Tressie McMillan Cottom
“You’re reading the Tressie McMillan Cottom newsletter, for Times subscribers only. A professor at UNC Chapel Hill offers a sociologist’s perspective on culture, politics and the economics of our everyday lives.
Becoming a professor has never been a path to riches. But it once promised a path to professional stability, mostly for white men. As the professoriate has become more female since the 1990s and marginally more nonwhite, politicians and culture warmongers have dusted off their depictions of us as out-of-touch commies. You can convince a loud minority of the American population that college professors are indoctrinating young adults with Marxist theory porn when, in reality, most of us would be happy to persuade students to read the syllabus. Who people imagine is teaching makes it easier for them to imagine an enemy. That is a big reason the professional post-Ph.D. path has been crumbling — more steadily for some parts of the professoriate than for others, but it has not been a yellow brick road for most of us.
No one has found higher education’s diminished fortunes more politically useful than the Florida governor and G.O.P. presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis. The man is walking satire. He graduated from two Ivy League schools and wants his wife on the cover of fashion magazines. Yet he rails against the cultural elite as dangerous and out of touch. Like many of this satirical stripe, DeSantis reserves his most pointed ire for universities. Part of his campaign to “stop woke” is a one-two punch of State Senate bills that go into effect on Saturday.
S.B. 256 will change how the state’s employee unions can collect dues. Rather than deduct dues automatically through payroll, the union will have to collect dues directly. Critics say it is designed to make paying dues onerous for members and an administrative burden for the union. The burden is especially challenging because the changes will take effect when its members are scattered for research, summer school teaching and other nonroutine tasks. Getting the attention of faculty members during the academic year is hard enough. Doing so during the summer is like herding cats.
S.B. 266 targets diversity, equity and inclusion considerations in hiring and places new requirements on student programming and academic majors related to D.E.I. This is the law that goes to the heart of the student experience and faculty expertise. It is also ill defined. It will target not just so-called critical race theory classes; it will also severely restrict gender studies courses and prohibit public funds from being spent on D.E.I. programs, which include student support services. Research shows that those services improve everything from student retention to student mental well-being.
It’s important to note that faculty members do not drive the creation of courses in gender studies, ethnic studies and the like. In fields like mine, sociology, year after year, student demand outpaces faculty expertise in race, class, gender and disability studies, for example. These are courses often created because students want them. They want them because they live in a mediatized, global world. They watch K-dramas and listen to TikToks about histories they did not learn in school, and they realize that they need cultural competencies to live and work in a complex world. To attract those students, universities have created courses that put disciplinary knowledge in the context of the world they will graduate into. These bills that seek to “stop woke” are not based on research or even sound marketing. They do promise Republican primary voters the most rabidly anti-diversity candidate in the field.
DeSantis’s political posturing against his own universities on the national stage is also the work environment for thousands of university professionals in Florida. These are professors and staff members who have earned their degrees and navigated the challenging decades of higher education’s declining professionalization. They chose to work in Florida for various personal and professional reasons. As the nation watches his shenanigans from a remove, I thought about my academic peers working for one of the world’s worst bosses.
I spoke with three professors, a union officer and a campus interfaith leader about university life in Florida. All of them speak about Saturday as if it were D-Day. Matt Hartley is an interfaith leader at the University of North Florida. When people think about diversity and inclusion, they generally think of race, not faith. That is by design. The G.O.P. branding gurus intentionally turned “woke” into a racist dog whistle. But college campuses now enroll the most demographically rich, layered and culturally textured population in U.S. history. That cuts many ways, including religion and faith.
Hartley’s work helping students find ways to talk about what they believe in falls under diversity and inclusion. “My understanding right now is that our interfaith work on campus could go away on Saturday, along with all of our diversity work,” he told me. He said “could” and not “will” because, as people pointed out to me over and over again, they have no idea what will happen when S.B. 256 and S.B. 266 go into effect. The lack of guidance adds to the fear and intimidation that people feel. If you do not know what is happening, you are left to imagine the worst. And if your boss is on television broadcasting messages about Florida being the state where woke goes to die, then it does not take much to imagine that the worst is exactly what is in store.
For some Americans, DeSantis’s crackdown is an overdue comeuppance for a group of workers who have grown fat and lazy from easy jobs that do not contribute to the real world. I always struggle with the contradictions here. I know empirically that most people want their children to go to college. I know that most people value their state universities. I could go on about how these are professors in Florida and not Boston or Palo Alto, Calif. All of them were working when I called them in the middle of the summer. Their students are the kind that “identify with this school,” as one professor told me. For many of them, there are not a lot of other places they could or would go. This is good, meaningful higher education but not elite higher education. And the professors and staff members who provide it feel demoralized.
What some people I spoke to cannot get over is that they are living and working at ground zero of what feels like a culture of repression from the McCarthy era while the public still thinks the culture war in higher education is about civility and ChatGPT. I took that one to heart. I play for both teams here: the professoriate and the media. Academics are playing a weird shell game of denial. We know government attacks are happening all around us. Even in presumably safely Democratic-controlled states, what friendly governor wouldn’t mind a little more direct control over faculty hiring? No public profession is safe.
Nothing DeSantis is enacting would be improved if his rhetoric were more civil. There are few stakes when a guest speaker is shouted down during a well-paid campus talk. The stakes are very high when a state bureaucrat can use posttenure review to scare faculty members away from ideas politicians don’t like. It is ultimately easier to talk about generative A.I. than the real, dangerous politics happening around the quad.
As Carolyne Ali-Khan, an associate professor of education at the University of North Florida put it, “These governmental attacks from the State of Florida have made us unsafe.” She pointed to how S.B. 256 threatens unions’ ability to hold their memberships together and how S.B. 266 will gut diversity and make it easier for nonacademic bureaucrats to fire academics. She also pointed to how the idea of permitless concealed carry makes her feel less safe in Florida overall and more fearful of her fellow citizens.
Other faculty members talked about how much the passage of these bills made them distrustful. Bess Wilson, also an associate professor of education at the University of North Florida, is leaving the state. Her academic work became increasingly difficult to do in Florida. It also became harder for her to trust her neighbors. “They voted for this?” she said. “This” included anti-trans legislation that affects her trans daughter’s school resources. Critics point out that these bills will be difficult to carry out and that is probably why there has been no guidance for universities on how to do so. If you talk with people working on campuses in Florida, it is apparent that whether the bills can be put into effect is irrelevant. The culture of fear, secrecy and control are already taking root.
DeSantis has not won national office yet. History is often cyclical. We have had fascist antiprogressive regimes before. Attacks on higher education are part of a broad base of attacks to repeal the 20th century — the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the L.G.B.T.Q. movement and the vestiges of any social welfare state. Hartley says his students are fired up.
I asked the professors what they wished the public understood about their dilemma. They said they wished you knew how much they care about their jobs, how seriously they take their work as a public trust. They wished you knew that they do not do their work for the money. Many professors signed up for so-called boring jobs. They would rather be doing those boring jobs. They also wished you knew that leaving their jobs is not as easy as it sounds. The academic hiring process is up to one year long. It almost always requires moving to a different city or even another state. It costs a lot of money to move. When an academic or university staff member leaves a university job, it is also a pretty big deal to students and communities. Even if you despise who DeSantis tells you are the enemy, you benefit when those communities learn, work and contribute. All but one professor I spoke to is leaving Florida.
It may not matter to DeSantis. It should matter to the rest of us. The real culture war is not about wokeness but about fear and secrecy and control. It does not have cardboard cutouts being moved around a media chessboard for evening entertainment. The culture war is not symbolic. It is not a parlor game. It is real people and their livelihoods, in institutions that are far easier to strip than they are to rebuild.
That is the part that I wanted you to know.“