Students walk by Century Tower on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville.Students walk by Century Tower on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville.

Florida’s education policies chase away college faculty

Published on September 13, 2023 at 3:04 pm

Florida’s turbulent political climate and new laws governing higher education are pushing educators out of the state, according to a survey conducted last month.

The survey, which reached more than 4,250 faculty members across four states, including Florida, highlights the growing effect of politics and tenure changes on employee retention and morale.

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Members surveyed included faculty in tenured and untenured positions, as well as those outside of the United Faculty of Florida, the statewide faculty union.

Nearly half of the 642 Florida faculty surveyed said they plan to seek employment in another state within the next year. About 20% have already interviewed in other states since 2021.

An overwhelming majority (612) described the political situation in higher education as “bad” or “very bad.”

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Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, called the results “alarming.”

“These are actual things that are happening and we believe that the results of the survey very clearly show the damage that these policies are doing to our higher education system,” said Gothard, who also teaches English at Florida Atlantic University.

Legislative action set things in motion

The survey, conducted in August, was distributed by faculty organizations and statewide affiliates of the American Association of University Professors\.

“We were hearing from a number of local faculty and UFF chapters around the state about individuals who were leaving the profession at both colleges and universities,” Gothard said.

“And we had been warning the Legislature that this was going to happen — that the more the governor and his supporters attacked higher education faculty and malign the work that our educators do across the state, the more people would look for other opportunities elsewhere.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ overhaul of the state’s higher education system included banning the state’s public colleges and universities from spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion programs, appointing six new conservative members to the New College of Florida’s board of trustees and restricting tenure protections.

On Friday, the Florida Board of Governors further codified changes to the tenure review process, including requiring tenured faculty members to go through a comprehensive post-tenure review every five years, assigning university presidents with final authority for hiring and prohibiting arbitration in the appeal process.

‘Loopholes’ and risk of losing tenure

Gothard said the new review process makes faculty more vulnerable to political influence.

“It creates all sorts of loopholes for faculty to lose their tenured status for things that have nothing to do with their actual publication record and their work record,” Gothard said. “So there are lots of loopholes in this regulation that allow for political considerations and other sorts of favoritism to come into the process.”

Nearly 85% of respondents said they would not encourage a graduate student or faculty colleague in another state to seek employment in Florida. And, according to survey responses, the applicant pool is already shrinking and the quality of applicants declining.

Across all four states surveyed, more than 40% of respondents were aware of offer refusals, leading to the “loss of top-notch talent within their departments.” About a third said they do not plan to stay in academia long term.

Gothard said Florida has, in the past, drawn faculty who were already in tenured positions or who were already very well-established at other places around the country and were looking to advance their careers in Florida. But schools across the state are seeing less of that now.

In a statement, the AAUP emphasized that the survey findings serve as a “wake-up call for policymakers and administrators to address the concerns raised by faculty members. Failure to do so may result in a significant brain drain and a decline in the quality of higher education in these states.”

Survey Florida highlights

  • Almost 300 said they planned to seek employment in another state within the next year.
  • 545 said they would not encourage a graduate student or faculty colleague in another state to seek employment in Florida.
  • 233 said they did not plan to stay in academia long term because of changes to tenure, contracts and academic freedom.
  • 612 identified the political atmosphere around higher education in Florida as bad or very bad.

Overall survey highlights

  • 66.7% of respondents would not recommend their state as a desirable place to work for colleagues, while about a third [31%] are actively considering interviewing elsewhere in the coming year.
  • About 60% of those considering leaving cited salary [58.7] and their state’s broad political climate [58.2] as the top concerns.
  • Academic freedom was identified by over 50% of respondents, while issues related to tenure and diversity, equity and inclusion were mentioned by more than 40%.
  • Shared governance, LGBTQ+ issues, and reproduction/abortion access were also significant factors for about 30% of respondents.
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