The demise of academic freedom

Via FIU Flickr.

PantherNOW Editorial Board

The state of academic freedom in Florida is disheartening. 

Though we may not be living in Orwell’s Oceania, it’s nonetheless undeniable that the university system is moving in a direction that is undesirable for students and faculty throughout public universities. 

Over the last few months, we’ve watched the faculty senate rally against HB7 and tenure review, struggling to retain their rights to academic freedom and job security. 

With a threat this palpable, they organized outside of the senate, engaging students with teach-ins, highlighting the need for faculty-student solidarity in the face of this state threat.

The response by the administration has been laughable, continuing to argue that the recent legislation will not affect professors, all while the University of North Florida compiles a sample list of “critical race theory” courses for DeSantis.

There is also the handling of recent academic events. 

Last December, FIU’s Cuban Research Institute held a panel on “Cuban Privilege: The Making of Immigrant Inequality in America” by Dr. Susan Eckstein. The book signing-turned-debate was heated, chaotic and, frankly, disappointing. 

Instead of treating it as an academic event, we witnessed an active campaign to silence and disparage her research as “anti-Cuban” and racist, based on an opposition who had shown no sign of actually reading the work.

How can we say we have academic freedom if we allow local political forces to use misinformation to  invalidate someone’s work, work encompassing over 1,000 sources and over 5 years of research? Can we really expect other people to speak at our university if this is what they can anticipate: to be required to defend their work against fabrications instead of simply being allowed to present it? 

We’re robbing ourselves of the privilege of learning and sharing information when we allow outrage and a refusal to listen and learn to be our standard. 

It isn’t just PantherNOW staff who see it that way; even the faculty senate disapproved of how FIU handled the event as well, saying that it did not bode well for future academic events. 

“Now it would seem that any organization that is loud enough could force us into doing a big event, ‘even handed’ presentation and that sort of goes to academic freedom,” said CARTA Senator Neil Reisner at the Jan. 17 senate meeting. 

Academic freedom slips further down the drain when a university cannot – or will not – defend scholars, students and faculty from restrictions and action based on outrage and misinformation. 

Although we are certainly witnessing very obvious attempts to limit the autonomy of universities, faculty and students, incidents like the CRI panel are just as potent in bullying the academic world into compliance. 

As we continue to see academic freedom circumvented at best, it’s crucial for universities like FIU to take every opportunity to expand the rights of students and faculty. Listen to university members when they speak, utilize the power of the university for our shared struggle to uncover and disseminate knowledge. 

Administration, your bottom line should never be the loudest voices or those with the most power: it needs to be the students, faculty and staff who make FIU what it is.

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