How to Save Academic Freedom From Ron DeSantis

There are grounds for being skeptical of “wokeness,” but the Florida bill to curb progressive ideas in universities is flat-out unconstitutional.

A black-and-white photo of Ron DeSantis
Paul Hennessy / NurPhoto / AP

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been busy promoting a new book that sets out the case for his presidential run. His main message: Republicans need a new approach to combatting the cultural power of the left.

The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival begins by narrating DeSantis’s political rise and goes on to give an account of his pandemic leadership. But it reaches a climax when he describes how he used the power of his state office to stand up to “wokeness.” The implication is that he will do the same for the country if he becomes the next president of the United States.

Donald Trump excelled at offending liberal sensibilities while he occupied the White House. But he took few steps to check progressive ideas. Under Trump’s watch, wokeness gained sway over some of the country’s most influential institutions, and public opinion on issues such as race and immigration swung to the left. By contrast, DeSantis has pushed back against the institutional power of such ideas in concrete ways and on several fronts, including in business and entertainment.

The main focus of these efforts has been in education. Last April, DeSantis signed a piece of legislation called the Stop WOKE Act; according to a summary by Reason magazine, the sprawling bill was “intended to curb teaching about or conducting trainings on certain topics related to race, sex, and gender in Florida public schools and workplaces.” Earlier this year, DeSantis successfully pressured the College Board to redesign a new AP course in African American studies, and installed close conservative allies on the board of trustees of the New College of Florida, a public liberal-arts college. Now his administration is preparing to go a step further: House Bill 999, pending in Florida’s legislature, would fundamentally remake the nature of public education in the state by abolishing certain majors and granting political appointees the power to fire tenured faculty members.

DeSantis’s pitch is worth taking seriously. His promise to fight wokeness is a big reason for his rapid rise on the right, making him Trump’s leading competitor for the Republican presidential nomination. And because many Americans, of all ethnic origins and ideological stripes, feel alienated by the recent transformation of mainstream institutions, his campaign may even have helped DeSantis win voters outside his party’s base.

Still, a closer look at the changes DeSantis is implementing in Florida reveals that—contrary to the promise encapsulated in the title of his new book—they will make Americans less, rather than more, free. Anybody who believes in basic constitutional values like free speech should reject his blueprint for America’s revival—even if, like me, they have their own misgivings about so-called wokeness.

Most critics of DeSantis have little sympathy for the concerns that drive his policies. They believe that his attacks on universities and corporations are rooted in a desire to impose regressive views. And they assume that his objections to critical race theory derive from a determination to prevent Americans from learning about historical injustices like slavery.

On recent evidence, assuming the worst about American politicians is generally a safe bet, and DeSantis may well be driven by the most venal of intentions. But regardless of his motives, I believe that there are rational grounds for skepticism about CRT and apprehension about the state of higher education in the United States.

To its defenders in the media, CRT simply amounts to a willingness to acknowledge the noxious role that race has always played in American life. And without doubt, the founders of this intellectual tradition, such as Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw, have made important contributions to debates about, for instance, the nature of discrimination in America. But anybody who goes back to CRT’s founding texts will quickly realize that the tradition has, from its inception, conceived of itself as standing in direct conflict with the liberal left. Far from seeking to complete the work of the civil-rights movement, scholars like Bell were intent on exposing the flaws of its most fundamental claims and assumptions—as is clear from his blistering attacks on Brown v. Board of Education. This has all along placed the tradition in conflict with such key constitutional values as free speech and due process.

More generally, I worry about a lack of diversity of viewpoints on campus. Most professors genuinely seek to encourage their students to speak their mind and challenge prevailing ideas. But I regularly talk with students from across the political spectrum who have experienced intolerance of dissent. When they deviated from a narrow ideological consensus in the classroom or the dining hall, they were penalized by professors or shunned by classmates. The problem with the influence of woke ideas on campus is not that some students or faculty members genuinely believe in them; it is that many bullies and administrators impose them by fiat, making it perilous for students and academics alike to disagree without suffering serious adverse consequences.

For all these reasons, I wanted to approach with an open mind DeSantis’s blueprint for curtailing the cultural power that a particular set of ideas about race, sexual orientation, and gender identity has acquired, especially in universities. Can public authorities take action to promote a true diversity of viewpoints at universities and avoid turning themselves into censors?

If H.B. 999 is any indication, the answer seems to be a resounding no. DeSantis claims that he is intent on defending free speech and academic freedom from the coercive power now enjoyed by a new set of radical ideas. But in the process, he is proposing to turn the state into an even more powerful censor, giving political appointees unprecedented authority over what students and faculty members can do and say.

The bill’s most blatant restriction of academic freedom concerns the content of courses taught at public universities in Florida. Although it is appropriate for a legislature to set broad expectations for what the institutions it funds will teach—for example, by directing them to prepare students for the needs of the state’s economy—academic freedom is severely undermined when faculty members are prohibited from teaching particular topics or expressing certain points of view.

Such prohibitions stand at the core of H.B. 999. The bill explicitly bars public universities from teaching materials that constitute “identity politics” or are rooted in “Critical Race Theory,” two concepts whose legal meaning it fails to define in precise terms. As FIRE, a nonprofit devoted to defending academic freedom, points out in a recent article, “Faculty teaching courses on history, philosophy, humanities, literature, sociology, or art would be required to guess what material administrators, political appointees, or lawmakers might label ‘identity politics.’”

(Reading the legislation, I realized that many of the classes I teach would likely fall into the interdicted category. Although I am critical of most forms of identity politics, I believe that my task in the classroom is to facilitate debate, not to evangelize my views. When I teach students about so-called cultural appropriation, for example, I freely express my conviction that we have gone too far in putting healthy forms of mutual cultural influence under a pall of general suspicion. But to facilitate a meaningful debate, I also assign philosophical articles justifying expansive prohibitions on cultural appropriation that a well-informed judge would reasonably interpret as standing in the tradition of identity politics.)

H.B. 999 would also prohibit the inclusion of “unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content” in general-education courses. This not only makes it impossible for professors to let students participate in the process of scientific discovery (exploratory), but would also, on its face, obviate any number of classic college courses, including on Shakespeare’s plays (unproven) or quantum physics (theoretical).

The vague, catch-all nature of these prohibitions is aggravated by the fact that the same bill would effectively end the protections for unpopular speech that have historically been a central feature of American universities. The bill would require virtually all hiring to be done by political appointees, such as university presidents and boards of trustees. These same bodies would also be empowered to review a faculty member’s tenure status for any reason, enabling them to fire anyone with politically inconvenient views. “If the political appointees who populate boards of trustees can review tenure at any time, for any reason,” FIRE rightly notes, “it will strip faculty of a primary purpose of tenure: to protect scholarship, research, and teaching from political pressure.”

Thankfully, the most extreme elements of DeSantis’s legislation will never be implemented. Many provisions in the bill are blatantly unconstitutional. If it passes the Florida legislature in anything resembling its current form, its main provisions will—as has already happened to key parts of the Stop WOKE Act—almost certainly be struck down by the courts.

Yet H.B. 999 is a harbinger of a larger danger. Whether or not DeSantis wins the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, he already has an outsized impact on the GOP’s plans for taking on the left’s cultural power. And although some of the views and customs that now exert real influence in many American institutions are profoundly illiberal, DeSantis’s blueprint for fixing this problem will, by enlisting the power of the state, undermine basic constitutional values, including freedom of speech.

Universities across the country need to fight back against the legislative proposals in Florida. If they are to retain a modicum of academic freedom, they must defend the right of teachers and researchers to pose awkward questions and publish uncomfortable answers—irrespective of whether they offend the sensibilities of progressive activists or conservative trustees.

At the same time, university presidents who oppose such legislative efforts would be well advised to reflect on how they can win back the broad-based respect that their institutions once enjoyed. Public universities are, as recent events in Florida make clear, especially vulnerable to political interference. But elite private universities enjoy tax-exempt status for their endowments and draw part of their budget from federal research grants, making them nearly as dependent on political support for their health and survival. All universities, public or private, should be deeply alarmed that large segments of the country now perceive them as ideologically intolerant monoliths and feel alienated by their reigning ethos.

For now, DeSantis’s attack on academic freedom seems likely to fail. But in a democracy, colleges will always depend on the goodwill of the people. Universities that care about their long-term success must seek to sustain that support. This means, at a minimum, that they must do on their own what legislators neither could nor should do on their behalf: nurture a true culture of viewpoint diversity—one that empowers students and researchers alike to pursue unpopular ideas without fear of retribution.