DeSantis’ Florida education policies push out liberal-leaning teachers

Gov. Ron DeSantis had just taken office in 2019 when the University of Florida attracted Neil H. Buchanan, a prominent economist and tax law scholar, from George Washington University.

Now, just four years after starting university, Dr. Buchanan quit his permanent job and headed north to teach in Toronto. in a recent column on a legal commentary websiteaccused Florida of “open hostility toward professors and toward higher education in general.”

He is not the only liberal-leaning professor to leave one of Florida’s most prestigious public universities. Many are resigning from coveted permanent positions and blaming his departure on Governor DeSantis and his effort to reshape the higher education system to conform to his conservative principles.

The Times interviewed a dozen academics, in fields ranging from law to psychology to agronomy, who have left Florida’s public universities or given their notice, many of them heading to Democratic states. While they emphasized that hundreds of top academics remain in Florida, a state known for its strong and affordable public university system, they expressed concern that the governor’s policies have become increasingly unsustainable for academics and students.

The University of Florida said its turnover rate is not unusual and remains well below the national average of 10.57 percent. Hiring, he said, has also outpaced departures. Florida State University and the University of South Florida released similar figures.

Governor DeSantis’ office did not respond to requests for comment. But Sarah D. Lynne, president-elect of the University of Florida faculty senate, said little has changed except that her campus has become the center of national politics. Most people who leave, she said, do so for reasons that have nothing to do with politics.

“Florida is not really a unique setting when it comes to the politicization of higher education,” said Dr. Lynne, who teaches in the Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences. “It’s a beautiful state to live in and we have amazing students, so we’ll stay.”

However, data from several schools shows that exit rates have increased. At the University of Florida, overall turnover rose from 7 percent in 2021 to 9.3 percent in 2023, according to figures released by the university.

TO report by the University of Florida faculty senate found that some departments were greatly affected. The arts school, which includes art, music and dance, “struggles to recruit or retain good faculty and graduate students in the current political climate,” according to the report, released in June.

In liberal arts, the report said, “Faculty of color are gone.”

Danaya C. Wright, a law professor who currently chairs the faculty senate, said she believes candidates for office avoid the state. “We’ve seen more people withdraw their applications or just say, ‘no, I’m not interested, it’s Florida,’” she said.

At Florida State University, vice president of faculty development Janet Kistner said during a faculty senate meeting in September that the “political climate in Florida” had contributed to an increase in teacher turnover: 37 teachers left for reasons other than retirement in the past year compared to an average of 23 over the past five years.

Paul Ortiz, history teacher. at the University of Florida and former president of the school’s faculty union, is leaving after more than 15 years to join Cornell next summer.

“If the academic job market was stronger, then a lot more people would leave,” Dr. Ortiz said.

Walter Boot, a senior psychology professor who had secured millions of dollars in grants for the state of Florida, is headed to Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, where he will continue developing technology for seniors.

Dr. Boot said he joined Florida State in 2008 and immediately felt at home on the Tallahassee campus: “This was the place where I could see myself spending the rest of my career: a great department, a great university.”

Things began to change, he said, when the DeSantis administration began pushing its education policies. Dr. Boot, who is gay, cited a 2022 law that limits what educators can say about gender and sexuality in elementary schools. It wasn’t technically aimed at colleges, but it created a scary atmosphere, he said.

“The period before and after its approval involved hostile rhetoric painting queer and trans people as pedophiles and groomers, rhetoric that came not only from citizens but also from state officials,” Dr. Boot said recently. wrote in the Tallahassee Democrat.

He noted that shortly after the bill was passed, a man threatened to kill homosexuals on the Florida State campus.

“It’s been very difficult, from a day-to-day perspective, to not feel comfortable or even safe where I live,” Dr. Boot said in an interview.

Other gay professors cited recent state sanctions targeting transgender employees and students who don’t comply. a lawPassed in May, it restricts bathroom access as well as state restrictions on transgender medical procedures.

Hope Wilson, an education professor at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, served as an advisor to the school’s Pride club and worked with the LGBTQ center.

Dr. Wilson said she was particularly opposed to what she saw as intrusive requests for information from the state, to which her school responded, on everything from how many students had received transgender care to spending on DEI initiatives.

“It felt very dystopian in every way,” he said.

Her professional discomfort was accompanied by personal concerns, because her son is transgender.

“Florida is not a state where I can raise my family or do my job,” Dr. Wilson said. He landed at Northern Illinois University.

For Christopher Rufo, a conservative writer and activist whom the governor appointed trustee of New College of Florida this year as part of a campus restructuring, the faculty departures are a plus.

“To me, this is a net win for Florida,” he wrote in a statement, criticizing diversity programs and health care for transgender people. “Professors who want to practice DEI-style racial profiling, facilitate child sexual amputation, and replace scholarship with partisan activism are free to do so elsewhere. Have a good trip”.

The University of Florida College of Law has been particularly hard hit this year, with a faculty turnover rate of 30 percent.

Some of those professors said political interference contributed to their departures, while other professors said Florida’s reputation had deterred professors elsewhere from joining.

Maryam Jamshidi said that after a 2021 law allowed students record teachers In the classroom, liberal-leaning professors feared watching videos of their lectures on Fox News.

“As a Muslim woman working on issues of racism and American power, I didn’t feel like UF was a place where I could be myself and do my work safely,” said Ms. Jamshidi, who now teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder. .

Questions about gender and race are central to a variety of legal arguments, from constitutional law to criminal justice to workplace discrimination.

But in May, Governor DeSantis signed an invoice which regulated what can be said in classrooms and also prohibited university spending on diversity programs.

By this time, Kenneth B. Nunn had already decided to leave, one of several black law professors who recently left.

In 2021, Nunn was prohibited from signing a brief challenging the state’s restrictions on felon voting. Nunn said signing such writings is “something that is considered a natural thing that teachers can do anywhere else.”

The school later backtracked on the question of whether he could sign, but Mr. Nunn took the episode as an indication of the university’s leadership. He chose to retire from law school and is currently a visiting professor at Howard University.

For Dr. Buchanan, an economist and law professor, the last straw was the institution of a review process for tenured professors, which he considered the end of academic freedom.

“It’s not just that the laws are so vague and obviously designed to chill speech that DeSantis doesn’t like. It’s that they simultaneously took away the benefit of having tenured professors to defend what is right,” he said. “At this time, the tenure is only nominal.”

Since Dr. Buchanan writes about tax policy from a progressive perspective, he said he felt he could become a target at any time.

“The Republicans who govern Florida,” he said, “are wasting one of the state’s most important assets by pushing out teachers who otherwise would not have wanted to leave.”

Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.