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Can Ron DeSantis Bring Woke Higher Ed to Heel?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

It's no secret that our higher ed system in America has become a playground for woke maniacs. In other words, it's become an environment in which left-wing extremists feel empowered to bully, harass, and intimidate anyone who dares to differ with leftist orthodoxy. It's also increasingly common for professors to take advantage of their leverage over students to indoctrinate them in neo-Marxist ideology.


At the same time, many of our colleges and universities are publicly owned, run, and financed, so, theoretically, shouldn't, well, the public have a say in all of this? If our higher ed system is taking its left-wing bias too far, shouldn't there be a way for the people's elected representatives to push back? Again, theoretically, the answer is yes, but almost never, even in the reddest of states, do politicians find effective ways of doing so. Leftists are so dug in at most colleges, and reign so supreme in administrations and faculties, that challenging their dominance is largely a wasted effort.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, not surprisingly, is taking on this herculean challenge. Under his watch, Florida has already passed a new law to loosen tenure protections for professors, and to require them to face a formal review process every five years, even after gaining tenure. Professors are also supposed to "remain productive" and refrain from "indoctrinating students".

Those goals sound appealing enough, but the devil is in the details, as we all know. And some of those details may be fleshed out in the months ahead, as Florida legislators weigh new proposals to take hiring decisions away from college presidents and to give them instead to Boards of Trustees. There would also be a blanket ban on instruction in "critical race theory".


Such proposals are well-intentioned, to be sure, but one has to question whether they would achieve any meaningful change in the ideological orientation of Florida higher ed. What constitutes a "productive" professor is subjective, and what constitutes "critical race theory", at least according to Florida lawmakers, is likely to be equally murky. And who, in the final analysis, will make such determinations? Are Boards of Trustees likely to be any more trustworthy, or any less woke, than college administrators and faculty members? Possibly, since many trustees are directly nominated by the Governor, but what would happen if that Governor were, at some future point, a Democrat? The leftward tilt of Florida higher ed could actually be exacerbated! What Governor DeSantis is proposing, in effect, is the increased politicization of Florida's public colleges and universities, which, since the state is currently red, may seem attractive, but it offers no permanent solution to the problem of ideological bias.

Frankly, there is also an argument to be made that the bias of individual professors is healthy, insofar as it exposes students to strident views that could stimulate the development of their own worldview. The problem arises when only professors from one ideological camp are allowed to pontificate, and when students are afraid to push back when they have legitimate disagreements with their professors. On a day to day basis, such battles will be fought in the trenches of college classrooms and, occasionally, in deans' and HR offices. Trustees are not likely to be aware of many of these clashes, and are even less likely to intervene in them successfully. Trustees overwhelmingly take a passive role in the administration of the colleges and universities in their charge, after all, since they are only part-time overseers.


If much of this analysis sounds pessimistic, even despondent, that's because conservatives need to face facts: it will be next to impossible to save higher ed from its leftist overlords, and to reclaim it for the ordinary Americans who it is supposed to serve, if all we employ is half measures. My advice to conservatives, therefore, is, in the meantime, to vote with their feet: simply don't attend (or give money to), and don't advise your friends and family to attend (or give money to), the wokest colleges and universities. And my advice to Governor DeSantis would be similar: if a given college or university in the Florida public higher ed system repeatedly and flagrantly violates its mandate or disrespects the values of the people of Florida, cut it loose! Let it ply its Marxist idiocies freely as a private institution, but don't waste a single cent of taxpayers' money subsidizing its subversive ravings. (Florida's "Stop Woke Act", HB7, starts down this path, but does not go nearly far enough.)

And that, I suspect, is the only realistic path to reclaiming American higher ed: starve it of students, starve it of public funds, and starve it of attention and legitimacy, unless and until it rediscovers the love of learning and the respect for real diversity of opinion that were its founding principles. I won't hold my breath, but, as a denizen of higher ed myself, I will never give up hope.


Dr. Nicholas L. Waddy is an Associate Professor of History at SUNY Alfred and blogs at: He appears on the Newsmaker Show on WLEA 1480/106.9.

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