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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In Florida’s hot political climate, some faculty have had enough

The Florida State University campus in Tallahassee, Fla., on Oct. 10, 2023. Some academics have raised concerns that Gov. Ron DeSantis’s policies have become increasingly untenable for them.

By Stephanie Saul

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

Now, just four years after he started at the university, Buchanan has given up his tenured job and headed north to teach in Toronto. In a recent column on a legal commentary website, he accused Florida of “open hostility to professors and to higher education more generally.”

He is not the only liberal-leaning professor to leave one of Florida’s highly regarded public universities. Many are giving up coveted tenured positions and blaming their departures on DeSantis and his effort to reshape the higher education system to fit his conservative principles.

The New York Times interviewed a dozen academics — in fields ranging from law to psychology to agronomy — who have left Florida public universities or given their notice, many headed to blue states. While emphasizing that hundreds of top academics remain in Florida, a state known for its solid and affordable public university system, they raised concerns that the governor’s policies have become increasingly untenable for scholars and students.

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

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

“Florida isn’t really a unique scenario when it comes to the politicization of higher education,” said 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’re staying.”

Data from several schools, however, show departure rates have ticked upward. At the University of Florida, overall turnover went from 7% in 2021 to 9.3% in 2023, according to figures released by the university.

A report by the Faculty Senate at the University of Florida found some departments hard hit. The school of arts — which includes art, music and dance — “struggles to hire or retain good faculty and graduate students in the current political climate,” said the report, issued in June.

In liberal arts, the report said: “Faculty of color have left.”

Danaya C. Wright, a law professor who currently chairs the Faculty Senate, said she sees job candidates avoiding the state. “We have seen more people pull their applications or just say, ‘no, I’m not interested — it’s Florida,’” she said.

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

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

Things began to change, he said, when the DeSantis administration started to push its education policies. Boot, who is gay, cited a 2022 law that limits what educators can say about gender and sexuality in elementary schools. It was not technically aimed at universities, but it fueled a frightening environment, he said.

“The run-up and aftermath of its passage involved hostile rhetoric painting queer and trans individuals as pedophiles and groomers, rhetoric that came not just from citizens but from state officials,” Boot recently wrote in the Tallahassee Democrat.

He pointed out that soon after the bill’s passage, a man threatened to kill gay people on Florida State’s campus.

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

Other gay professors cited recent state sanctions aimed at transgender employees and students who do not comply with a law, passed in May, restricting access to bathrooms, as well as state restrictions on transgender medical procedures.

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

Wilson said that she particularly objected to what she regarded as intrusive requests from the state for information — to which her school responded — on everything from how many students had received transgender care to expenditures for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

“It just felt very dystopian all the way around,” she said.

Her professional discomfort was matched by personal worries, because her child is transgender.

“Florida isn’t a state where I can raise my family or do my job,” Wilson said. She landed at Northern Illinois University.

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

“To me, this is a net gain for Florida,” he wrote in a statement, railing against diversity programs and transgender medical care. “Professors who want to practice D.E.I.-style racial discrimination, facilitate the sexual amputation of minors, and replace scholarship with partisan activism are free to do so elsewhere. Good riddance.”

The University of Florida’s law school has been particularly hard hit this year, with a 30% faculty turnover rate.

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

For Buchanan, the economist and law professor, a final straw was the institution of a review process for tenured faculty, which he viewed as 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 tenured faculty to stand up for what’s right,” he said. “It’s tenure in name only at this point.”

Since Buchanan writes on tax policy from a progressive perspective, he said that he felt he could become a target any time.

“The Republicans who are running Florida,” he said, “are squandering one of the state’s most important assets by driving out professors who otherwise wouldn’t have wanted to leave.”

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