The American Association of University Women should be on the front lines in defending academic freedom in higher education. Our foremothers fought for a university education for women because this was the highest standard for the development of human knowledge and informed judgment. If self-interested governments are allowed to dictate what may be taught and what may not be taught, this standard will be lost. That is the case with the Florida “Stop WOKE Act,” which seeks to restrict instruction in colleges and universities regarding race. The initial name of this act is ironically candid: obviously, the legislators would prefer that we remain asleep. The current name, Individual Freedom Act, is not candid.
Now Florida governor DeSantis has determined that a Florida college rated as one of the nation’s best liberal arts institutions, New College of Florida, will be transformed into an institution of reactionary indoctrination. To begin the process, he has appointed six new ultra conservative board members. Referencing a well-known conservative Christian college, his chief of staff stated, “It is our hope that New College of Florida will become Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the South.”
It is also ironic for the government of Florida to establish a “Hillsdale”, since the actual Hillsdale declined government aid for its students so that it would not be subject to Title IX and other federal regulations. The notion of having a college dedicated to “the classics” may sound attractive, until you realize that those classics will exclude modern thought especially that related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and that they are focused on Western thought exclusively. DeSantis and his supporters believe that this indoctrination will quash any tendency to explore injustices in our society.
According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), academic freedom is the foundation of excellence in higher education: “As widely understood in the academic community, academic freedom is essential to allow for the unfettered search for knowledge and does not exist for the benefit of the individual faculty member but for the sake of education in service to the greater good.” That greater good is not just material progress, but also progress in the direction of a more just and equitable society. Even though anyone who has read the Chronicle of Higher Education is aware that scholarly associations can have blind spots, the self-governance of these associations is far superior to politically motivated regulation by governmental agencies. The AAUP cautions against faculty members introducing “controversial matters which are unrelated to their subject”, but the fact is that racial bias and other inequities are germane to almost any topic that relates to what a student will be doing in the real world.
AAUW’s Public Policy Priorities include academic freedom: “AAUW believes that high-quality public education is the foundation of a democratic society and the key to improving economic prosperity and gender equality… We support academic freedom, civic education, protection from censorship, bias-free education, and responsible funding for all levels of education.”
The Stop WOKE Act and the conversion of New College are not only threats to academic freedom but exemplify censorship and blatant bias. In November 2022 a federal judge blocked enforcement of the higher-education provisions of the Act, calling it “positively dystopian”, but the state has appealed. Despite the injunction, an article from ProPublica documents how the Stop WOKE Act has already caused faculty to drop or modify courses, especially those faculty not protected by tenure.
Beyond AAUW’s public policy, the idea that the state will now have the ability to dictate what is taught in colleges and universities is abhorrent to those of us who remember our college experience as enlightening. In a 1952 Supreme Court case (a McCarthy era case concerning a loyalty oath for professors), Justice Frankfurter referred to all teachers as “priests of democracy” whose special task is “to foster those habits of open-mindedness and critical inquiry which alone make for responsible citizens.”