.