Ripe for poaching: Will DeSantis’ higher ed policies drive out Florida faculty?


Editor’s note: This story includes homophobic language that could be disturbing to readers.

Last month, as Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, dialed up his legislative crusade to transform the state’s public colleges according to his vision, the provost of another institution — in New York — wrote an essay about it.

“Send us your woke, your trans,” read the headline of Donald Hall’s op-ed in the Miami Herald, in which he proclaimed his college, the public Binghamton University, would aggressively recruit and poach Florida students and faculty amid DeSantis’ campaign to wipe out diversity programs and restrict faculty tenure on state campuses.

“DeSantis may be setting up a great reverse migration of intellectuals, innovative thinkers and creative talent coming back home (and sending their children back) to a place that embodies tolerance, love for diversity in all of its manifestations and a deep commitment to the protection of iconoclastic, world-changing ideas, one that requires a strong tenure system,” Hall wrote.

His essay confirmed a scenario higher education leaders had predicted: that DeSantis’ efforts would spur colleges outside Florida to woo away the state institutions’ top faculty talent and that they — and some students — would flee the Sunshine State for more progressive pastures.

Hall said in an email to Higher Ed Dive that he’s received half a dozen or so job inquiries from Florida faculty thus far, as well as “very positive emails from parents and our own alumni who live there.”

But would a theoretical faculty exodus be so massive? Probably not, according to one expert, Brendan Cantwell, a higher ed professor at Michigan State University.

Cantwell argues some preeminent faculty may step away from Florida’s public colleges. But he and other higher ed experts say it’s even more likely the state’s institutions will have trouble recruiting new professors, rather than seeing a tide decamp.

After all, colleges need resources to hire the highest performing researchers, which aren’t infinite. Plus, there are plenty of reasons faculty would want to remain in Florida, Cantwell said.

“Some people will also want to stay and fight the good fight,” Cantwell said.

Different states, similar fights

The political strife in Florida exemplifies how colleges nationwide have been yanked into America’s culture wars. Lawmakers across the country, most of them conservative, have tread upon colleges’ operations in ways rarely seen, seeking to restrict curricula choices, limit donations from certain countries and abolish tenure.

DeSantis, for one, is seeking to dismantle some of postsecondary education’s most treasured tenets. Legislation he’s backing would not only ban public colleges’ diversity initiatives, but also degree programs like gender or queer studies, a strike against higher ed’s shared governance model.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Cantwell compared the situation in Florida to that in Wisconsin about eight years ago, when then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, gutted tenure protections through state legislation. This handed over tenure control from campuses to the University of Wisconsin System’s regents board — which is largely appointed by the governor.

DeSantis is eyeing a 2024 run for president, and pundits say he’s leaned into ideological arguments against public education to distinguish himself. Walker similarly used the tenure battle and union fights to boost his profile for his short-lived 2016 presidential campaign. 

In the wake of Walker passing tenure limitations, the state flagship University of Wisconsin-Madison spent millions — at least $16 million in the 2015-16 academic year — to retain star faculty who had job offers elsewhere. 

Whether Walker’s policies caused the Wisconsin flagship long-term damage, like the ability to secure research grants, is “an empirical question we don’t have the answer to,” Cantwell said.

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