Republicans are terrified of colleges and universities. This is clearly evident in Florida where the Republican dominated House and Senate recently passed the so-called “intellectual diversity” bill and recent attacks and limits on funding for Bright Futures scholarships. This fear is nothing new as Republicans have targeted public institutions since at least the 1970s, viewing them as hotbeds of anti-American ideas as a bevy of Marxist professors indoctrinate students to become foot soldiers in the coming progressive takeover of America. This emphasis on colleges and universities is part of a larger culture war that has engulfed the United States over the last half century. Yet, those conservative critiques of post-secondary institutions seem to be wholly unaware of what actually happens on campuses across the state and seem to base their larger critiques on nothing more than innuendo anecdotes. The delegitimizing of higher education in Florida, and across the country, undermines our country’s competitive advantage and the ability of our residents to live in a global society and confront the challenges that we will all face in the coming years.
Since at least the 1950s, graduating from a college or university was seen as a sure-fire path to upward economic mobility and a “middle-class” lifestyle. This was a commonly held view in the United States and the federal government, via the GI Bill, fostered the largest influx of college students in American history. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, states invested in institutions of higher education and the United States claimed perhaps the best system of higher education in the world. There were certainly problems associated with this expansion, as large numbers of African Americans and other traditionally-marginalized people were left out of much of this growth. Yet, Americans across the political spectrum supported this system as a means of creating a more educated and engaged citizenry as well as a strong middle class. Faculty, staff, and students at these colleges and universities spearheaded some of the most important and transformative research and critical thinking the world had ever seen.
This began to change following the upheavals of the 1960s as college students were at the forefront of some of the most confrontational and transformative movements of that era, including the Civil Rights Movement and anti-Vietnam War movement. Since then, Republicans have been at the forefront of criticisms aimed at faculty and staff at colleges and universities. The fears of colleges and universities as places of liberal indoctrination heated up over the last decades.
These fears are largely unfounded. There are hundreds of faculty, administrators, staff, and board members working at Florida colleges and universities and they are as diverse as the communities they serve. While faculty expose students to ideas and concepts that they were unaware of or that they may disagree with, through those experiences students are encouraged to develop their intellectual curiosity and critically engage with complicated and controversial topics. These are all skills that are vital to the vitality of our nation. Sure, some faculty and staff have liberal views. But there are also strong contingents of conservative faculty and staff, too. For every class on economic, social, and racial problems, there are courses that explore the moral and ethical foundations of capitalism.
Colleges and universities are places of robust intellectual debate and discussion, not training grounds for liberal minions. While some students go off to college and become more progressive, just as many leave college with more conservative viewpoints. Governor Ron DeSantis went to Yale, former Florida House Majority Leader Dane Eagle attended FGCU and the University of Florida, and U.S. Representative Byron Donalds went to Florida State University. Yet, they still have conservative views. For all the fears of liberal indoctrination that faculty, staff, and administrators are, in the eyes of conservative critics, so committed to, we are surely failing. That’s because our collective goal is not indoctrination into one particular political viewpoint, but intellectual growth and critical engagement.
As someone who has spent the better part of the last decade working at colleges and universities in Florida, I implore anyone who is worried about what happens on campuses across Florida to visit FGCU or FSW and see how valuable they are to our communities. Instead of attacking these institutions, the state should be promoting and investing in them.
Brandon T. Jett is a Professor of History at Florida SouthWestern State College and a member of the Naples Daily News and The News-Press Southwest Florida Community Advisory Board.