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.