There’s a crisis in higher education in the South, though it lies under the immediate radar. More students are flocking to Florida than ever before.
During the student recruitment crises of the 2007 recession, as colleges and universities in the Northeast and Midwest struggled to fill classrooms, Florida schools were in a growth mode. The same held true during the pandemic and despite a general drop in enrollments nationwide, Florida colleges and universities saw only a minor impact.
My father’s academic career made me a southerner. He was a Tulane Ph.D., so his first three kids were born in the comfortable confines of the Audubon neighborhood of New Orleans. He’d gone to graduate school on the GI bill, having served in the Navy as a carrier dive-bomber pilot during the Korean conflict. His best friend and shipmate, Jacques Gille, was from a Cajun family, and my dad’s choice of graduate school was based on friendship, not geography.
Though his subsequent career reveals a pretty good baseline, he was repeatedly warned about going to school in the South. The Southern institutions of the late 1950s and early 1960s were all segregated. They started the game from a weak moral position made worse by repeated governmental interference at all levels, harassment, blacklisting and firings of faculty as free thinkers, commies or worse. There could not have been a more hostile environment for anyone who thought the least bit out of the box, and the reputations of Southern colleges and universities suffered badly as a result.
By the time I chose Rice (in Houston) as my own graduate school destination, all – or most – of this had changed. The South had reinvented itself, and the repute of Southern schools had massively turned. Southern schools were instrumental in educating the people who brilliantly transformed the South itself. State governments backed off.
By the turn of the millennia, Southern colleges and universities had reached the highest levels. By 2022, Florida’s public system of higher education has become the envy of the nation. Students are not the only folks who spot the charm of Florida, quality faculty do, too. And they have come in each generational shift to raise the value of Florida degrees exponentially, bringing in their diversity of opinions, backgrounds, enriching a system already rich in curiosity, discovery and innovation. Florida’s public university system is an amazing community of scholars, with all the conflict and argument, opinions and variety of interests and approaches a free community must have to develop.
One of the reasons that these institutions have developed so well is that, for the past 30 years, the state legislature and government in general has had the good sense to pretty much leave them alone. But now this evolution of success – of overcoming the odds; of transformation – is under threat. Government is no longer satisfied to sit by and allow the system to evolve, they’ve decided to try their hands at managing disciplines, dictating the narrative, and controlling the curriculum.
Once politicians decide they can better guide scholarship than scholars can, scholars lose. And when scholars lose, they move on. And so will students. There is a demonstrable inverse relationship between increasing state control of curriculum content and the sharply diving value of degrees granted.
Higher education is about being exposed to all sorts of ideas and examining them critically. Challenging each other, debating the issues, discussing the real world. What it has never been is indoctrination in a particular point of view. That’s not teaching, its preaching and that is exactly what has been happening this past legislative session – not coming from the college podium, but from the fiery, politically-motivated pulpit of state government.
This state government can and has had a positive impact: strongly encouraging civic education, funding student aspirations, creating conditions for superior research and protecting real free speech for all. But turning our gems of state higher education into a political minefield is simply short-sighted self-destruction.
R. Bruce Anderson ([email protected]) is the Dr. Sarah D. and L. Kirk McKay Jr. Endowed Chair in American History, Government, and Civics at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Government should keep hands off higher education