In Florida’s hot political climate, some faculty have had enough – Say DeSantis spurs departures

By Stephanie Saul, New York Times (as published in the Boston Globe), December 4, 2023.

Governor Ron DeSantis had just taken office in 2019 when the University of Florida lured Neil H. Buchanan, a prominent economist and tax law scholar, from George Washington University.

Now, just four years after he started at the university, Buchanan has given up his tenured job and headed north to teach in Toronto. In a recent column on a legal commentary website, he accused Florida of “open hostility to professors and to higher education more generally.’’

He is not the only liberal-leaning professor to leave one of Florida’s highly regarded public universities. Many are giving up coveted tenured positions and blaming their departures on DeSantis and his effort to reshape the higher education system to fit his conservative principles.

The New York Times interviewed a dozen academics — in fields ranging from law to psychology to agronomy — who have left Florida public universities or given their notice, many headed to blue states. While emphasizing that hundreds of top academics remain in Florida, a state known for its solid and affordable public university system, they raised concerns that the governor’s policies have become increasingly untenable for scholars and students.

The University of Florida said that its turnover rate is not unusual and remains well below the 10.57 percent national average. Hiring, it said, has also outpaced departures. Florida State University and the University of South Florida released similar figures.

DeSantis’s office did not respond to requests for comment. But Sarah D. Lynne, chair-elect of the University of Florida’s Faculty Senate, said that little has changed except that her campus has become the focus of national politics. Most people who leave, she said, do so for reasons that have nothing to do with politics.

“Florida isn’t really a unique scenario when it comes to the politicization of higher education,’’ said Lynne, who teaches in the department of family, youth and community sciences. “It’s a beautiful state to live in, and we have amazing students, so we’re staying.’’

Data from several schools, however, show departure rates have ticked upward. At the University of Florida, overall turnover went from 7 percent in 2021 to 9.3 percent in 2023, according to figures released by the university.

A report by the Faculty Senate at the University of Florida found some departments hard hit. The school of arts — which includes art, music, and dance — “struggles to hire or retain good faculty and graduate students in the current political climate,’’ said the report, issued in June.

In liberal arts, the report said: “Faculty of color have left.’’

Danaya C. Wright, a law professor who currently chairs the Faculty Senate, said she sees job candidates avoiding the state. “We have seen more people pull their applications or just say, ‘no, I’m not interested — it’s Florida,’’’ she said.

At Florida State University, the vice president for faculty development, Janet Kistner, commented during a Faculty Senate meeting in September that the “political climate in Florida’’ had contributed to an upswing in faculty turnover, with 37 professors leaving for reasons other than retirement in the past year compared with an average of 23 during the past five years.

Paul Ortiz, a history professor at the University of Florida and a former president of the school’s faculty union, is leaving after more than 15 years to join Cornell University next summer.

“If the academic job market was more robust, then a lot more people would be leaving,’’ Ortiz said.

 Image Credits: University of Florida

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