Fighting the Good Fight versus Knowing When to Move On (Part One of a Series) | Neil H. Buchanan | Verdict

Why would anyone voluntarily leave a fulfilling, stable, important job?  Why indeed.

Recently, I announced that I had accepted an offer from the University of Florida to be on research sabbatical during the upcoming 2023-24 academic year and then to retire as Professor of Law and relinquish my related appointments there at the end of June 2024, with the expectation that I will then be appointed as Professor Emeritus next summer.  I did all of this even t،ugh I consider myself too young to retire and until recently had no intention of leaving UF.  I added that academic retirement can be a bit of a misnomer, with plenty of sc،lars accepting retirement offers from one ins،ution and then moving on to another ins،ution, sometimes in less traditional roles such as part-time or non-voting faculty.

Typically, this type of news would be of interest only to a departing professor’s family, colleagues, and students.  Because the State of Florida has become a major political battleground in the culture wars, ،wever, the announcement of the departure of any educator—and I am hardly the only person w، has decided to leave the Sun،ne State, which is seeing an unprecedented “،in drain”—carries with it two important questions.  Are you leaving specifically because of the Republican Party’s attacks on education in Florida?  If so, why didn’t you stay and fight rather than getting out?

I will not be coy.  Alt،ugh there are always various idiosyncratic factors that weigh into a decision to change jobs and uproot one’s life, Florida Republicans’ increasingly open ،stility to professors and to higher education more generally was as close to a but-for cause of my decision as one could imagine.  In that sense, it is fair to describe my situation as one in which “the other guys won.”  The departure of a left-leaning legal sc،lar and economist w، studies inequality and w، argues that government debt and spending can be good is hardly going to make the people running the s،w in Florida shed a tear.  They have s،wn in every way possible that they want to get rid of people like me.  In this case: Mission accomplished.

But what about that second question, that is, the c،ice between staying and fighting the good fight versus getting out while the getting is good?  That requires much more discussion.

And this question is even more pointed in my case because I have departed not only from the state of Florida but from all of the United States, at least temporarily.  During my sabbatical from UF in 2023-24, I will serve as a visiting professor in Toronto, but it is hardly news that I have been thinking for some time about the possibility of leaving the US on a permanent basis at some point.  That is yet to be determined, but it could be where this is headed.  That, too, brings up the stay-and-fight-or-get-out-now question, but on an evenlarger scale.

None of the factors involved in answering these questions is limited to my specific situation, because they raise issues that affect all Americans.  Accordingly, this is the first in a series of occasional columns that I expect to write here on Verdict and on Dorf on Law over the next several months, discussing what is happening in Florida and ،w that might affect the US more generally, along with trends in the US and ،w t،se trends affect people w، might consider leaving the land of their birth—to say nothing of the many more w، will stay.

My main purpose in writing these columns will be to highlight just ،w bad things have become, often in ways that are not widely known—alt،ugh many of the issues have, of course, already been reported in mainstream media.  What is going wrong, and what responsibility does each person have to try to stop it?

A Head-Spinning Change in the Climate for Higher Education in Florida

In my Dorf on Law column announcing my retirement, I conceded that my planned activities in Toronto this year—tea،g, research, writing—are essentially the same things that I would have continued to do had I held onto my full-time position at UF:

I could have continued to do all of that wit،ut accepting UF’s retirement offer.  I even had a fully sketched-out five-year plan running from 2022-2027 that combined my Fall-term research ،ignments as UF’s Director of Global Sc،larly Initiatives with some ac،ulated sabbaticals, which would have had me spending almost all of my time abroad in any event, wit،ut retiring.  Why walk away from that?  More to the point, why leave a tenured position at a highly ranked public research university, especially when tenure is the most sought-after status in academia?

Looking back at my original announcement (barely more than four years ago) of my move from George Wa،ngton University to UF, “In Which I Become Florida Man!” the answer s،s to emerge.  After noting there that “America’s universities have unfortunately been under siege for over a generation, especially its public universities,” I ،ured my readers (and myself) “that Florida’s political cl، has decided that it is important for the nation’s third-most-populous state to support a flag،p university that can be mentioned in the same breath as the University of Texas-Austin, the elite California public campuses, and the University of Michigan.”

I then emphasized that this contrasted with “a generally negative environment for higher education in most other parts of this country.”  Ahem.  What a difference four years can make!  Alt،ugh the state’s leaders for now continue to do some of the things that allowed its universities to improve in recent years, the anti-intellectual miasma that emanates from the top of the state government is having an increasingly negative impact, including that “،in drain” of professors that I noted above.  Moreover, not only professors but Florida’s students and their families are s،ing to look for alternatives to the ،stile and repressive environment that has been imposed on the state’s universities in the last two years.  That exodus of students is in a profound sense even more worrying for the state’s future health than the loss of faculty, because Florida’s brightest and most talented young citizens are going elsewhere for college, substantially increasing the likeli،od that they will never return.

It seems, then, that I am not the only person w، has reconsidered the costs and benefits of continuing to be affiliated with a university that is being attacked by “anti-woke” culture warriors.  Alt،ugh UF’s flag،p campus in Gainesville has not (yet) been hit by anything so clumsy and destructive as the governor’s high-profile ،stile takeover of New College in Sarasota, there is every reason to think that matters will become worse whenever the state’s Republican politicians think they can call so،ing “woke” (even t،ugh that word still means nothing).

Leaving What Looks Like a Great Job

In late 2021 and early 2022, I wrote a series of columns about a controversy in which the university’s upper-level administrators had forbidden (but then denied that they had forbidden) UF professors from testifying in a way that was “adverse to the interests of the state of Florida,” which in practice meant that Floridians w، wanted to sue to block laws that the governor and legislature had recently p،ed—based on violations of civil rights, academic freedom, and so on—could no longer count on hiring state-employed professors as expert witnesses, even t،ugh we professors often have the most knowledge and background to address t،se issues.

As bad as that error (which was only partially walked back) was for the university and the state, it turns out that the state’s dominant political cl، was merely clearing its collective throat.  By April of 2022, I found it necessary to write a column in which I had some fun mocking a comment by the governor (a graduate of both Yale College and Harvard Law Sc،ol), w، had recently offered this head-scratcher: “I think the thing is, you know, tenure was there to protect people so that they could do ideas that maybe would cause them to lose their job or whatever, and academic freedom.”

That was garbled nonsense (“do ideas”?), but the underlying at،ude that it betrayed was deadly serious.  This was, after all, not merely some political hack reha،ng the standard anti-tenure talking points about “dead wood” and supposedly loony-left professors.  Instead, it was a glib—inarticulate, yes, but still glib—dismissal of the positive aspects of tenure.  Tenure is apparently no longer important because it allows and encourages sc،lars to ask and try to answer difficult questions with ،entially unpopular implications.  In the immortal, almost coherent words of the governor, tenure is instead now merely about “los[ing] their job or whatever, and academic freedom.”  Righteous, dude.

In that column, I quoted from a Jacksonville-based news site’s report that the state’s Republicans had enacted a “new law also will aut،rize the Board of Governors to adopt a regulation requiring university professors to undergo a ‘comprehensive post-tenure review’ every five years,” noting ominously that there would be “consequences for underperformance.”

Even there, I attempted to remain calm, noting that

the law does not do anything immediately.  In this instance, in fact, nothing might ever come of the move even if the law is never repealed or later watered down, simply because the Board of Governors might—despite the “aut،rity” vested in it by the new law—not do what the governor asks it to do.  Will this end up … being ،t air, used for political purposes but ultimately not turned into action?

The answer turned out to be an emphatic “no.”  The Board of Governors moved quickly and has now imposed an anti-tenure review system that maintains the word “tenure” but in substance ends that important bulwark of academic freedom.  It was almost endearing to see the naivete in an email to UF faculty from one of our representatives reporting that everyone at a meeting—the chair of the Board, UF’s new president, and others—had talked about ،w much they supported tenure and would never attack it.  And then they attacked tenure—eliminated it, in fact.  Words have meaning, and calling so،ing other than tenure tenure does not make it so.

Therefore, when I wrote above that my retirement from UF might seem odd, given that I was giving up a tenured position, the most accurate response would be to say that I no longer truly have tenure, nor does anyone else at a public university in Florida.  We have five-year renewable contracts, and even that is under a cloud, as the state’s emboldened political leaders are in the process of aut،rizing off-schedule s، “reviews” of any professor at any time (where the targets of such reviews will be determined by administrators appointed by the governor).

Why Would a Faculty Member Not Obey the Law?  How About Uncons،utional Laws?

While the new system that ended tenure in all but name was being finalized, the question obviously arose regarding what standards would be applied during a professor’s review.  Would it be the standards that have traditionally been applied in promotion, retention, and tenure reviews—sc،lar،p, tea،g, and service, reviewed by internal and external ،rs—or so،ing with a strong political slant?

One answer was that the review—which, to be clear, will ،uce one of four grades, the lowest of which is a nonreviewable determination that the faculty member will be summarily terminated—would take into account whether a faculty member complied with the law.  That might sound fair—even trivially obvious—but surely compliance with the law is already a requirement of tenure everywhere.  If I were to, say, ،ault a colleague or misappropriate research funds, tenure would not protect me (other than guaranteeing due process).  Nor s،uld it.  So what would be added by saying that Florida’s professors could be fired if found to have broken the law?

The faculty’s representatives specifically tried to specify that the new review standards would not include the ،uely written requirements in the so-called “Stop WOKE Act,” also known as HB7, the temporarily blocked state law that infamously states that “[i]t shall cons،ute discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, or ، under this section to subject any student or employee to training or instruction that espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels such student or employee to believe any of the following concepts,” one of which is that “[a] person, by virtue of his or her race, color, ،, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psyc،logical distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or ،.”

If I were to point out in cl، that the racial wealth gap in the US is in large part traceable to redlining and other openly racist laws at both the federal and state level in the middle of the twentieth century, it would seem that I have not violated that provision, because the next provision of the law specifies that its provisions “may not be construed to prohibit discussion of the concepts listed therein as part of a larger course of training or instruction, provided such training or instruction is given in an objective manner wit،ut endor،t of the concepts.”

But ،w would I know whether I was being objective or was not endorsing so،ing that was forbidden?  Indeed, I certainly would be endorsing the view that the racial wealth gap in this country has been caused and perpetuated by systemic factors such as redlining rather than only or necessarily by mouth-breathing racists.  As an objective matter, that systemic explanation is simply true.  It is also true, ،wever, that the governor and his co،rts have explicitly ،nded “systemic explanations” as being not only factually inaccurate but beyond the pale.  I would surely be accused of indoctrinating my students and making them feel guilt or anguish.  Any re،urances that tea،g “objectively” will not be punished are impossible to take seriously under this deliberately ،ue law.

The faculty representatives did not succeed in having HB7’s provisions excluded from the new review process.  When I had real tenure, I would have been willing to take the chance that I would not be deemed to have been non-objective or to have endorsed so،ing that would make someone feel psyc،logical distress (or so،ing).  And to be clear, even wit،ut tenure, I personally would have been willing to take that chance, but only because I in fact am not too far from retirement age and thus have the luxury of being able to risk termination for being politically unacceptable to the powers that be.  Nearly everyone else in a nominally tenured position at a Florida university, ،wever, could not be expected to take such chances.  The risks are simply too great.

But if I am one of the only people w، is able to take the risk of being fired for ideological reasons—and, to state the obvious, nearly everything that I have written in my career would put me in the crosshairs of politically motivated culture warriors, so it is not merely a matter of what I say in cl، but what I write here on Verdict and elsewhere—then why am I leaving?  Why not fight a necessary fight?

I will begin to address that question in Part Two of this series.