Targeting the Freedom to Teach and Learn

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.”

florida higher ed protests
New College of Florida students and supporters protest Gov. Ron DeSantis's changes to Florida's state university system in February. Credit: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

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.”

Meet Some Florida Faculty Members—and Learn What They Do

University of Central Florida
A photo of UCF professor Yovanna Pineda, a Latina woman with long black hair

Meet Yovanna Pineda

Yovanna Pineda is a research professor at the University of Central Florida who studies the use of agricultural technology in Latin America and across the U.S. She has found that appropriate, limited use of farm technology extends the productive life of farms and mitigates the effects of climate change. This is a big issue: American farms are far less productive today, thanks to drought in California, the disappearance of spring in Michigan, and the proliferation of invasive species in Florida. Her work is vital to preventing food shortages—and it depends entirely on her ability “to think outside the box and come up with solutions,” she says. Her work also is ripe for partisan politicization. Big agriculture, technology corporations, etc., contribute massively to political candidates and pay for lobbyists on Capitol Hill. If they could have control over her work, they’d likely oppress it, she says.
University of South Florida
Photo of UCF's David Himmelgreen being interviewed

Meet David Himmelgreen

What kinds of programs work best to address food insecurity? Can addressing food insecurity lead to better health? These are the kinds of questions that University of South Florida (USF) anthropology professor David Himmelgreen has examined for decades—across the world and in the Tampa Bay area, where he directs USF’s Center for the Advancement of Food Security & Healthy Communities and serves on the board of Feeding Tampa Bay. Lately, as more Americans experience hunger, his work shows “there is no stereotypical person or household that is food insecure. It can affect anyone, even people living in middle-income households,” he says. At the same time, Himmelgreen sees how race and ethnicity can predict the prevalence of food insecurity—“in the direction you’d expect,” he notes. “And that’s where I’m concerned. What happens if we report the racial and ethnic disparities, and the varying health disparities along racial and ethnic lines? The social determinants of health have to do with things like education, income, who you are and what you look like. There’s no denying that.” But, in Florida, will that be possible for him to say without getting fired? Himmelgreen has had tenure at USF for almost two decades, but he remembers when he didn’t. “You tend to play it safe,” he says. “When you’re tenured, you get the ability to experiment and explore issues in a way that generates knowledge.”
Hillsborough Community College
Head shot of HCC professor Eric Fiske, smiling

Meet Eric Fiske

As a community college professor, Eric Fiske focuses on teaching—and he absolutely loves it. “This is what I want to do and where I want to be for the next 40 years. I’m focused on being the best teacher I can possibly be,” he says. At Hillsborough CC, Fiske teaches American government and civics, a subject that Florida students must master to get their associate’s degrees. To get them interested, Fiske uses real-life examples of class topics. Take Federalism. Fiske frames it through the issue of marijuana legalization and the interplay between state and federal laws. Then, he and students pivot to Covid-19 policies. “We have to, inherently, be critical of government policies—the president’s, the states’—as we ask, ‘What role should they play?’” Fiske gets students thinking about how government works, which is the point of civics education, but he wonders if he'll run into trouble someday. “Obviously talking about politics and government is inherently political, but it doesn’t have be politicized. It doesn’t have to be partisan,” he says. “We see that happening and it worries me. Do I have to alter my lectures and case studies so that they’re more dry? So that I don’t have to worry about losing my job?”
University of Florida
Portrait-style photo of Anna Peterson, white woman with graying hair

Meet Anna Peterson

Name a hot topic, and chances are Anna Peterson and her students are discussing it. Race? Gender? Colonialism? Check, check, and check. Peterson is an ethics professor in UF’s religion department, where for 30-plus years she has been helping students gain the tools to analyze ethical claims. Her classes, like “Ethics in the Public Sphere,” have waitlists of more than 100, as students are eager to dive into issues like immigration, online censorship, gentrification, and more. “Ethics isn’t just ‘I have an opinion on something.' Whether it’s assisted suicide or racism, I’m trying to provide students with tools to think about big issues and the moral dimensions of these issues," she explains. "There’s no agenda! These are tools that everybody needs.” Peterson is outraged by Republican efforts to limit what Florida students can learn. “They think somehow faculty is the enemy and I don’t think students feel that way at all. I think they feel like we’re on the same side,” she says. “We used to say it felt like 1984 in Florida, but now it’s a little more like 1933.”
By: Mary Ellen Flannery, Senior Writer
Published 03/03/2023