I’m a professor and the ‘stop woke’ act creates a climate of fear for Florida educators

by UFF-UF member Ryan Need, first published in the Tampa Bay Times, August 16, 2022

While Florida’s universities may be pushing forward under HB 7′s new restrictions, I and many of my colleagues are gravely concerned about the direction we’re moving. Namely, towards an Orwellian environment of fear.

Like many teachers, I was drawn to the profession by the chance to help young people gain the knowledge and critical thinking skills needed to achieve their dreams. Doing this well requires instructors to create a trusting and open environment in the classroom, where viewpoints counter to a student’s existing beliefs can be safely and kindly challenged.

However, the new Florida law HB 7, better known as the “stop woke” act, makes this process significantly more difficult by forcing educators to choose between adhering to factual accuracy or facing legal ramifications, including potential loss of employment and tens of millions of dollars in fines. As such, HB 7 is tantamount to state-legislated suppression of the First Amendment rights and academic freedom of Florida’s educators.

As faculty at one of Florida’s universities, I can directly attest to some of the ways schools are responding to HB 7. First, instructors of both student courses and employee trainings are afraid. Afraid of saying the wrong thing, being entangled in an investigation, and getting pulled away from the valuable work they do and love. As a result, many are now considering whether to include content they’ve taught for years, even though their expertise as educators and researchers tells them to include that content.

Fear can also be seen at the administration level, where at least one state school has already pulled content from voluntary employee trainings that use terms like “power, privilege, intersectionality, white supremacy, colonialism, and anti-racism” to avoid losing state funding. The school also removed an entire training series and webpage of resources on anti-racism that was created in late 2020 in response to a call from the university president to address racism and create a more racially just university. An Internet Archive version can still be found here.

Further, both instructors and administrators are fearful of retaliation if they speak out against these changes. A problem highlighted by the fact that several colleagues who contributed to this article chose to remain anonymous to protect themselves and their families.

These actions, taken as a direct response to the extreme personal and financial penalties of HB 7, will have devastating downstream impacts on the quality of higher education in the state of Florida.

First, some of the best and brightest staff and students will, and already are, choosing to leave Florida. Second, this law means social inequities, which data show depend strongly on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., will not be adequately taught in classrooms resulting in graduates and employees who are unprepared to address these issues in their jobs and communities.

To underscore this point, consider that if healthcare disparities arising from race and gender are not adequately taught, we will create a generation of medical professionals unable to see or treat those problems, which will result in more inadequate healthcare to those who are already impacted and reduced job prospects for those under-educated graduates.

However, the most troubling aspect is that HB7 prevents discussions about how social inequity and discrimination arise when power is concentrated in biased institutions. Because when people cannot discuss and dissect bias in the systems they belong to, it protects the power of those in charge and becomes even more difficult to fight for justice.

So what can be done? For starters, the Florida State University System schools need to come together and use their collective power to fight for education policy based on fact and not political preference. Together we comprise thousands of faculty and staff, serve more than 300,000 students, and represent the vast majority of the state’s higher education and research capacity.

To the university administrators, I call on you to organize that power and defend the educational standards of this state. To the tenured faculty and staff, look out for your untenured colleagues who are more vulnerable to retaliation. For example, offer to teach subjects where these taboo topics come up frequently. To all the educators affected by this law, I encourage you to keep teaching what you know to be the best content for your students that you can also teach safely.

Finally, to the students out there, you can help too. While this law makes it challenging and risky for instructors to bring up topics like institutional bias or social inequities, we’re obligated to give it conversation space if it’s brought up as an important and related idea to something said during class. To do otherwise would be a suppression of your free speech. So you can help make sure these topics are discussed by breaking the ice and bringing them up first.

While Florida’s universities may be pushing forward under HB 7′s new restrictions, I and many of my colleagues are gravely concerned about the direction we’re moving. Namely, towards an Orwellian environment of fear, where educators and even their institutions do not feel that they can speak safely about topics deemed true, appropriate, and best-practice by their peers in other states.

Worse, HB 7 sets a dangerous precedent of limiting educators’ academic freedom to suit the state’s political preferences. Left unchecked, that erosion of First Amendment rights will spread to other topics and other states, and that is something that should concern all citizens across the political spectrum.