The Foxification of Higher Education
Robert L. Rexroad, Ph.D.
“We report, you decide” and “fair and balanced” are buzz words for journalistic objectivity. Unfortunately, they have been hijacked by Fox News, the most biased name in news since Pravda. Now, under the banner of creating a “fair and balanced” approach to higher education, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R- Ocala, has sponsored House Bill 837, a “Student and Faculty Academic Freedom in Postsecondary Education” act aimed at stopping “leftist” professors in Florida’s state colleges and universities from advocating their political and religious views in the classroom. Instead, according to this foxified “we report, you decide” educational approach, these professors would be expected to make their students aware of viewpoints other than their own. For example, an anthropology professor might have to teach creationism alongside evolution.
Recently, Professor Roy Weatherford, a professor at the University of South Florida, has spoken out on behalf of Florida faculty who unanimously consider the proposed law to be a violation of academic freedom. The reasons he gives for opposing it are principally three: First, the bill says that faculty may not introduce controversial subjects when it is inappropriate to do so, but it gives no criteria for deciding when something is controversial. So somebody else will decide what professors can and cannot say in class. Far from advancing academic freedom, this would violate it. Second, the bill says that professors must offer alternative views but it does not specify which alternative views would be presented. For example, should the Nazi view also be presented in discussing race in a sociology class? Third, it would give students the right to sue professors if they didn’t satisfy their expectations. Fear and intimidation would thereby replace the pursuit of knowledge in the classroom. Moreover, while Weatherford admits that there are some professors who are intolerant of their students’ values (ones from both the right and left, no doubt), he points out that there are already viable mechanisms in place at colleges and universities for dealing with such cases. And, so far, there hasn’t been a problem with these mechanisms perceived from inside academia.
So if there is no real problem to fix, what truly might be behind the thrust of this proposed law?
While Weatherford has given sufficient grounds for scrapping HB 837, there is still one more reason: It fits into a broader government trend to censor and control the free flow of information reaching the public. The main bastions of democracy in the U.S. have always been the media and the institutions of higher education. The Bush Administration has Fox in its corner and also exerts considerable control over the other mainstream networks. As recently reported by the New York Times, the Bush Administration has conducted an ongoing, widespread campaign of producing “prepackaged news,” paid political announcements made by fake reporter, which, unbeknownst to viewers, were seamlessly incorporated into the news they receive. While public outcry has now prompted the Federal Communication Commission to try to stop this deceitful, manipulative practice, it is noteworthy that such media bootstrapping also began with similar allegations about the media being “liberal.” So it could have been easily predicted that the next “liberal” target in this expansive program of information control, propagandizing, and tactical intimidation would be higher education, the last uncorrupted stronghold of free thinking in America.
This attempt to politically control higher education in Florida must not be taken out of its wider historical context. Politicizing of Florida’s state universities had already begun in 2001 when the Florida legislature abolished the Board of Regents, which was the chief decision-making body that governed all eleven Florida state universities. The Board of Regents was replaced with a separate board of eleven local trustees for each university with all appointees selected by Governor Bush. Prior to its abolition, the Regents had had a contentious relation with the Florida legislature. Then Senator Bob Graham had proposed giving the Board constitutional immunity from interference by the Florida legislature. According to E.T. York, a former chancellor for the state university system, such constitutional protection would have insulated the Regents and the University System “from inappropriate political meddling or intrusion which has been so pervasive over the years.” However, after the Board of Regents was abolished, Graham spearheaded and won the popular vote for Amendment 11, which restored the Board under the new name of Board of Governors while still retaining the individual boards of trustees. Although Bush still got to appoint fourteen of its members, the Board of Governors also included the Commissioner of Education, the Chair of the Advisory Counsel of Faculty Senates, and the President of the Florida Student Association.
Unrelentingly, politicization of Florida’s universities has continued under Jeb Bush. In 2003, Governor Bush’s second in command, newly appointed Lieutenant Governor Frank Brogan became the President of Florida Altantic University, one of Florida’s eleven state universities. An elementary school teacher with a Masters degree in education from FAU, Brogan had no prior teaching or administrative experience in higher education and was competing against such prominent scholars as Stanley Fish, a professor and dean at the University of Illinois. Despite the disapproval of FAU’s faculty, Bush’s hand-picked Board of Trustees hired Brogan to lead the university.
More recently the Florida legislature rushed a bill through the House that would seize control of the 3.35 billion dollar budget of the eleven state universities. According to this bill the powers of the Board of Governors would be restricted to approving degree programs, overseeing admissions policies, and defining the mission of each university. Holding the purse strings, the Republican-controlled Florida legislature would strengthen its grip on the universities.
When viewed against the historical backdrop of a persistent, ongoing political battle to control higher education in the state of Florida, and, more generally, to manipulate and control mainstream media, the underlying rationale for HB 837 is evident. It is another strategic attempt by the Bush Administration to further its own political agenda by getting rid of those in its way. Here is what I think the architects of HB 837 really hope will happen if it becomes law: Professors who are liberal thinkers and who value their academic freedom will resign their teaching posts or else be forced out. Stepping up to bat in their stead will be Professors O’Reilly and Hannity, who will faithfully feed their students “mainstream” social, religious, and political values and propaganda. Since these values will be “mainstream” anyway (the same ones everyone hears each evening on Fox) who’s going to gripe. With the departure of liberal professors from the state education system (which services most college students in the state) a new breed of compliant “professor” will fill their shoes, just like the good employees of Fox News. And their students, so indoctrinated, will march “patriotically” in step with whatever mission (or scheme) the government has declared. No more questioning of authority (no more “liberal” dissenters getting in the way), only submission to the will of the commander. Another stumbling block to a one-party political system will be eliminated; and another hefty victory for the Bush Administration. But one giant blow to democracy!
In the former Soviet Union teaching one hundred varieties of Marxism used to be considered “fair and balanced” and professors had to have their writings approved by the State before they could be published. Unless this is our idea of “academic freedom” we best take seriously the possibility that, if we allow it, America will gradually wilt into something far a field of a democracy. And, sadly, if this happens, we still will hear those empty, foxified slogans resounding from our television sets and hallowed halls of higher ed--“fair and balanced,” “we report, you decide.”
Robert L. Rexroad is a freelance writer and has taught in higher education for more than a decade.
Jesse - Editor, TvNewsLies.org