Is Florida ‘Wrecked’?
Inside Higher Ed
Barrett J. Taylor
February 13, 2023
Governor Ron DeSantis’s agenda to transform education in Florida is sometimes deemed “unprecedented.” In fact, there are some important precedents for the changes that his administration is making in the state’s higher education system. Understanding these precedents helps to understand what is familiar, what is new and what is at stake.
Deinstitutionalization of Higher Education
In my book Wrecked (Rutgers University Press, 2022), I refer to the process by which a state undermines its higher education system as “deinstitutionalization.” That word is a mouthful, but its meaning is straightforward. Deinstitutionalization is the process of making higher education less central to society by compromising its institutional independence.
During the 20th century, higher education became institutionalized—a core part of modern society—thanks to a combination of public resources and public trust. Families aspired for their children to attend. A growing percentage of jobs required a postsecondary credential. The production of new knowledge through academic research contributed to vibrant cities and regions.
In this capacity, higher education was an institution, like churches or courts. Higher education was part of public life, but it was not an arm of state legislatures or governors.
Institutional independence is important to higher education because no political party has a monopoly on knowledge. For this reason, institutional independence is enshrined in labor practices like faculty tenure and governance arrangements like statewide boards, both of which seek to protect academic freedom from political influence.
As deinstitutionalization compromises institutional independence, colleges and universities have less latitude to pursue their missions. Instead, they may become focused on efforts to cope with immediate crises—what I call partial defenses. Eventually, campus leaders may even prioritize compliance with political demands over the educational mission.