Why faculty members are fleeing Florida

By Margot Susca, Chaya Tong and Alex Angle

Published by The Chronicle of Higher Education | Dec. 6, 2023

By the time she took a faculty position with Florida State University College of Law, Mary Ziegler had earned a degree from Harvard Law School, worked as a postdoctoral associate at Yale Law School, and clerked at the Vermont Supreme Court. After joining the Tallahassee-based university in 2013, her academic career soared.

Ziegler’s work was soon appearing in top law journals and her observations were often sought out in the media. The university rewarded her with a named professorship and its “Transformation Through Teaching’’ award. She published six books and quickly came to be regarded as a leading expert on the history of reproductive rights.

But last year, nearly a decade after her arrival, Ziegler resigned. Her reason? Dismay at the way that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was using the state’s colleges as political battlefields.

“That made me feel like I couldn’t stay,” said Ziegler, who took a job as a law professor at the University of California at Davis. “I didn’t want to have a career there.”

Data from the 12 public institutions in the State University System of Florida, analyzed by reporters at the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, show that she was far from alone: Nine of them saw a significant spike in faculty resignations in 2022. The University of Florida saw a 20-percent increase in tenured and tenure-track faculty resignations (391 total) from 2021. At Florida State, 136 faculty members resigned in 2022, up 28 percent from the prior year. Faculty losses from Florida International University, in Miami, including both retirements and resignations, rose from 82 in 2021 to 97 in 2022.

The spike in Florida faculty departures came during a difficult transition back to in-person instruction amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and at a time when colleges across the country faced budgetary challenges. In statements, several Florida college officials noted that when all faculty and staff members were considered, their resignation rates last year remained in line with national averages.

But faculty members in Florida frequently cited an additional reason for leaving: DeSantis’s hyperpoliticized stewardship of the state.

“They’re trying to purge academia of people who don’t agree with their radical world view,” said Mark Paul, an economics professor who resigned from New College of Florida in August 2022 and now teaches at Rutgers University, in New Jersey.

In interviews with 40 faculty members from various academic disciplines who have left Florida colleges in recent years, 33 said the state’s political climate was a direct factor in their decision — citing state leaders’ attempts to curb tenure protections, bans on classroom discussions of race and gender, the state’s response to the Covid pandemic, and legislative efforts such as the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill.Even among the seven professors whodeparted for personal or professional reasons, several said they were happy to escape Florida’s current political environment.

“I’m not sad that I’m getting out now,” said David Reed, a tenured theater professor who resigned in May from the University of Central Florida to take a similar role at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, significantly shortening his trips to see family in Kansas. “It’s not a bad time to go.”

Presented with the findings of this reporting, a DeSantis spokesman referred requests for comment to the state’s education department, which in turn referred questions to the State University System leadership. In a statement, Chancellor Ray Rodrigues said there’s been “no data provided to indicate that turnover across the entire SUS is significantly greater than turnover in past years.”

Yet in annual reports filed to the state in June, seven Florida universities cited faculty recruitment or retention as a key challenge or strategic priority. A survey of Florida professors conducted by the faculty union in August found that one in five said they had interviewed for a job out of state since 2021, and that nearly half said they planned to seek employment outside of Florida in the coming year. In October, seven former university presidents co-wrote a column in the Tampa Bay Times warning that DeSantis’s policies will have long-term effects on higher education in the state.

“Many of those folks will probably think twice or three times before taking a position in Florida,” said Wilson G. Bradshaw, one of the signatories, who was president of Florida Gulf Coast University from 2007 to 2017. “These aren’t just ‘political statements,’ these are actual policies that can have a negative impact on what we’re trying to do with our educational systems.”

Initial data from 2023 show the rate of faculty departures from Florida universities slowed during the first few months of this year compared with 2022’s exodus. Still, dozens of faculty members are still leaving. Earlier this week, for example, The New York Times reported that the University of Florida’s law school has seen 30-percent faculty turnover this year. And in interviews, departing faculty from across the state specifically cited DeSantis and a wave of laws targeting higher education as the reason.

“No one in a position of power and privilege was speaking out for marginalized faculty who were directly impacted by the laws that were incrementally taking our rights away as humans, let alone our rights as research and creative faculty,” said Kristy Lewis, who in July resigned from a tenure-track position teaching coastal ecology and oceanography at the University of Central Florida. The Lewis Lab, which was named for her, had brought in more than $8 million in research grants during her five years at UCF. This fall, she began as an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island.

“I can actually work, focus on the science, and I can focus on the students,” Lewis said. “And that to me is everything.”

Since being elected governor in 2018, DeSantis has touted the affordability of Florida’s public universities, where average in-state tuition is the lowest in the country. DeSantis has also used the state’s educational system as a proving ground to test conservative policies, railing against the teaching of what he has called “critical race theory” — a term that originally referred to an academic theory about the way racial inequity can be embedded in race-neutral laws and is now used as a catch-all by many conservative critics of higher ed — and The New York Times’ “1619 Project.” Last year, he signed the Stop WOKE Act which, among other things, sought to limit discussions of race and gender in both K-12 and college classrooms.

“It flies in the face of everything we know about equal rights,” said State Rep. Yvonne Hinson, a Democrat who co-sponsored an unsuccessful attempt to reverse the legislation and whose Gainesville district includes the University of Florida. “It’s having an effect on the research dollars that are going to leave the school.”

Even as businesses and educators challenged the law as a violation of First Amendment rights, Florida voters were largely unswayed: Last November, DeSantis was reelected by nearly 20 percentage points — the largest margin of victory in a Florida governor’s race in 40 years.

And DeSantis’s presidential run, launched in May, has only intensified fears among some faculty members that the state’s higher-education system is a pawn in the governor’s personal political program. Among his campaign pledges as he has sought the 2024 Republican presidential nomination are a prohibition of federal grants “to entities that engage in active discrimination through DEI or other unconstitutional initiatives,” and a vow to “no longer incentivize useless degrees and courses with blanket government loans.”

“DeSantis and his supporters are good at being wrecking balls, but they’re nothing at being a construction crew,” said Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, which represents 25,000 higher-education professionals and graduate studentsacross the state. “They don’t know how to build anything that will keep Florida running for decades.”

Faculty members also viewed a bill calling for mandatory post-tenure review, which DeSantis signed in April 2022, as an attack on academic freedom. Many professors saw the new law, which called for such a review every five years, as a turn toward political interference in their careers.

“There will come a point where the job isn’t worth having,” said Eric Scarffe, an assistant professor of philosophy at Florida International University, in Miami. Scarffe said he began considering a search for employment outside of the state following the tenure changes.

Tra Bouscaren, an art professor, abandoned his tenure-track position at Florida State in July for another at Arizona State. He wrestled with staying, drawn to FSU’s affordability for students, but ultimately said the political climate drove him away.

“The people who lose the most in this environment are students,” he said.

Bouscaren, an award-winning installation artist, considered doing a project with students in which they would project images of banned books onto the state capitol building, but decided not to. He worried about the response of administrators, who with the revised tenure law gained additional power over faculty.

“A part of me wanted to stay and fight the good fight,” Bouscaren said. “But all you really do if you do that is risk losing your job.”

Being openly hostile to academic work concerned with feminism, race, and sexuality has had predictable effects: At least 20 of the professors interviewed who resigned in 2022 and 2023 wrote and taught about those topics.

“As a queer educator, cultural and community organizer, it is immensely difficult to live within the current political climate of Florida,” Jessica Borusky wrote in their December 5, 2022, letter resigning as a lecturer and gallery director at the University of North Florida, in Jacksonville.

Borusky, who started at UNF in the fall of 2020, had deliberately sought out work at a small state college after seeing as a first-generation college student how the arts can benefit low-income students and those from other marginalized groups.

As the higher-education environment was turning more political, Borusky was teaching a class called “Art and Feminism.” While they initially hoped to stay at UNF, ultimately the anxiety over whether the coursework they oversaw would become a political target proved too much. “Students were crying in my office,” said Borusky, who accepted a position as executive director of the Pratt Fine Arts Center in Seattle. “And I was crying with them.”

Among those students was Jordyn Bowen, who took Borusky’s curatorial practices class.

Borusky “brought a new vigor to our department,” said Bowen, who now works as an educator at a community arts hub in Jacksonville. “I am a better artist and a better human being because of them.”

Sonia Arellano, a former professor of rhetoric and writing at the University of Central Florida, had been frustrated by a wave of legislation seemingly targeted at racial and sexual minorities. Arellano researched migrant deaths and took what she describes as a social-justice approach to her writing courses. For two years, she served on her department’s DEI committee. Then, last year, she said, her department chair told her that someone had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the committee’s membership roster and meeting minutes. Frustrated and fearful, Arellano resigned in May, two months after having been granted tenure.

“I had the privilege to resign and to leave academia, but not everybody does,” said Arellano, who left for the private sector. “I was burned out. I was just so morally devastated.”

No institution has become more of a battleground in DeSantis’s efforts to reshape higher education in Florida than New College, a 700-student campus in Sarasota.

In January, DeSantis appointed six new members to New College’s Board of Trustees — including Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist at the center of the national culture war over what can be taught in classrooms — who in turn fired the president and installed Richard Corcoran, a powerful former Republican state lawmaker and DeSantis’s former education commissioner. In the months since, gender-neutral bathroom signs were removed from campus and the board recommended the elimination of the college’s gender-studies program.

Faculty resignations and leaves of absence skyrocketed. Three dozen New College professors opted out of returning for the 2023-24 academic year. In 2022, 19 full-time professors resigned, up from 13 the year before, according to New College data. A spokesman for New College did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Matthew Lepinski, who has a doctorate in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was hired in the summer of 2015 to help grow New College’s computer and data-science programs, resigned his tenured position during the April Board of Trustees meeting. He said the new leadership’s targeting of certain humanities programs damaged the overall educational experience.

“Faculty departures signal that there are consequences for these types of attacks on higher education,” Lepinski said. “You can say ‘Oh, we’ll just replace the faculty members who leave with ones who are more mission aligned.’ I think they are finding it harder to replace departing faculty than they originally imagined.”

Caught in the middle are students like Jess Daigle, a 19-year-old from Tampa, who started at New College in 2022 to pursue a degree in marine biology, drawn to the campus for the quality of its professors and its social atmosphere, which she said shifted after the conservative takeover.

As she readied for her sophomore year, course cancellations captured a campus in flux. Five courses she needed to complete her degree were canceled over the summer. The Office of the Registrar emailed her Aug. 9 that conservation biology was gone: “But we are adding new courses daily so please keep checking back,” the email read.

Daigle and her father, David, attended the next day’s Board of Trustees meeting, and during the public-comment portion, David Daigle told board members he was disappointed over a number of issues for returning students, including the “mass exodus of distinguished professors.” He said, “It’s impossible to formulate decisions about the next steps in her education.”

Police escorted both of them from the meeting after Jess Daigle shouted out from the audience during a discussion of the college’s finances.

“There’s no other way to say it, except they’re bullies,” her father said. “I’m proud that she stood up to the bullies.”

Facing discipline for her outburst, Daigle withdrew from the college on Sept. 8 and is applying elsewhere. Her younger sister, Ally, a high-school senior, refuses to attend college in Florida. Her father, a Florida native who said he has voted for Republican presidential candidates for most of his life, said the entire family may ultimately leave the state.

“We’re done,” he said. “I guess now I’m part of the ‘woke’ left because I’m resisting. Any objective observer can look and see that this style of governance is not sustainable.”

Aarushi Sehejpal contributed to this article.

Margot Susca is an assistant professor of journalism, accountability, and democracy in the School of Communication at American University and associate editor at the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Chaya Tong, a student at Emory University, is a former IRW intern, and Alex Angle is currently interning at IRW while working toward her master’s degree at American. Aarushi Sahejpal is data editor at IRW and a professorial lecturer of data journalism at American’s School of Communication.

Correction (Dec. 8, 2023, 4:39 p.m.): Because of incorrect information from Florida International University, an earlier version of this story misstated the degree to which faculty departures there had increased between 2021 and 2022. The text and the graph have been updated to be accurate.