Within minutes of the announcement, the press and even some of the new trustees were framing the development in the language of conquest. “We are now over the walls and ready to transform higher education from within,” trustee Christopher Rufo tweeted. Later that day, he announced his plan to visit New College with a “landing team.”
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Within minutes of the announcement, the press and even some of the new trustees were framing the development in the language of conquest. “We are now over the walls and ready to transform higher education from within,” trustee Christopher Rufo tweeted. Later that day, he announced his plan to visit New College with a “landing team.” There was talk of “recapturing higher education” and laying “siege.” By Monday, Rufo confirmed a charge leveled at him in The New York Times: “We are organizing a ‘hostile takeover.’”
In the weeks leading up to the board’s first meeting on January 31 — at which I was fired as president — the logic of this militaristic rhetoric became clear. Far more than a political shift in the governance of our small liberal-arts college, New College had become the epicenter of a debate about the future of academic freedom, shared governance, freedom of expression, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Although sometimes cast as a story about Florida politics, the New College saga is part of a national phenomenon. State legislatures across the nation are considering sweeping academic reform. The Chronicle’s DEI Legislation Tracker is following 40 bills in 22 states. With a broader focus on “educational gag orders,” PEN America has tracked more than 300 bills introduced since January 2021.
These threats to higher education’s core values have not gone unheeded. The American Association of University Professors, PEN America, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Council on Education are just a few of the leading organizations that have issued powerful statements in support of academic freedom, DEI, tenure, shared governance, and/or freedom of expression on campus. Faculty senates and unions, higher-education leaders, and local grass-roots organizations of students, parents, religious leaders, and concerned community members are also speaking out.
As an ousted college president, I am deeply grateful for the statements of support that my campus and I personally received. They buoyed me during an extremely difficult time. They are important first steps in responding to legislative efforts that threaten the quality of higher education in our nation. But they are not, by themselves, enough.
Develop new alliances among faculty, staff, students, and administration.
Elected faculty leaders should do an honest assessment of their current relationship with staff leaders and the heads of student government. For too long, faculty organizations have prioritized their relationship with campus administration (and vice versa) without fully realizing the power of broader alliances. Faculty leaders: Do you meet regularly with leaders of staff councils and student government? Could you call them in a crisis? Would you call them in a crisis? Does your campus’s president or chancellor host a regular meeting that brings together the chairs of faculty senate, chairs of staff council, and elected student leaders? Are you aware of the priorities of these different groups on campus? And could you respond to a crisis with a united voice?
Building powerful alliances among faculty, staff, and students is also possible on a national level. Perhaps the American Association of University Professors could form a partnership with the American Student Government Association, NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education), or NACUBO (National Association of College and University Business Officers). Faculty voices are essential. The combined voices of faculty, students, and staff are even more powerful.
Establish crisis-communication training as a requirement for faculty leaders.
I have been closely involved with two campus crises that gained national attention, and I have followed dozens more. My overall assessment? Most institutions are ill-prepared for communicating in a crisis, and faculty leaders are among the least prepared of any group on campus. Too often, in times of crisis, faculty are encouraged to leave all communications to central administration. I have worked closely with extraordinarily talented communication experts and have benefitted from their expertise. But their work and priorities can never serve as a substitute for direct messaging from faculty leaders. To prepare for this, faculty organizations should invest in crisis-communication training and in the regular practice of key principles through simulation exercises of hypothetical crises. Ideally, this practice — so-called “tabletop” exercises — would be in coordination with the campus administration’s communication team, but it is foolhardy, in my view, to assume that a campus’s official communication team can or will always speak for the faculty. Having two or three faculty leaders trained in crisis communication is an insurance policy that no faculty organization should live without.
Faculty voices are essential. The combined voices of faculty, students, and staff are even more powerful.
This would ideally involve both local and national organizations. Perhaps one of the national organizations that has issued a statement of support for academic freedom and/or New College of Florida could make high-quality crisis-communication training available to faculty leaders on local campuses.
To provide an example, the public’s frequent misunderstanding of key principles like academic freedom, tenure, or shared governance could be remedied with skillful training for faculty leaders, particularly those who already have opportunities to speak publicly about key issues. Public proclamations about faculty members’ rights to “teach what they want” may resonate with colleagues, but they do nothing to gain public support.
Develop statewide partnerships that cross traditional higher-education sectors.
Legislative efforts to restrict higher education are a national phenomenon, but the action is almost entirely at the state level. Therefore, action and lobbying are required at the state level.
I am an educator, not a political activist, but even I cannot help but notice that higher education’s particular way of organizing is a significant disadvantage in our current political climate. While the legislative efforts are at the state level, higher education is almost entirely organized by sector (community college, liberal-arts college, large research university, etc.) or by discipline. A faculty member teaching biology at a regional public in the Midwest is far more likely to see themselves as allies of biology faculty members on the East Coast than they are to identify with a composition teacher at a community college five miles from their own campus. Such an orientation is not necessarily a bad thing, but it creates obstacles for statewide organizing.
The old models of organizing ourselves are not well suited to the challenges we face. Faculty leaders on every campus have a real opportunity to create new alliances with faculty members within their own state, regardless of sector or discipline. Defending the importance of students’ ability to learn about so-called “divisive” subjects, protecting shared governance and tenure — these are issues that affect faculty, staff, and students on all kinds of campuses. Now is the time to organize statewide coalitions that recognize these shared threats and opportunities and, even more importantly, leverage political influence in state legislatures.
Develop bipartisan support for academic freedom.
Many of the bills now under consideration are deeply partisan, with little chance of establishing common ground. But there are opportunities for building bipartisan support for higher education, however difficult in today’s political climate. On many campuses, for example, services for veteran students are housed within offices of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Faculty leaders and campus administration must do everything possible to nurture coalitions that create opportunities for bipartisan support.
And for those who see such a call as naïve, I offer the case of Wyoming, which earlier this year rejected a budget amendment that would have eliminated gender studies at the University of Wyoming. Some of the most passionate — and persuasive — voices opposing this amendment came from Republican leaders, including Speaker of the House Albert P. Sommers, who argued that it is the work of a university, not a state legislature, to decide what a university “deem necessary” and “important” to study.
Building a broad, bipartisan coalition in support of higher education will not be easy. It will take a vast amount of time and energy and complicated coordination with campus administration, which is rightly charged with leading legislative affairs. But faculty and staff and student voices are vital to the success of any such coalition, even if the initial work is small group meetings and one-on-one conversations.
One of my first speeches after I arrived on campus was to a group of retired military officers. During the question-and-answer period, one of them asked about critical race theory, and the audience’s reaction indicated to me that this was a widely held concern. I gave my (unrehearsed) answer about what critical race theory is and how it relates to New College’s curriculum. The conversation was respectful, and, regardless of whether anyone changed their views or not, I’m fairly certain that people on both sides benefited from the dialogue. I know I did.
I confess I struggle to imagine how we can possibly replicate a sufficient number of such respectful conversations to create the kind of broad coalition that is needed to move beyond the deeply divisive political climate we live in. My hope is that thoughtful action now, particularly by faculty leaders on campuses across the nation, can begin to move us to a place where our system of higher education is once again a source of pride for our entire nation — regardless of political affiliation.