By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Campuses at Florida public universities are experiencing an exodus of faculty members, while out-of-state professors searching for new jobs are saying “no thanks” to working in the Sunshine State under the rule of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Fueled by presidential ambitions, the governor is waging a culture war on “wokeism” in higher education that’s created a chilling effect in attracting and keeping educators at Florida State University in Tallahassee, the University of Central Florida in Orlando and Miami-Dade County’s Florida International University, according to faculty union leaders.
“I am hearing about it all over the university,” Matthew Lata, an FSU music professor, told Florida Bulldog. “It is happening across the board. In the College of Arts and Sciences, the number of people leaving has doubled compared to last year. People looking for jobs outside the state are up sharply from a year ago too.”
In conversations with union heads from chapters representing the state’s 12 public colleges, the pool of new faculty applicants is shrinking, Andrew Gothard told Florida Bulldog. Gothard is a Florida Atlantic University instructor who is president of the statewide United Faculty of Florida.
“Instead of 150 people applying for a job, it’s now maybe 20 to 30,” Gothard said. “The best scholars and researchers are no longer interested in Florida. We are at a tipping point.”
DeSantis is exerting his influence over the Florida college system’s Board of Governors and the Republican-controlled Legislature to do away with critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion curricula and programs. Those attacks are having a “severe impact on our recruitment and retention,” Gothard said.
“It’s all the governor’s talk about faculty being these far-left Marxists indoctrinating students,” Gothard said. “A five-minute walk around any campus would disprove that.”
DeSantis spokesmen Bryan Griffin and Jeremy Redfern did not respond to multiple Florida Bulldog emails for comment. Renee Fargason, a spokeswoman for State University System of Florida Chancellor Ray Rodrigues, declined comment for this story.
GOVERNOR’S CRUSADE TO END ‘WOKEISM’
At a January press conference, the governor promised public university courses, programs and policies based on critical race theory (CRT) and diversity, equality and inclusion, or DEI, would get “no funding, and that it will wither on the vine.” Critical race theory and DEI are key targets in the war on “wokeism” by hard-right conservatives like DeSantis.
Companion bills are currently moving through the Republican-dominated state House and Senate that would restrict public universities from teaching “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.”
Proposed legislation would also prohibit campus groups and programs that participate in critical race theory from obtaining state and federal funding; mandates that boards of trustees provide instructions on the removal of critical race theory in curriculums; and bars faculty members from seeking grievance and arbitration proceedings.
At a March 13 West Palm Beach roundtable, dubbed “Exposing the DEI Scam,” DeSantis doubled down on his rhetoric. “In Florida, we are not going to back down to the ‘woke’ mob, and we will expose the scams they are trying to push onto students across the country,” DeSantis said. “Florida students will receive an education, not political indoctrination.”
Rodrigues, who also attended, said the state’s university system had to “refocus our efforts towards the distinct mission of higher education.”
“We value academic excellence,” said Rodrigues, a former state senator. “And therefore merit-based outcomes, instead of liberal ideologies, will be prioritized for all our students across the system.”
A few weeks later, on March 29, the board of governors voted 14-2 in favor of making professors with tenure submit to five-year performance reviews about their work productivity. About a dozen professors and college students, largely from FSU, spoke against the Rodrigues-backed measure. They argued the new rule would stifle academic freedom because instructors would fear reprisals for teaching lessons that may run afoul of the Republican “wokeism’’ crackdown.
“The statements by Gov. DeSantis and others coming out of Tallahassee is just pure propaganda,” Gothard told Florida Bulldog. “You can’t throw an entire system under the bus…and expect to recruit high-quality people or expect people to stay long-term.”
FLEEING AND STAYING AWAY FROM FSU
Dr. Elizabeth Peters, an anthropology professor, was among the FSU instructors who addressed the board of governors. The new five-year review process could jeopardize her department’s negotiations with “two extremely high-quality medical anthropologists,” Peters told the board, according to a video of the meeting.
“If we successfully recruit these two candidates, they will bring with them $4.3 million in funding,” Peters said. “I am worried…if this passes.”
Peters did not respond to a Florida Bulldog phone message and email requesting comment. Dr. Tanya Peres, chair of FSU’s anthropology department, referred questions to Heather Athey, an assistant dean and spokeswoman for the FSU College of Arts and Sciences. Athey did not respond to two emails seeking comment.
FSU head spokesman Dennis Schnittker did not respond to two voicemails and two emails seeking comment.
Lata was another FSU faculty member who spoke at the March 29 meeting. Search committees in various departments are having trouble finding interested candidates because of the five-year tenure review, as well as legislation targeting higher education, Lata told the board. “More and more often, we are hearing: Not Florida,” Lata said. “We know of cases where offers have been tendered and turned down. Certainly in my college, [there’s been] at least two because of the perceived anti-higher education atmosphere in the state.”
In his phone interview with Florida Bulldog, Lata said one strong individual turned down an offer shortly after the Legislature passed and DeSantis signed a law last year banning public school courses about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten to third grade. Recently, the Florida Board of Education expanded the prohibition to all grades, including high school students.
FLORIDA ‘TOO HOMOPHOBIC’
The state House also passed bills this session making it a felony to provide gender-affirming health care to transgender minors, and allowing the state to revoke food and beverage licenses from businesses that admit children to drag shows.
“This close colleague in another state felt that the atmosphere in Florida was too homophobic for him and his partner,” Lata said. “The other professor [who turned down a job] said Florida is not the place for her right now. The offer was made before midyear.”
He is also aware that a professor who teaches Hispanic literature is job hunting, Lata added. “He is right in the crosshairs,” Lata said. “He is actively looking for employment outside the state.”
Lata declined to provide names and contact information for the three individuals.
At Florida International University, which has multiple campuses in Miami-Dade, the philosophy department has lost two professors in the past 12 months, said Eric Scarffe, vice president of the United Faculty of Florida chapter at FIU.
Scarffe, who is a philosophy assistant professor, said one colleague found a job at an out-of-state institution last year, and another retired this academic year. “They were motivated by the low pay at FIU, the high cost of living in Miami-Dade County and the political climate at public institutions,” Scarffe said. “It doesn’t appear things are going to get better, and it’s motivating professors to look elsewhere for employment.”
Other departments are having a hard time recruiting new staffers, Scarffe said. “The libraries department is struggling to fill vacant positions,” he said. “With what’s happening in Tallahassee, it’s making the situation untenable for faculty to be recruited and retained at our institution.”
Maydel Santana and Madeline Baro, FIU spokeswomen, did not respond to Florida Bulldog voicemails and emails seeking comment.
‘NO ONE WANTS TO COME TO FLORIDA’
At Orlando’s University of Central Florida, various departments are having difficulty conducting searches for new staffers, said Robert Cassanello, UCF’s United Faculty of Florida chapter president. “Either the pools of candidates are very small or the candidates are not very good,” Cassanello said. “No one wants to come to Florida.”
Cassanello, an associate professor at UCF’s College of Arts and Humanities, pointed to a recent failed search for a new vice president of research as a sign the university is not getting qualified applicants. In an open letter sent to faculty, UCF Provost Michael Johnson said the search process “produced four strong candidates,” but the university opted not to offer the job to any of them.
“We have concluded there is much work to be done within our research enterprise that will require a deep understanding of our current operations and investment in the organization to propel us forward,” Johnson wrote. “Dr. Winston Schoenfeld will continue to serve as the long-term interim vice president for research and innovation at the University of Central Florida through at least December 2024.”
He and other faculty members interpreted the email to mean the pool of candidates didn’t have a worthy contender, Cassanello said.
Chad Binette, UCF’s head spokesman, did not respond to emails requesting responses to Cassanello’s observations.
Retaining faculty at UCF is also becoming problematic, Cassanello said.
“I know of cases involving engineering and computer science professors who have the ability to leave for universities outside of Florida,” Cassanello said. “I have also learned of people in arts and humanities who are leaving. I have spoken to three professors in the department who got tired of Florida.”
He would not identify the professors because “they are telling me stuff in confidence,” Cassanello said. The university’s administration is aware of the problem with recruiting and retaining staff, he added.
Initially, professors left for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cassanello said. “Recently, [those reasons have] shifted to the current state of the Florida Legislature and what they are doing to higher education.”