Florida Governor Ron DeSantis kicked off Black History Month last week by declaring a plan to dismantle the state public college system’s diversity and critical race theory programs. 

The proposed ban is part of a sweeping legislative package that builds off of the conservative governor’s ongoing campaign to control the parameters of how America’s legacy of racism is taught in public schools. In announcing the policy, DeSantis — a former history teacher whose views on the Civil War prompted students to create a parody video in which they pretended to be him and argued that the war “was not about slavery,” according to the New York Times — declared that the changes “will ensure Florida’s public universities and colleges are grounded in the history and philosophy of Western Civilization.”

In addition to eliminating diversity programs, the proposal would also give university presidents wide-ranging power over hiring, firing, and tenure decisions, and require colleges to prioritize majors that could lead to high-wage-earning jobs over degrees that promote “political agendas.”

Jeremy C. Young, a historian who works for the freedom of expression organization PEN America tracking censorship efforts in higher education, called DeSantis’ proposal an “all-out assault on the autonomy of higher education” that, if enacted, would impose the most draconian restrictions on public colleges and universities in the United States.

The proposed legislation is the latest attempt by DeSantis, a likely 2024 presidential contender, to limit classroom instruction on the history of racism in America. On January 12, the Florida Department of Education banned an advanced placement course for high schoolers focused on African American studies because it included coursework about reparations — a move DeSantis, who also signed legislation in 2021 prohibiting the instruction of critical race theory in public schools, staunchly defended.

But the effort to codify a so-called “anti-woke” view of history into policy is not just a Florida phenomenon. Since 2021, at least 18 states have passed laws banning schools from teaching critical race theory or “divisive concepts” about racism and sexism. Other states have attempted to create hotlines or websites to report teachers who violate critical race theory or divisive concept bans. Experts tracking these legislative efforts say they show no sign of slowing down this year as lawmakers in statehouses across the country propose bills aimed at restricting how teachers discuss the country’s past and present.

To better understand the national picture of America’s history battles, I called up PEN’s Jeremy C. Young. We talked about what distinguishes DeSantis’ proposed legislation from the laws that have already passed and why he sees the policy as lifting a page from the global authoritarian playbook. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

A lot of big news about higher education has come out of Florida in the last few weeks. DeSantis announced his intent to gut colleges of critical race theory and diversity programs, and the state’s Department of Education eliminated a high school advanced placement course on African American Studies. You have been monitoring these kinds of legislative actions across the country, and I’m curious how you compare these two efforts. Does one of them stand out to you as especially noteworthy or unprecedented?

It’s a race to the bottom. I think I would probably start with the higher education proposal, what DeSantis refers to as higher education reform, which would really result in the total capture and control of public higher education institutions in Florida by the state government.

Among other provisions, the proposals that DeSantis laid out would ban all diversity, equity and inclusion, and critical race theory initiatives in colleges and universities. It would ban any funding for them, including from private sources. It would effectively end tenure protections for faculty by giving boards of trustees the power to hire faculty members separate from those recommended by the faculty hiring committees, and it would also allow them to call a tenure review at any time for a tenured faculty member, essentially eliminating the protections of tenure.

It would also rewrite the mission statements of colleges and universities by the state. It would force colleges and universities to deprioritize certain majors which are considered by the government to be furthering a political agenda. If enacted, that package of proposals would be the most draconian restrictions on higher education probably in the history of the United States.

What distinguishes this proposal from other attempts to exert control over public university systems or their curricula? What makes this one so extreme?

The part of this that is unique is the attacks on the institutional autonomy of universities. In the United States, free expression at universities is guaranteed in part by institutional autonomy. That is to say, the government does not have day-to-day control over the inner workings and decisions made at the university, and those decisions instead are delegated to Boards of Trustees who in turn make those decisions through a process of shared governance, where all stakeholders at the university — faculty, staff, students, alumni, administrators  — work together to build policies. And those policies are then adopted by the Board of Trustees. 

We have seen waves of legislation, including in Florida in the past couple of years, that have restricted classroom instruction. But these policies go further because they also restrict the ability of governing boards to make their own decisions about their university. If you have the governor at a state rewriting college mission statements, you no longer have institutional autonomy. If they can’t write their own mission statements, then they don’t have any meaningful autonomy at all. 

So what really sets this apart from some of these other laws that restrict what can be taught in public universities is this attempt to subvert the public university system’s autonomy. This autonomy is, as you said, part of what fosters academic freedom in higher education. And that academic freedom – freedom from government and political intrusion in higher education – is part of what makes a democratic society. 

Our reporting at Coda has explored how educational censorship and book bans have taken root in backsliding democracies, such as Hungary and Turkey. When it comes to higher education, I would imagine there are parallels.

Hungary has banned entire fields of study and Poland has banned political history centers because the government doesn’t like the research that they do. And what is being proposed here —  the state government being able to make these decisions about deprioritizing majors, rewriting mission statements, banning initiatives — is absolutely right out of the global authoritarian playbook. There is no meaningful difference between those provisions and what we see in those other countries. 

What about the elimination of the African American Studies course for Florida high schoolers? Did you see that coming?

There have been political controversies around advanced placement courses in the past. Most notably in 2014, when the College Board proposed a revision of the U.S. history course that was criticized by many conservatives as being an overly negative portrayal of American history. And the College Board responded to that, including some threats in Oklahoma and other states to disapprove the course, by adding a section in the course called American Exceptionalism that featured glowing statements that were positive about American history. So it’s not surprising to see the College Board make these changes. They’ve made changes like this before.

What is surprising is for the governor of Florida and the state education department to outright reject a course. That’s never happened in the history of the advanced placement program, which goes back to 1952. And it’s worth noting that there was a pilot classroom of this course going on at a lab school at Florida State University. The governor’s office told the school that they had to cancel the pilot class that students were actively taking. So the willingness to deprive students of access to this causal material, including students who are already taking the class, is really unprecedented.

And this is all happening in tandem with all sorts of other state restrictions on what can be discussed in the classroom — more than a dozen states have passed legislation banning the instruction of critical race theory, or “divisive concepts.” I saw a headline a few days ago about a bill in Iowa that would attempt to create a website registry for parents to report teachers who violated the state’s divisive concept bill that passed two years ago. Have you seen that elsewhere? What kinds of bills are you seeing?

We have definitely seen a variety of hotline provisions, including in states that don’t even have these bills on the books, such as Virginia. These hotline provisions would involve people essentially snitching on their neighbors, on the teachers in their students’ classroom, to some kind of state authority who would then threaten their job for saying something that a particular parent didn’t like. And these bills, they’ve continued to proliferate this year. The rate this year of introduction is almost as great as the rate last year. We’ve seen over 70 [educational gag order] bills introduced already this year.

When I was talking to people about book restrictions in school libraries for my Coda piece, I was largely focused on elementary school, middle school and high school. And I asked historians and censorship experts if there was a historical precedent for the current volume of school and library book restrictions and bans. Several experts told me that a 1980s-era moral panic around Satanism led to a wave of book bans, but the last time that the country saw something of this magnitude was during McCarthyism. Do you see that historical parallel in higher education too?

I think McCarthyism is the right comparison. The laws promoted during that era — requiring faculty members to sign loyalty oaths saying that they were opposed to communism or laws restricting the teaching of particular subjects and government intervention in creating new, politicized departments in universities — were all hallmarks of the early Cold War and McCarthy era. 

And interestingly, many of those speech-related cases related to the loyalty oaths led to some of the most shining Constitutional jurisprudence in our history defending free expression in educational settings and elsewhere. And so the hope is that there will be some sort of legal protections around some of these areas that are being challenged. But just as it did in the McCarthy era, many of those decisions weren’t rendered until the 60s or 70s, so it could be a long time.