On the face of it, Meera Sitharam’s research seems to have nothing to do with politics. An acclaimed computer scientist at the University of Florida (UF), Sitharam and her team develop open-source, mathematical software used by chemists, structural biologists, engineers, and others.
For example, Sitharam’s team recently came up with software that looks at the protein shells of viruses and shows which parts are most important during viral assembly, a critical step in the process of viral replication. Basically, her work could be used to make viruses infect a body faster—a very useful and potentially profitable development. Many pharmaceutical companies are using harmless viruses to deliver therapeutic drugs to people.
Sitharam has been able to develop this software because she has crazy good ideas—and the freedom to pursue them. And she’s not the only one. Whether its coastal flooding or community hunger, memory loss or mental health, Florida faculty and students are solving Florida’s biggest problems and working toward making Florida—and the world—a better place. Moreover, they're also teaching Florida students the critical thinking skills that they need to be problem solvers, too.
Today, Florida faculty say all of this is at risk. Last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis advanced legislation that would put Florida colleges and universities under extraordinary state control. If passed, the new law would limit the academic majors that Florida students could study and put faculty hiring and firing into the hands of DeSantis’ hand-picked political appointees, ensuring that his kind of thinking is the only kind of thinking that Florida educators could offer to their students.
DeSantis has revealed “a long-term agenda to dismantle higher education,” says United Faculty of Florida (UFF) President Andrew Gothard. Despite the incredible work done by faculty, staff and students, “[These are] systemic efforts to dismantle the freedoms of students and faculty to teach and learn at the cutting edge of all fields.”
DeSantis Will Not 'Scare and Silence Educators'
“What we’re seeing in Florida is horrifying,” says NEA President Becky Pringle. “Because what we’re seeing is a systematic, comprehensive effort to limit what Florida faculty can teach and what Florida students can learn. This week, we see him targeting women’s studies. Last month, we saw him attacking African American history. Make no mistake, he is narrowing the scope of education so that his own personal politics are replicated in every classroom, at every level, in Florida.”
Specifically, the DeSantis bill (HB 999) would:
- Ban women’s studies as a major or minor.
- Prohibit any projects that “espouse diversity, equity and inclusion,” regardless of the funding source.
- Make faculty hiring the job of campus trustees, appointed by DeSantis. These political appointees wouldn’t necessarily know the characteristics of an inspiring teacher or innovating researcher, UFF leaders point out. Likely they would simply hire faculty who look and think like them.
- Allow trustees to fire any faculty member, at any time. Essentially, this would allow political donors—big corporations or idealogues with a lot of money—to influence what faculty members teach or research. Faculty members, like anybody, need their jobs to pay their bills, and they would not want to risk termination.
This latest, higher-ed focused legislation follows the 2022 passage of a Florida law that bans educators at every level from any teaching about race or religion that might make people feel uncomfortable or guilty.
“We know [DeSantis] wants to scare and silence educators,” says Pringle. “But he will not. He will not. NEA members across this nation will fight for our students—of all races and of all places, from preschool through higher education—and for their opportunity to learn.”
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