DeSantis’ Golden Rule (He Who Has the Gold Rules) Challenges Academic Freedom

Photograph Source: Gage Skidmore – CC BY-SA 2.0

“We want education and not indoctrination,” Ron DeSantis announced at a press conference in early February. That’s DeSantis’ opinion, like it or not. But as Governor DeSantis, he can influence how education policy is implemented throughout Florida’s public education system: he blocked the College Board’s Advanced Placement course in African American studies for high school students in its current form and is trying to overhaul the state’s higher education system by mandating courses in Western civilization, eliminating courses in diversity and equity, and reducing protections of tenure. His efforts have already effected the leadership at New College of Florida, a small liberal arts school in Sarasota.

DeSantis confirmed his belief in an Academic Golden Rule – whoever pays the bills runs the schools – at his news conference when he described his plans to change the leadership and curriculum at New College: “If it was a private school…that’s fine. I mean, what are you going to do,” quickly adding, “But this is paid for by your tax dollars.” If further confirmation was needed, he said he was asking the state legislature to free up $15 million to recruit new faculty and scholarships for New College. “We’re putting our money where our mouth is,” the Governor declared.

In a somewhat similar vein of politicians challenging academic independence, here in Geneva a legally constituted Assembly of staff, students and faculty agreed on a candidate to be the next rector (president) of the University of Geneva (UNIGE). An outside group of experts, also designated by the authorities to participate in the selection, confirmed the Assembly’s choice. But the cantonal (state) executive, the legally constituted ultimate authority, rejected the Assembly’s and experts’ choice.

“The future rector must be able to defend the place of universities in Switzerland and Europe, especially when these universities are under pressure as is currently the case,” argued the head of Geneva’s education department. She said the chosen candidate, Canadian Professor Eric Bauce, was not familiar enough with the Swiss higher education environment.

The decision of the Geneva government called into question the autonomy of the academic institution, UNIGE. “This decision denotes a mistrust of a participatory Assembly representing the various bodies of the University,” protested the Bureau of the Assembly.

The current UNIGE rector, Yves Flückiger, said that in his eyes there was no attack on the autonomy of the university. He supported a division of labor between the university and the government. “Each body has played its role. The University Assembly had to appoint a person, the Council of State has taken on its responsibilities,” he explained. “The law specifies the role of each.”

For Flückiger, the government was clearly the highest authority in the selection of the new rector. It also has the last say in the appointment of professors. In Geneva, DeSantis’ Academic Golden Rule is strictly applied.

The Florida and Geneva experiences highlight the delicate balance between academic freedom and the role of public authorities, the educational institutions funders. While the Florida DeSantis case is clearly part of a cultural attack against woke activism and Critical Race Theory in schools, and the Geneva case is one of poorly constructed selection criteria, both show how the Academic Golden Rule challenges academic freedom. Do funders have a right to determine who manages the public education system, what is taught and who teaches, or is that a function only limited to those directly involved?

In an ideal world, where absolute academic freedom reigns, public officials would vote budgets for public educational institutions while schools and universities independently would decide who would manage, teach and what would be taught. Total academic autonomy would be Academic Nirvana.

But public institutions vote budgets because they believe it is their role to exercise oversight as representatives of the general public, the taxpayer. And the taxpayer wants to know how tax money is spent and what is being taught in public schools and universities. For those outside the education ecosystem, the Ivory Tower exists only within the minds of educational professionals. The binary split between town and gown may be Academic Nirvana, but it ignores, at its own peril, financial realities.

How then to reconcile Academic Nirvana with the Academic Golden Rule? Is it possible for public funders to ignore who runs the schools and universities as well as what is actually taught? Ideally, in Academic Nirvana, public funders would be neutral. “Here’s the money for your budget,” they would say. “Do with it as you please since you are the education experts.”

A reconciliation between Academic Nirvana and the Academic Golden Rule means checks and balances. While DeSantis and the Geneva government have the legal right to oversee academic policy, they are politicians who can be voted out of office. Politicians can check academics, but citizens can check politicians.

We assume DeSantis believes his position reflects most Floridians’ perspective – he won his 2022 re-election by over 19 %, carrying 62 of 67 Florida counties – and assume he believes his views on education will help him get elected nationally. DeSantis’ Florida success cannot be denied, although attention should be paid to the legality of his proposals.

Educators and politicians need checks to have a balanced public education system. Educators should not be allowed to live in Academic Nirvana in any true democracy. In the public sphere, the split between town and gown negates the democratic basis of citizenry. Politicians, if they represent the people, have their right of say, but only up to a certain point.

In that sense, the UNIGE current rector is correct about the separation of powers between academics and politicians. What he didn’t say, however, is that citizens must have the final decision about how their money is spent. The right to vote is the ultimate check to balance academic freedom and political oversight. If citizens are not pleased with the political oversight of the education system, they can vote the politicians out of office.

In the end, citizens have the gold that rules. In the Golden Rule – whoever has the gold rules -the whoever turns out to be you and me, the general public, the taxpayer, the ballot box decider. No politician or educator should ever forget that.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.