"I hope New College and its supporters can keep its unique academic culture and somehow escape the harm DeSantis’ cultural wars have already inflicted."
In this Jan. 20, 2023, file photo, a student makes her way past the sign at New College of Florida in Sarasota, Florida. Credit: Chris O'Meara / AP

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Roger Bowen, a former university president, lives in Prospect Harbor.

Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives Freedom Caucus, apparently believes he is an educator or at least as smart as professional educators. It is true that DeSantis taught high school history at a Georgia prep school for one year, and it is also true that DeSantis was an honors history major at Yale before earning his law degree from Harvard.

DeSantis is academically smart, then, but that fact, and his one year of teaching experience, does not make him an educator nor does it give him the deep insight into curricular and faculty issues that are needed in every school in the nation.

DeSantis certainly does not evince any knowledge or understanding of the more than 100-year-old tradition in higher education that formally recognizes teachers as professionals, not unlike doctors or lawyers that have national organizations that oversee professional qualifications but also licensing, standards, best practices, and, most important, the faculty role in upholding academic freedom and shared governance. In the case of higher education, the national college faculty organization is the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) founded by such luminaries as economist Edwin R.A. Seligson and philosopher John Dewey during World War I.

DeSantis’ assault on the professional standards of teachers includes a law that requires state colleges and universities to use a different accreditor every five years; the firing of the president of Florida’s liberal arts public honors college, New College, and the stacking of its board of trustees with conservative Republicans; teaming up with the GOP-controlled Legislature to ban the teaching of critical race theory; and his decision to disallow African American studies to be taught for Advanced Placement credit.

I approach these facts and issues from two major perspectives: as a past university president and a former head of the AAUP. My university and I came under fire from the extreme right wing when the women studies program recycled a conference theme — female sexuality — used years before. Members of the governing board wanted portions or all of the conference canceled. I decided then that to give into such a pressure campaign could weaken and even undermine academic freedom — the right of faculty to profess within areas of their competence.

AAUP principles, first declared in 1915 and until recently boldly withstood the tests of time, are clear about such cases. The “appointing authority,” i.e. the trustees, “[has] neither the competency nor moral right to intervene” in professional matters of the professoriate. Those principles liken the relationship of trustees and faculty to the U.S. president appointing members of the Supreme Court: university teachers “should be no more subject to control of the trustees than are judges subject to the control of the president.”

The principle of faculty authority over such issues as readings, grading and, most important, the state of their academic disciplines has its counterpart in the other major professions requiring advanced degrees. Louis Menand made this point in his book “The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America,” when he argues that “no doctor, lawyer, or architect wants to have the terms of his or her practice dictated by someone other than his or her peers.”

That is one reason today’s faculty subject their research and writings to peer review rather than to the governor’s mansion.

A final perspective: One of the presidential searches I worked on for about a year was New College of Florida. In my capacity as search consultant, I visited the campus several times and wrote the draft of the lengthy position overview of the college for aspirants to this presidency. New College needed no “selling”: It is one of the most intellectually vibrant campuses in the nation: students are high-octane smart; faculty are well-credentialed and almost devout in their dedication to student learning; shared governance among trustees, administration and faculty is (was?) seamless, nonpartisan and friendly; and the campus, which sits at land’s end on the Gulf of Mexico, is spectacular.

I hope New College and its supporters can keep its unique academic culture and somehow escape the harm DeSantis’ cultural wars have already inflicted.