Dear Gov. DeSantis . . .

Terry H. Schwadron

June 25, 2021

Dear Gov. DeSantis,

You’ve been on quite a tear lately, slaying conservative-inspired dragons real and imagined, defending the rights of liberty and individualism on the one hand, and, curiously, trying to squash what you don’t like from individual expression on the other.

Actually, from outside Florida, we recognize that you are readying your post-Donald Trump robes to take his place as the lead Republican candidate for president when we get around to that in another year or so — — should He Himself find himself unable to return to glory. And even then, he has said, he would look kindly at you as replacing the not-good-enough Mike Pence at his side.

You’ve insisted that the state stay open through much of coronavirus, even if that decision has involved manipulating disease numbers every now and then to make them reflect good outcomes. You’ve banned the teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools because we want to preserve the myth that this country does not systematically reflect its racist roots (How has that worked out so far?). You’ve freed cruise ships to start operating again but insisted that as private businesses in your state, they cannot require vaccinations, even though the Centers for Disease Control scientists and cruise ship lawyers think we still face a threat from mutations (and lawsuits) from covid.

It all raises some questions about just whose individualism is okay to protect in Florida.

But now comes your latest — you just signed a bill from your apparently captive Republican-majority legislature that is your antidote to a non-existent intellectual disease at state colleges and universities that you describe as political indoctrination that apparently turns students from good, conservative homes into some kind of wild Antifa maniacs.

Specifically, starting next week, effect July 1, public universities must assess “viewpoint diversity” on campus each year through a survey developed by the State Board of Education, which in this copy-cat world will quickly become a model for other conservative-led states. Its results are required to be published annually. The law also bans faculty members from “shielding” students from free speech, whatever that means.

Why Academia?

We don’t know exactly what you plan to ask or assess responses or even how you plan to enforce this new bill, but I’m writing to let you know I find it pretty disturbing on several levels at once. It makes me wonder what you were thinking when you attended Yale, and later the Harvard Law School. After all, you came through pretty completely conservative from campuses where you undoubtedly met some liberal students or teachers. Geez, how did you manage to survive it?

The bill defines those two terms as the exposure to — and encouragement or exploration of — “a variety of ideological and political perspectives.”

“We want our universities to be focused on critical thinking and academic rigor. We do not want them as basically hotbeds for stale ideology,” you said earlier this week. “That’s not worth tax dollars and not something we’re going to be supporting moving forward.”

Some university officials figuratively raised their hands with questions about what the heck you were talking about, but, then, that might reflect just too much critical thinking for you.

As it turns out, our youngest daughter is a tenured professor in the Dance faculty at Florida State University, and she does involve herself in the values of critical thinking. Why, she asks her dance students, are you moving the way you do? What is the relationship of this style of movement to identity and culture, to historical or traditional expressions of dance and movement? What are the roles of technology and change in society in how we express ourselves through movement? Where do ideas about dance, expression of any kind, storytelling and societal values overlap?

In other words, her job as a professor is to get student dancers who are learning tons of technique, body awareness, and maybe necessary entrepreneurial acumen about how to support themselves to think through what choreography hands them. How do they think? How do they learn to think?

You could say the same for the people who teach and learn chemistry, justice, literature or language. It’s not called Liberal Arts because the people on campus are political “liberals.” It’s because college is a time for liberal, meaning wide, exposure to ideas, particularly “anti-establishment” questions that appeal to students who are at an age in which youthful ideals flourish before too often being crushed by the daily demands that life imposes.

That is what you, Governor, seem to have forgotten about what college and advanced education is all about.

Education is the one secured place in our society where we have the freedom, no, the obligation, to explore the literature for understanding and to reimagine the reasoning for alternate ways to proceed. We don’t have universities in place to turn out hordes to carry out what always has been, though that too often is the case, nor is the university the oven to bake political bread.

Why Stop Here?

Your new bill is the opposite of Liberal Arts for learning. You apparently want to turn the university into a recruiting farm for political conservativism or to halt questions that ask why things came about as they have. Or maybe just fish from votes from like-thinkers.

What you’re not out to do is to thank faculty and students for keeping alive any sprit of academic freedom to explore knowledge. Indeed, this seems more about ensuring the appearance of the occasional conservative speaker on campus than what the university is all about.

“‘Shield’ means to limit students’, faculty members’, or staff members’ access to, or observation of, ideas and opinions that they may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive,” the bill says. How does that apply, exactly?

Here’s my question: Why limit these political surveys to universities. Why not just tell the Department of Motor Vehicles that they need to survey all drivers for their political identity, or the lifeguards at state beaches to survey the crowds. Hey, how about assuring diversity of political thought before issuing gun permits or upon arrest for drugs?

As The Washington Post noted, public universities in the United States are already bound by the First Amendment and cannot discriminate against viewpoints. Schools cannot ban speakers for espousing unpopular, even white nationalist views. In 2017, the University of Florida tried to stop conservative activist Richard Spencer from giving a speech at the school months after leading neo-Nazis and fellow white nationalists through Charlottesville. The university president relented after a lawsuit challenged his blocking of the speech.

Already, Indiana has a similar law, requiring each public university to report what the institution is doing to protect First Amendment rights.

You know, Governor, every parent has the experience of explaining to a child who complains after Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, why there isn’t a Children’s’ Day. The response from each is that every day is children’s day. Likewise at the university, every day is about exploring “liberally” the full gamut of gathered knowledge, not just about politics, and not just about issues for which there is an immediately identifiable Left or Right political association.

Through the law, Florida can require that the survey be distributed, Calvert said, but the state cannot ensure that students take it. This could lead to participation bias in which students who believe their viewpoints have been discriminated against are more likely to participate.

Then what happens?

At the end of the day, must wonder, Governor, why this conservative culture war issue is at the top of your agenda rather than getting people vaccinated, or feeding the hungry, stopping crime or doing something to keep Miami from flooding from climate-changing sea rise. Or is that too critical a question for you?

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www.terryschwadron.wordpress.com

Journalist, musician, community volunteer