At first glance, the University of Central Florida looks the same as ever. Students mill around the modern, spread-out campus, crowding into the food court, making plans for the weekend.
But beneath the surface, Governor Ron DeSantis’s Orwellian campaign against “Critical Race Theory” has caused professors to cancel classes that might be deemed too controversial, caused students to reconsider their activities in clubs, and in general, has cast a pall of uncertainty over the future of higher education in Florida.
“We’re holding our breath,” says Sergio Cartagena, a sophomore at UCF. “We don’t know how this might affect the activism that we might do with our organizations, and in classes, if what we’re trying to learn might be restricted.”
Cartagena and students like him are caught in the crossfire of the culture war, as DeSantis burnishes his conservative credentials ahead of a possible 2024 presidential bid.
DeSantis and the Florida legislature passed the “Stop Woke Act,” which bans the teaching of a host of topics that they wrongly claim are part of Critical Race Theory, or CRT: that one race is “morally superior to another” or “making students feel guilty for past discrimination.”
In reality, this “CRT” has little with actual Critical Race Theory, which has been around for decades and which uses data, economics, and historical analysis to show how racism is embedded in American systems and structures, and how the sins of the past (like excluding Black families from certain neighborhoods) continue to shape the crises of the present (like educational and economic disparities in disadvantaged areas) .
But DeSantis’s “Anti-Woke” policies aren’t about reality; they’re about stirring the same pot of white resentment that helped put Donald Trump in office.
DeSantis isn’t stopping with CRT, however.
Assisted by Christopher Rufo — the Republican operative who pioneered the accusation that educators supporting LGBTQ students were, like pedophiles, “grooming” them — DeSantis has expanded his campaign to attack diversity, equity, and inclusion programs more broadly. He’s also installed a new board of trustees at New College, an awesome liberal arts state college located in Sarasota, with the cruel intention of turning it into a indoctrination center for conservative ideology.
Most recently, with the “Stop Woke Act” temporarily blocked by a court, DeSantis’s administration circulated a memo on December 28 asking universities for “a comprehensive list of all staff, programs, and campus activities related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and critical race theory.”
Caught in the middle of all this are students and teachers who are trying to do their jobs.
Logan Libretti, set to graduate from UCF this Spring, is one of them. “I love [UCF] because of the commitment to antiracism and inclusion,” Libretti says. “I am worried about how our school and others like it could change. If these courses, faculty, and programs are to be reviewed and potentially changed or replaced, the welcoming environment on campus would soon shift.”
Libretti, who identifies as transfeminine and nonbinary, notes that “transgender people simply want to live and to live safely, and the Governor’s actions have not only directly attacked our wellbeing, but have also heightened anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment on campuses and across the state. I feel less safe as a Trans person under the eye of Ron Desantis.”
UCF History Professor Robert Cassanello is the president of the UCF chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, the faculty union for state university professors, and a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the Stop Woke Act. He also is personally affected by it. . “I would assume I’m on that list,” he says, referring to the DeSantis memo. “This semester, I’m teaching a class on ‘Jim Crow America.’ But it’s focused on the past, not the present. That’s the line. In the past is okay – but not the legacies of Jim Crow and its consequences in the present.”
This should give you the chills: a historian picking and choosing what facts to teach at a public state university, not based on their truth or falsity, but based on whether they might offend the party in power.
We’ve already seen this happen with another DeSantis culture-war campaign: the “Don’t Say Gay” law imposed on K-12 schools. That legislation’s vague provisions ban any discussion of sexuality or gender, including one’s own, unless it is deemed to be “age appropriate.” That has led teachers to self-censor, for fear of losing their jobs, and school districts to pull books about gender or sexuality off of library shelves.
What’s more, because the Stop Woke and Don’t Say Gay laws empower individuals to report anyone they suspect of banned speech, it’s not just Big Brother DeSantis who’s watching you – you could be turned in by anyone. “I have been conscious to be aware that I might have a student who wishes to report me,” Cassanello says.
“Faculty are concerned,” Cassanello continues, “especially faculty who are vulnerable, like untenured instructors and lecturers. They work year-to-year contracts, and have no tenure protection. If there’s a concern about what they’re teaching, they could just be non-reappointed. They’d be gone.”
That category covers the overwhelming majority of teachers: 72%, according to Cassanello’s statistics. As a result, several courses have been canceled outright, and others have been modified for fear of reprisal. “Professors are taking it upon themselves to self-censor.”
One example of that is Professor Stephen Fiore. Fiore teaches cognitive science, not normally a subject for state censorship. But one of the subjects he teaches is collective memory: how ‘memories’ of historical events are constructed by societies over time. That, says Fiore, includes how countries like Ireland, Germany, and South Africa have reckoned with the past.
“And what about the United States?” Fiore asks. “Do you think we’ve ever reconciled with our history? Normally asking these questions wouldn’t raise any eyebrows, but in the political climate in Florida right now, it might.”
Still, Fiore is determined. “It’s not going to stop me – I’m still going to try to put this class together. We can’t do away with racism unless we’re able to confront our past.”
Fiore is tenured, and theoretically protected from retaliation. But, he says, “they’re also trying to do away with tenure. If they’re successful, that means none of us could be protected.”
So what can be done?
Professor Cassanello noted that conservative attacks on higher education have been going on for a long time. “For conservatives, universities and colleges are really convenient villains. In the 1950s, Senator Joe McCarthy attacked public universities. So did the John Birch Society. It’s in the DNA of extreme conservatives to be skeptical of what goes on in university classrooms.”
At the same time, most people – and most voters – are not extreme conservatives. If enough people pay attention to DeSantis’s war on academic freedom, this whole move could backfire on him, just like election denial backfired on Republicans in the 2022 elections. What plays well with the Republican base may not play well with everyone else.
Which makes the stories of students like Libretti and Cartagena essential. I asked Cartagena what it was like, as a politically active student on campus, and the overall impression I got was one of deep uncertainty.
“With all these efforts to restrict conversations – Don’t Say Gay, CRT, any controversial topics – my biggest fear is how student groups are going to be able to continue to operate on campus,” Cartagena says, giving the examples of the NAACP chapter at UCF and a peer education group with which he’s involved. “What if the school is forced to tell those clubs that they can’t talk about these topics, and they have to shut down or organize outside of campus?”
Cartagena also worries that the new laws, which explicitly allow anyone to report anyone else for offending speech of behavior, might empower right-wing students to “act a little bit in extreme ways, actively pursuing people.”
“You know, we’re all college students,” he told me at the end of our conversation. “We’re trying to scrape every dime, and now they’re literally coming after us, trying to come after what we’re learning, what we’re spending our money on. We’re just tired.”
At the same time, as Libretti notes, many students are more fired up than ever. “While I and many others are feeling anxious and concerned,” Libretti says, “our emotions ought to drive us into action, not despair. Although I am upset that the Governor’s priorities either hurt or neglect the LGBTQ+ community, I am even more motivated to fight back now because of my emotions. When we channel our stories and feelings into the work that we do, the outcomes are often much greater than when one goes into a situation apathetically.”
As Cartagena put it, “silence is the worst thing you can do, because you’re empowering the injustice happening everywhere until eventually it gets to you. I never thought they would go after college students. Don’t feel too safe – one day it’ll apply to you.”