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The DeSantis School

Ron DeSantis’s war on labor in the academy

I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted because I teach U.S. history, including African American and LGBTQ+ history, at a public university in Florida. Here Governor Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers are dismantling higher education at breakneck speed, and they’re doing it in part by taking aim at people like me.

DeSantis and Republicans in the state legislature—not to mention their allies and imitators in a slew of other states—want voters to believe that professors teaching subjects like history, English, and gender studies are hellbent on indoctrinating their children. This line of political attack echoes accusations that queer people are “grooming” children simply by existing, which is also a central plank of the conservative culture wars agenda. Last week the Florida legislature expanded its “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits instruction on sexual and gender identity, to cover kindergarten through twelfth grade. But just as learning about queer people doesn’t make kids queer, nor does being exposed to new ideas lead them toward any particular political ideology. We don’t tell students what to think; we teach them how to think. This includes how to identify and examine their own assumptions, how to ask critical questions, and how to support their points of view with evidence. In any case, our conservative critics vastly overestimate how much power we have over students; on some days it feels like we can barely get them to read the syllabus, much less control their thoughts.

Still, I could not truthfully teach the history of, say, suburbanization in the United States without discussing the ways that federal policy privileged white nuclear families while disadvantaging pretty much everyone else. But under the Stop WOKE Act (signed into law in 2022 and stayed at the college level—for now—by a series of court rulings), teaching what has been well established in historical scholarship would legally constitute “discrimination on the basis of race.”

I also teach intersectionality, a concept rooted in Black feminist thought, which posits that different forms of discrimination, such as racism and sexism, combine to create new forms of marginalization. But I don’t teach it as a “religion,” as right-wing pundit Andrew Sullivan would have readers believe. I don’t demand that all students swear an oath to intersectional feminism on a tattered copy of This Bridge Called My Back. But I do help them to understand the broader historical context for a set of ideas that has gained wide cultural currency in the last decade. What they do with those ideas is up to them. Under House Bill 999, which is winding its way through the state legislature, that pedagogical approach—or any that suggests that racism, sexism, oppression, or privilege are “inherent in the institutions of the United States”—could get me fired.

I’m not exaggerating. I have tenure, which is supposed to guarantee my academic freedom in teaching and research. However, under a new rule approved in late March by the Florida Board of Governors, each faculty member’s tenure case must be reviewed every five years. Those found to be out of “compliance with state laws,” such as those restricting what and how we can teach, will stand to lose their jobs.

In Orwellian fashion, DeSantis is pitching the end of tenure—and, along with it, academic freedom—in Florida as a victory against “intellectual orthodoxy.” But he has also framed it as a necessary move against “unproductive” faculty who constitute “the most significant deadweight costs”in Florida’s public colleges and universities. In this way, he has connected his right-wing war on academic freedom to the pervasive myth that faculty take advantage of the tenure system, becoming lazy and incurious once their jobs are secure. (More on that in a minute.)

Working conditions in the neoliberal university have made it especially hard for us to resist the right-wing higher education coup in our state.

In the case of a politically motivated firing, my colleagues and I might count on our faculty union for support. But that, too, is under threat. If DeSantis gets his way, it will soon become much harder for teachers’ unions—including higher education faculty unions—to remain in existence. A proposed bill, which has already passed the Florida Senate, would require union locals to sign up 60 percent (as opposed to the current 50 percent) of eligible faculty as dues-paying members or face decertification. As of late March, as many as two-thirds of teachers’ unions in the state stood to be decertified if the bill passes into law.

All of this is, again, exhausting. These are trying times to be living, much less teaching, in Florida. In education more broadly, Republicans have voted to funnel public money into private education through an expanded school voucher program, and DeSantis has sparred with the College Board over the content of its proposed Advanced Placement course in African American Studies. And the classroom culture wars come on top of everything else: a ban targeting drag shows that has already led to the cancellation of at least one Pride parade; bans on medical care for trans kids and gender-affirming pronouns in schools; a six-week abortion ban; permit-less concealed carry of firearms; and DeSantis’s highly publicized feud with Disney. As my colleague Julio Capó put it during a plenary session at the recent annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, “the strategy is to exhaust us.” And it’s working.

Part of the problem is that we were already exhausted. Before right-wing propagandist Chris Rufo schemed to make “Critical Race Theory” the latest conservative bogeyman, before DeSantis staged a hostile takeover of the New College of Florida (in part by appointing Rufo to its board of trustees), and before Sam Joeckel was apparently fired from Palm Beach Atlantic University for teaching about racial justice, many of us already felt stretched to the breaking point. We’re all overloaded because hiring in our fields collapsed during the Great Recession (but in all reality was slowing even before that) and never quite recovered. As a result, there are less of us to do the work that makes our institutions run. Or, as historian Erin Bartram puts it, we’re feeling the “phantom pain where [our] colleagues should be.” And all of this has been happening amid a speed-up work culture where we feel compelled to justify not only our own jobs but the place of our disciplines in the university to begin with.

In short, working conditions in the neoliberal university have made it especially hard for us to resist the right-wing higher education coup in our state. Because austerity reigns, faculty are only valued if they are productive in ways that are easily quantified. We must not only create value for the university but must also show how much value we have created. The charmed few of us who do occupy tenured positions must make our work legible in granular detail within an ever-shifting set of institutional metrics. We’re stuck playing seventeen-dimensional chess with university leaders and legislators, anticipating what they want or might want in the future so that we can survive the next round of budget cuts.

With so much to do just to keep our heads above water, we struggle to find the time to also do the hard work of organizing against the latest raft of right-wing bills in Tallahassee, or to enroll enough new members to save our union. Effective organizing relies on personal relationships, building those relationships takes time and energy, and time and energy are two things that we have in perilously short supply.

At the same time, much of the work of teaching in our institutions has already been shifted to low-paid adjuncts, the “gig workers of higher education.” Because the vast majority are at-will employees, political advocacy puts them at risk of being fired; in most places they are not eligible for membership in faculty unions, although there is an incipient movement underway to change that. Adjuncts can be made to teach lots of students at little cost—a great return on investment, as far as the university’s bottom line is concerned! Many of us who are or hope to be tenured recognize this as an exploitative arrangement that locks newly minted PhDs into cycles of insecure, minimum-wage labor with little chance of advancement. We also recognize that the increasing use of adjunct labor depresses salaries and benefits across higher education and threatens the future of academic work as gainful employment. If we—meaning tenured faculty—are still doing relatively well within this system, it’s only because the bar has been lowered so much.

On the other hand, from the point of view of university leaders, it would be great if even more tenured faculty could be replaced with adjuncts. That may be why the presidents of public colleges and universities in Florida have been silent in the face of HB 999.

In any case, the metrics game is a losing one for the humanities, because the fix is already in. As Sarah Blackwood, chair of the English Department at Pace University recently pointed out in New York Review of Books it doesn’t matter if our departments are doing quite well, metrics-wise, despite the widespread misconception that the degrees we award aren’t worth all that much. Even if we enroll plenty of students in our courses, generating revenue for the university in the process, and even if those students do well on the job market once they graduate, the narrative of “the humanities crisis” is so firmly entrenched that such facts simply don’t matter.

Not coincidentally, it’s precisely an education in the humanities that gives students the tools to question such narratives, to examine how the world around them got to be this way, and to argue their positions—whatever those may be—from evidence rather than orthodoxy. These are certainly the skills that we teach in my department. That’s why we’re under attack: not because we tell students what to think but because we help them to think critically, and to imagine alternatives to the way things are. That’s perceived as a threat to those in power and points to why, as Dylan Davidson, a PhD candidate in English and film and media studies put it on Twitter, “there is a natural affinity between financialized universities and right-wing politicians.”

Even if university leaders and right-wing politicians wouldn’t necessarily cop to having the same values, they certainly have mutually reinforcing goals. Top administrators see union-busting and strikebreaking efforts, such as those at Temple, Rutgers, the New School, and the University of Michigan as good for the institution’s bottom line. (They certainly make it easier to pay the football coach a king’s ransom in salary.) Those same efforts also make it easier to get rid of tenured faculty, who would otherwise be protected from politically motivated firing. In any case, many of those faculty probably come from humanities departments that don’t create much value anyway—better to starve them into irrelevance. It’s tempting to think that, in the face of these threats to humanities education, we can make it through by leaning in. More than once, I’ve caught myself hoping that if I can just hustle harder—if I publish more, win more grants, and attach myself to more projects—then I can insulate myself from what is coming, make myself unfireable. And for a small number of us, that may very well be true. But that game is always already rigged. Our real power lies in collective action. You can’t hustle your way out of fascism.