William Mattox: Florida reforms will improve higher ed
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Everyone benefits when college campuses welcome a variety of viewpoints from scholars interested in “stress-testing” ideas

A number of progressive academics are freaking out over an array of higher education reforms being advanced by Gov. Ron DeSantis and his GOP allies in the Florida Legislature. These faculty union leaders are warning that some professors will not want to teach in Florida if our state proceeds with reforms such as prohibiting political litmus tests in the faculty hiring and promotion process.

I might share their alarm if it weren’t for some lessons my oldest son learned in his first-year economics course at Florida State — and that my middle son learned in his mandatory “diversity” course at the University of Southern California.  Allow me to explain.

In my eldest son’s first-year economics course at FSU, he learned that the more scarce a resource is, the higher its value; and the more abundant a resource is, the lower its value. If we were to apply this basic economic principle to the higher education faculty market, we would have to say this: All other things being equal, a professor who has conservative or even moderate political views is (or should be) more highly prized than one with progressive views. Because left-wing academics are a dime a dozen. They outnumber their right-wing counterparts by a ratio of 5-to-1.

Thus, any school that recognizes the importance of viewpoint diversity should be more concerned about attracting and keeping top scholars from the center-right than those from the center-left. At least until campus populations begin to reflect the ideological makeup of the state populations they serve.

Seen in this light, the higher ed reforms being advanced by Florida’s leaders aren’t simply defensible — they’re wise. They are apt to make Florida’s state universities more appealing to center-right professors who work in fear of “cancellation” elsewhere — and more appealing to center-left academics who do not want to teach in a monoculture (even a progressive monoculture).

Which brings me to my other story.

When my middle son studied at USC, he and his classmates had to take two “diversity” courses as part of their general education requirements. Many students regarded these courses as not-so-veiled attempts at “woke” indoctrination.

One semester, my son took a course on LGBT representation in Broadway musicals. A student in the class, whose mother worked as a Chick-fil-A executive, had recruited some friends from her campus ministry group to take the class with her. While her group was a relatively small subset of the class, they were emboldened enough to take part regularly in class discussions about controversial themes raised in various musicals.

At the end of the semester, the professor — an “old school” liberal (who loved the musical, “Hair”) — thanked the girl and her group for being so engaged in the class. He said they had made the discussions much richer and more interesting for everyone (including him!) than any class he could remember.

That “old school” liberal professor understood the value of intellectual diversity. He recognized that everyone benefits when college campuses welcome a variety of viewpoints from scholars interested in “stress-testing” ideas to see which ones hold up best under scrutiny.

Professors like that have little to fear from the reforms now making their way through the Florida Legislature. Because those reforms are designed to improve viewpoint diversity at Florida’s state universities. And to make Florida’s schools more attractive to scholars — who value education, not indoctrination — no matter what their political preferences may be.

To be sure, some Florida faculty union members want to preserve higher ed’s grossly skewed ideological imbalance. And are freaking out now, as a result. But these panic-stricken professors remind me of the panic-stricken non-Floridians who could not understand why the Sunshine State remained open during the early days of the pandemic.

In the end, Gov. DeSantis and his GOP allies were vindicated in their response to COVID. And there’s every reason to believe they will be vindicated again — once their higher education reforms take hold and more and more students get to learn the kinds of lessons my sons did.


William Mattox is the director of the J. Stanley Marshall Center for Educational Options at The James Madison Institute.

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