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The Inexcusable Silence of Florida's College Presidents

Zero for 40.

For a baseball player, that would be an awful slump. For a gambler it would be a costly run of bad luck.

For the presidents of the 40 public colleges and universities in Florida, it is at best an embarrassment and at worst a dereliction of duty.

Since the governor and Legislature in Florida began systemically to remake public higher education in the state into a branch of the most conservative faction within the Republican Party, the leaders of the affected institutions have refrained from uttering a public word in support or defense of their students, faculty, and staff. Worse, the 28 presidents of the community colleges signed a statement that attempted to placate the governor without appearing overtly sycophantic, promised to suppress the much-dreaded “critical race theory” while somehow “developing campus environments that … welcome all voices,” and managed in doing so only to appear foolish.

Inside Higher Ed recently contacted all 40 presidents and offered them the rare opportunity to comment anonymously on the state’s legislative and gubernatorial initiatives, including the widely publicized HB 999, which would, among other things, “ban” the teaching of “Critical Theory, including, but not limited to, Critical Race Theory, Critical Race Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, Radical Feminist Theory, Radical Gender Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Social Justice, or Intersectionality.” “Including, but not limited to” is a nice touch, as the range of topics falling under the heading of “Critical Theory” — why are these things capitalized, anyway? — is almost limitless since it is safe to assume that no member of the Florida Legislature could actually define any of those fields.

Presidential responses, anonymous or otherwise: zero for 40.

The only president of a public institution in the state who has attempted in any form to defend the work at her institution is Patricia Okker, formerly the leader of New College. She was, of course, fired about 15 seconds after Christopher Rufo became the de facto leader of what until recently was an admirable liberal-arts college. She might have been mostly out the door, but at least she should be given credit for not going quietly.

Contrast Okker with Ben Sasse, the former Republican senator and newly installed president of the state’s flagship university, who, in his first message to faculty members, encouraged them to “champion pluralism, curiosity, viewpoint diversity, open debate, and intellectual rigor” but who has been missing in action as all of those things have been threatened in his state and at his institution.

I can think of three arguments in defense of this presidential silence. The first and most obvious is that college leaders should avoid taking positions on controversial social and political issues. But even the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report, which has achieved Talmudic status among strong believers in institutional neutrality, includes the following exception: “From time to time instances will arise in which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry. In such a crisis, it becomes the obligation of the university as an institution to oppose such measures and actively to defend its interests and its values.” The situation in Florida seems to meet precisely the definition of a “crisis” included in the report, and thus to create an obligation for the university and its leaders to speak. This is not a debate about gun control, abortion, or Ukraine, but about, for colleges, what might be called the thing itself.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education