November 2021 round-up: attacks on academic freedom in Florida and Texas

There’s a lot to include in any wrap-up of the battle going on in the U.S. right now to make colleges and universities nothing more than weapons in the hands of Americans who want to dismantle our democracy. Through sheer chance, we began our coverage of the University of Florida on the first of this month, and that story has continued to evolve throughout November. In our November 1 post, we described how three political science faculty members were refused permission to serve as expert court witnesses during a lawsuit challenging Florida’s new voting restriction law because, as UF president Kent Fuchs put it in a written statement,

It is important to note that the university did not deny the First Amendment rights or academic freedom of professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin. Rather, the university denied requests of these full-time employees to undertake outside paid work that is adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution.

That is, UF employees will not testify against a state policy because then the state will cut funding to the university. The idea that state universities will lose funding if their faculty criticize the state is a new one, at least in the U.S., and it makes “the state” sound a lot less like Florida and a lot more like “the State”, as in “state-controlled media” or “state-controlled education”.

Reaction was swift, from inside and outside UF. The next day, higher ed reporters wrote that “Administrators denied requests from a fourth professor who had asked to participate in litigation supporting mask mandates against [the state of] Florida…

The professor, the pediatrician Jeffrey L. Goldhagen, was asked to testify and serve as a declarant in litigation that followed Gov. Ron DeSantis’s executive order that forbade mask mandates in schools as the Delta variant of Covid-19 tore through the state. Goldhagen is chief of the division of community and societal pediatrics at the University of Florida‘s College of Medicine, in Jacksonville, and a professor in pediatric palliative care. Goldhagen said he would have spoken about why masks work and why children need protection from the virus.

…Goldhagen’s case appears to contradict the university’s earlier explanation for why the political-science professors’ testimony was blocked. The campus’s president, W. Kent Fuchs, and provost, Joe Glover, wrote on Monday night that the political-science professors would be “free” to testify “pro bono on their own time without using university resources.” Goldhagen wrote in the disclosure he submitted to the university that he would not be using university resources and indicated, when asked if he would be paid more than $5,000 annually, that he would not. He told The Chronicle that administrators never separately asked him if he would be paid at all.

The very next day–November 3–it was revealed that a faculty member at another state university, Florida International University, who supported the Florida voting restriction law was allowed to testify in its favor by FIU:

Court records show that the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee hired a Florida International University professor, Dario Moreno, as an “expert witness” in League of Women Voters of Florida v. Lee, which challenges the restrictive voting law.

At Florida International, a public university, administrators signed off on Moreno’s outside-employment request with little fanfare. The “Outside Activity/Conflict of Interest Form” includes no comments or feedback to Moreno — just a couple of sign-offs by his superiors. Though the filled-out form does not specify the lawsuit, it names a law firm — Shutts & Bowen — listed on the same court documents that name Moreno as an expert witness for the Republican committees.

…Moreno, who could not be reached for comment, is an associate professor in the politics and international-relations department. He has previously been paid by the Florida Legislature to defend Republican-drawn redistricting maps in court. According to a 2015 article in the Tampa Bay Times, Moreno had been “hired by the Florida Legislature to be an expert witness in defense of every GOP-drawn redistricting map since 1994.”

Uproar over the discrepancy led UF to issue a statement saying their faculty could indeed testify against the voting law, but only if they were not paid. FIU put no such stricture on Moreno as he testified in favor of the law, and he billed for 112 hours’ worth of compensation.

Where does the fault lie–with the State of Florida’s Republican-led government, which may send a message to its colleges and universities that any criticism of the government will be punished? or with those institutions, like UF and FIU, that are all too willing to accept this situation? or with the general public, which includes people who support the situation and people who do not support it, who do nothing?

Silke-Maria Warnock, a faculty member at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, throws down the challenge we are all facing:

It’s rarely a good sign if you find yourself wondering how to translate certain German words: Gleichschaltung,for instance, or vorauseilender Gehorsam. But reading the news out of the University of Florida, where two administrators informed three faculty members that they were not permitted to testify as expert witnesses in a court challenge to Florida’s voter-suppression laws, will send you down that road.

Gleichschaltung is the process by which institutions are brought under the control of totalitarian ideology. It is frequently rendered as “coordination” or “synchronization,” but those terms lack the terrifying connotation of switches flipped, one by one, until the same ideological current flows through every previously independent institution.

Vorauseilender Gehorsam means “obedience ahead of the command.” The Yale historian Timothy Snyder translates it as “anticipatory obedience,” and that is close enough, but it doesn’t quite capture the scurrying servility implied in “vorauseilen,” to hurry ahead.

We don’t know on whose orders David E. Richardson, dean of the university’s college of arts and sciences, rejected the request of Daniel A. Smith, chair of its political-science department, to testify as an expert witness in the voting-rights case; or on whose orders Gary Wimsett, UF’s assistant vice president for conflicts of interest, rejected the requests of Michael McDonald, who studies national elections, and Sharon Wright Austin, who studies the political behavior of African Americans, to do the same. All three faculty members had previously testified as expert witnesses against the state in other cases, and the university had never declared them to be subject to conflicts of interest.

Unless we want to believe that two different administrators independently invented the same policy from scratch and presented it in near-identical terms, we have to conclude that Richardson and Wimsett acted on orders from above. The notion that they simply anticipated such orders is, in some regards, even worse… Whether they got their orders from the trustees, the president, the provost, or from Gov. Ron DeSantis or one of his minions will emerge in due course. But no matter where the directive originated, both men should have refused to carry it out. They should instead have offered their resignations. You do not obey such commands, you do not hurry ahead to destroy your university’s reputation at the bidding of an authoritarian regime.

…The implications of the assertion that the faculty must not act in a manner adverse to the regime’s interest — “activities that may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the state of Florida create a conflict for the University of Florida” — are staggering. If you are not allowed to bear witness against voter suppression in court, why would you be allowed to study the effects of voter suppression in the first place, or to teach your students about them? Such research and such teaching are not in Ron DeSantis’s interest, either, and by the logic of Richardson’s denial, any activity that is not in Ron DeSantis’s interest is not in the interest of the University of Florida.

…the university’s decision to declare itself an arm of DeSantis’s government rather than an independent institution beholden to the production and dissemination of knowledge and expertise represents an instance of Gleichschaltung that will be more difficult to reverse. It will only get worse. That it is the democratic franchise itself that is at stake in the court case in question only highlights how deep the threat is. Access to the vote is to democracy as freedom of speech is to the university: fundamental, constitutive. Democracies go bankrupt the same way everybody else does: very slowly, then all of a sudden. We are still at “slowly.” All of a sudden is scheduled for Tuesday, November 8, 2022. If Florida’s administrators have ever asked themselves how they would have acted in 1932, now they know.

The date of November 8, 2022 refers to the next election day, when Governor DeSantis is up for re-election.

Of course, it’s not just Florida. If our CRT page has taught us anything, it’s that democracy is under attack in all 50 states, and that higher ed is a much-hated target. Most recently, the University of Texas at Austin has halted a research study “on the effectiveness of antiracism training for white children”–the original “critical race theory” topic that began our own coverage of CRT.

The name of the university is different, but the attack is the same:

This follows a complaint to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that the project is racially discriminatory, among other criticism. his follows a complaint to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that the project is racially discriminatory, among other criticism.

–It’s astounding and depressing that a single, horrible argument has gained so much credibility: that teaching about racism is racist. Our first CRT page post, Truth v. Myth: Trump’s Executive Order on Diversity Education, thoroughly explores this double-speak. Teaching Americans that racism existed in the past and still exists in the present, and takes the form of white racism against non-white people in our laws (institutional racism), is, the argument goes, racist because it makes white people feel bad by assuming that they are racist until they prove themselves non-racist. It is imperative, in this argument, that no white person ever feel bad or consider whether they participate in or benefit from racism, institutional and otherwise, and the deeper, much more screwed-up message is that non-white people are racist. Non-white people assume that white people are racist, which is racist.

To be brief, in a society where racism against non-white people is deeply embedded in law and social more, every white person does indeed have to make an effort to change this situation, and remove racist laws and representations from our nation.

To return to this particular UTA story, it seems logical that if CRT is “new” and suspect, it should be objectively, scientifically tested through studies of its impact. That’s what was happening at UTA. But its opponents could not take the chance that the study might prove that white children were not damaged by learning about racism, and so have shut it down, with the university’s meek acquiesence–or its gleichschaltung:

Numerous professors are asking the university to allow the research to proceed during the internal and external reviews, arguing that UT Austin’s institutional review board previously approved the project, as did peer reviewers during a competitive internal funding process.

These professors warn that halting research due to outside complaints threatens the integrity of the study at hand and, more generally, chills free inquiry into timely subjects such as antiracism.

UT Austin “leadership’s decision to pause elements of the study based on the mere filing of a complaint, and before any assessment of whether the complaint poses a credible claim, compromises the integrity of the research and the academic freedom to conduct research and draw conclusions rooted in evidence,” 18 UT Austin education professors said this week in a letter to President Jay Hartzell and Provost Sharon Wood.

…“The leadership’s decision to pause any aspects of the study has the effect of legitimizing actions that, however unfounded, seek to suppress scholarly pursuit of truth and the advancement of scientific knowledge.”

The purpose of the study, according to a recruitment flier, is to explore “overall engagement with the GoKAR! program, as well as the potential for the program to reduce bias and increase awareness of racism.”

The study hit a speed bump after Mark Perry, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Michigan and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, filed a complaint with the Dallas OCR office alleging violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race.

UT Austin “blatantly violates Title VI by illegally engaging in racial discrimination on the basis of skin color by promoting, sponsoring, offering, and marketing a discriminatory program that engages in racial segregation,” Perry wrote to the OCR. “In violation of Title VI, the University’s GoKAR! Program operates illegally and exclusively for caregivers and their 4-5 year old children who both must identify as white and illegally excludes and discriminates against and excludes non-white caregivers and their 4-5 year old children on the basis of their race and skin color.”

…Victor Saenz, chair of educational leadership and policy at UT Austin and the first of the 18 education professors to sign the letter of concern, said via email that he wanted “to clarify that we’ve been in constant communication with all levels of UT leadership throughout this review process.” The university is “working expeditiously to help resolve this matter to ensure our faculty are being fully supported.”

Saenz’s letter to Wood and Hartzell tells something of a different story: “We are deeply concerned by the request to pause any aspect of the research. The university’s actions raise serious concerns regarding the differential treatment of research based on subject matter and viewpoint. In our experience, and in consulting with individuals who have extensive experience interacting with the [OCR] and/or expertise in academic freedom and civil rights, this is an atypical and unprecedented response from a university.”

…Referencing several critical blog posts and news articles about the study, some of which suggest that the project amounts to training, not research, [a letter from UTA faculty] says that “to succumb to political coercion, especially as it relates to scholarship that confronts anti-Black racism, white supremacy, and any other forms of oppression, compromises the central function of a public university. The university’s actions send a message that risks censoring and chilling professor speech based on viewpoint, running afoul of central tenets of the First Amendment.”

Yes, Perry is saying that a study of white children’s responses to educational materials that will help change racist attitudes about non-white people is racist because it doesn’t allow non-white children to participate–it’s segregation. Perry is deeply concerned that non-white children are not being given the chance to learn how not to be racist, perhaps against other non-white children, but given everything we have learned about this topic, it seems safer to bet that Perry wants non-white children to learn not to be racist against white children.

If only this type of university-supported attack on science, the objectivity of higher ed, and our national commitment to liberty and justice for all were truly “atypical and unprecedented”. This snowball is quickly growing and the hill it rolls down becomes steeper and steeper.

We’ll end as we always do–everyone must do their part to stop this takeover and dismantling of our democracy. Get involved in whatever legal and non-violent ways that you can, where you are, locally and nationally. Stop the gleichschaltung before it becomes a way of life.

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