Jonathan Cox faced an agonizing decision. He was scheduled to teach two classes this past fall at the University of Central Florida that would explore colorblind racism, the concept that ostensibly race-neutral practices can have a discriminatory impact. The first, “Race and Social Media,” featured a unit on “racial ideology and color-blindness.” The second, “Race and Ethnicity,” included a reading on “the myth of a color-blind society.” An assistant sociology professor, Cox had taught both courses before; they typically drew 35 to 40 undergraduates apiece.

As recently as August 2021, Cox had doubted that the controversy over critical race theory — which posits, among other things, that racism is ingrained in America’s laws and power structure — would hamstring his teaching. Asked on a podcast what instructors would do if, as anticipated, Florida restricted the teaching of CRT in higher education, he said that they would need to avoid certain buzzwords. “What many of us are looking at doing is just maybe shifting some of the language that we’re using.”

But a clash with state law seemed inevitable, once Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, proposed what he called the strongest legislation in the nation against “the state-sanctioned racism that is critical race theory.” Last April, DeSantis signed the Individual Freedom Act, also known as the “Stop Woke Act,” into law. It bans teaching that one race or gender is morally superior to another and prohibits teachers from making students feel guilty for past discrimination by members of their race. And it specifically bars portraying racial colorblindness — which the law labels a virtue — as racist. A DeSantis spokesperson, Jeremy Redfern, told me in an email that the law “protects the open exchange of ideas” (italics in the original) by prohibiting teachers from “forcing discriminatory concepts on students.”

Whatever one thinks of critical race theory, the state’s interference limits the freedom of professors who are experts in their fields to decide what to teach their students. Cox worried, not without reason, that the law effectively banned him from discussing his ideas in class, and that teaching the courses could cost him his livelihood. Cox, who is the only Black professor in the sociology department, will not be considered for tenure until this fall. His salary was his family’s only income while his wife stayed home with their baby.

A month before the fall 2022 semester was set to start, he scrapped both courses. Students scrambled to register for other classes. “It didn’t seem like it was worth the risk,” said Cox, who taught a graduate course on inequality and education instead. “I’m completely unprotected.” He added, “Somebody who’s not even in the class could come after me. Somebody sees the course catalog, complains to a legislator — next thing I know, I’m out of a job.”

Books in Cox’s office Credit: Tara Pixley, special to ProPublica and The Atlantic

Cox’s decision, along with another professor’s cancellation of a graduate course because of similar apprehension, created an unusual gap in the sociology curriculum at UCF, which, with almost 69,000 students, is Florida’s largest university.

Cox’s department chair, Elizabeth Mustaine, said she went along with the professors’ wishes because “I thought: ‘I’m not going to stress anyone out about this. It’s crazy.’” Still, she added, “it’s an absolute tragedy that classes like this get canceled.” Of the 39 courses offered this past fall by a department that specializes in the study of human society, none focused primarily on race.

In just over two years, critical race theory has gone from a largely obscure academic subject to a favorite bogeyman for Republican candidates. Activists such as Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, conceived of targeting CRT to foment a backlash against measures enacted following George Floyd’s murder in May 2020. At that time, Rufo told me in an email, “school districts across the country suddenly started adopting ‘equity statements,’ hiring ‘diversity and inclusion’ bureaucrats, and injecting heavily partisan political content into the curriculum.” Black Lives Matter and the left were riding high, said Rufo, who denies that structural racism exists in America. In our email exchange, Rufo described “the fight against critical race theory” as “the most successful counterattack against BLM as a political movement. We shifted the terrain and fought on a vector the Left could not successfully mobilize against.”

The anti-CRT campaign quickly expanded from sloganeering to writing laws. Seven states, including Florida, have passed legislation aimed at restricting public colleges’ teaching or training related to critical race theory. Those laws face impediments. On Nov. 17, 2022, a federal judge temporarily blocked enforcement of the higher-education provisions of Florida’s Individual Freedom Act. “The First Amendment does not permit the State of Florida to muzzle its university professors, impose its own orthodoxy of viewpoints, and cast us all into the dark,” Judge Mark Walker wrote. The DeSantis administration filed a notice of appeal on Nov. 29 and is seeking to stay the injunction pending that appeal. The 11th Circuit, where most of the judges are Republican appointees, will hear the appeal, with briefs to be filed in the next few months and oral arguments potentially this coming summer.

Additionally, with DeSantis’ landslide reelection — after a campaign in which he repeatedly denounced “woke” education — and Republicans gaining a supermajority in both chambers of the state’s Legislature, they are likely to look for new ways to crack down on CRT and what they perceive as higher education’s leftist tilt. And at the federal level, conservatives are drafting a “potential suite of executive orders in 2024,” in case the next presidential election goes their way, to “disrupt the national network of left-wing ideological production and distribution,” according to Rufo.

It’s easy to dismiss the conservative crusade against critical race theory as political theater without real consequences. But most colleges and universities offer social science and humanities courses that address racial inequality and systemic racism, and the anti-CRT laws are already having repercussions for people who teach or take these classes in red states. Moreover, the push against CRT is hitting academia after decades of declines in the proportion of professors protected by tenure, meaning that most faculty members are not in positions secure enough to resist political pressure. Now, forced to consider whether they face any legal or career risk, some are canceling courses or watering down content, keeping quiet rather than sharing their expertise with students.

“When you implement a law like this, you’re asking professors to leave out things that clearly happen or have happened in the past,” Grace Castelin, a UCF undergraduate who plans to introduce a resolution in the student senate condemning the law, told me. “It’s making us more ignorant in this generation and generations to come.”

Fearful that legislators will retaliate by cutting their budgets, few top university administrators have publicly criticized the laws, which put institutions as well as individual teachers at risk. Indeed, UCF Provost Michael Johnson told faculty last July that the university would “have to take disciplinary action” against any faculty member who repeatedly violated the Individual Freedom Act because it couldn’t afford to lose a “catastrophic amount” — $32 million — in state funding linked to graduation rates and other metrics. (Johnson declined an interview request.)

Other states have left professors similarly undefended. In Tennessee, which passed a law much like Florida’s, the provost of the state university’s flagship Knoxville campus made clear to professors that the administration wouldn’t necessarily help them. If they were sued under the law, Provost John Zomchick told faculty, Tennessee’s Republican attorney general would decide whether the university would represent them in court. “People freaked out,” said Anne Langendorfer, a senior lecturer at UT Knoxville and the president of a union for campus workers at the state’s public universities.

A university spokesperson, Kerry Gardner, said that the attorney general makes the final decision in “any situation” where individuals are sued in their capacity as university employees. Administrators “wanted to be fully transparent about how the process works,” while assuring faculty that “we will take every step to defend them,” Gardner said. Zomchick, she added, “does not agree with the view of some faculty” that the law “infringes on the First Amendment or academic freedoms.”

With uncertain support from above, most full and associate professors at least enjoy the protection of tenure, which shields scholars whose insights or research are politically unpopular. Tenured professors can’t be fired without cause and a hearing by their peers. Other faculty typically work on contracts, which the university can decide not to renew without specifying a reason.

Some tenured professors in Florida have resisted anti-CRT pressure. The historian Robert Cassanello, the president of the UCF chapter of United Faculty of Florida, was comfortable becoming a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits contending that the Individual Freedom Act violates free speech. Cassanello, who keeps a life-size cutout of Karl Marx in his office window, told me that he’s less threatened by the law than his untenured colleagues are.

Robert Cassanello, a tenured professor, teaches history at the University of Central Florida and became a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging a state law that restricts the teaching of critical race theory. Credit: Tara Pixley, special to ProPublica and The Atlantic

By contrast, Juan Salinas, an assistant sociology professor at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, declined to be a plaintiff. “For me to stick my name out, I didn’t feel comfortable,” Salinas said. “If I had tenure, I would be more active.”

But even having tenure didn’t feel like “adequate protection” to Scott Carter, the other UCF sociologist who scrapped a course on race in the fall semester. “It’s very sad for students,” Carter told me. “They won’t get the experience of hearing from scholars on contemporary race relations.”

Perhaps the surest indication that tenure helps safeguard critical race theory and other controversial curricula is that conservatives are trying to jettison it. In 2021, Georgia’s public-university system made firing tenured faculty easier. After the University of Texas’ faculty council adopted a resolution last February supporting professors’ right to teach critical race theory, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for abolishing tenure for new hires at the state’s public universities. Last April, DeSantis signed a bill authorizing reviews of tenured professors every five years.

The tenure divide has a racial dimension. At many state universities, tenured faculty are overwhelmingly white. Untenured faculty are more likely to be people of color. In the fall of 2018, 7.4% of full professors and 10.9% of associate professors — the two ranks most likely to be tenured — were Black or Hispanic, compared with 11.8% of assistant professors and 17% of instructors, lecturers and others, according to the American Association of University Professors. Women are also disproportionately concentrated in untenured positions.

Besides having less job security than their tenured colleagues, many untenured faculty have less say in which courses they teach. One visiting assistant professor of sociology at an Oklahoma university, who requested anonymity to speak about her workplace, specializes in gender research; her dissertation was on urban women’s experiences with menstrual practices in Kathmandu, Nepal. She wasn’t familiar with critical race theory. But after Oklahoma in 2021 banned “any orientation or requirement” in higher education “that presents any form of race or sex stereotyping or a bias on the basis of race and sex,” she found herself assigned to teach a course on racial and ethnic relations.

“I have consistently seen this course taught by nontenured professors,” she told me. “That’s been the trend,” perhaps because of “tenured professors not wanting to do the dirty work.”

Universities themselves helped create the vulnerability that conservatives are exploiting, saving money — and, in the case of public institutions, offsetting budget cuts — by shifting to a less tenured teaching force. Tenured professors have declined from 39% of faculty in 1987, the earliest year for which comparable figures were available, to 24% in 2020, according to an AAUP analysis of federal data. There has been a corresponding increase in the proportion of what are known as contingent faculty, who aren’t tenured or on a path to it — instructors, lecturers, teaching faculty who don’t do research and adjuncts — from 47% in 1987 to 67% in 2020. The remaining 9% are tenure-track faculty like Cox. Two of Florida’s youngest public universities — Florida Gulf Coast University and Florida Polytechnic University, which opened in 1997 and 2014, respectively — do not currently grant tenure at all.

This past fall, Florida Gulf Coast’s social and behavioral sciences department offered one race-focused course, “Race and Culture.” The former FGCU sociologist Ted Thornhill had stirred conservative protests by teaching courses on “Racism and Law Enforcement” and “White Racism,” and by founding a Center for Critical Race and Ethnic Studies. Since Thornhill left in June 2022 for a tenure-track post in the Pacific Northwest, no one has been teaching those courses. (Another instructor is scheduled to teach “Racism and Law Enforcement” this summer.) The university refashioned the center to focus on “the Study of Race, Gender, Ethnicity and Culture,” dropping the word “critical.”

“I knew it had a short life expectancy,” Thornhill told me.

FGCU President Michael Martin said that the center was renamed not to appease conservatives but to encompass groups such as Latinos, Native Americans and Jews. Still, Martin acknowledged that academia has become “overly politicized,” and that Florida “has been out in front of some of this.”

In the past, when academic freedom was threatened, tenure proved to be one of its most effective defenses. During the McCarthy era, when tenured professors were accused of having Communist sympathies, “their institutions had to go through the motions of a formal investigation,” the historian Ellen Schrecker wrote in “No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism & the Universities.” “Non-tenured teachers had no such rights.” The Cornell physicist Philip Morrison, an ex-Communist who remained politically active, “could not be quietly dropped from the faculty” in the early 1950s, at the height of the Red Scare, because he had tenure, and he was eventually promoted to full professor.

The sociologist Shantel Buggs is hoping to become a rarity: a tenured Black woman in Florida State’s College of Social Sciences and Public Policy. In 2021, the college had one tenured Black woman. Overall, it had two tenured Black faculty and 59 white faculty.

Shantel Buggs is hoping to receive tenure at Florida State’s College of Social Sciences and Public Policy. Credit: Tara Pixley, special to ProPublica and The Atlantic

The daughter of two Marines, Buggs was the first college graduate in her family. She has won teaching awards, published book chapters and articles in refereed journals, developed new courses and helped establish an anti-racism task force on campus. When UCF offered her a tenured associate professorship in 2021, Florida State gave her a raise to stay.

“Your work is powerful, timely, and extremely socially relevant, and you have quickly gained national recognition in your areas of expertise,” Buggs’ department chair at Florida State, Kathryn Tillman, wrote in 2021. Tillman also called her a “fantastic teacher and mentor.”

As the Individual Freedom legislation was being enacted, Buggs detected a subtle recalibration of her prospects. In April 2022, Buggs told me, Tillman urged her to take advantage of a COVID-19 extension and delay her candidacy for tenure by a year. Buggs protested. “I thought it was unfair that I be asked to wait to go up for promotion in this political climate because what I teach and what I research will place a target on me,” she said. But she agreed, she said, after Tillman expressed concern that higher-ups might deem her publication record insufficient for tenure. (Tillman told me via email that she can’t comment on personnel issues.)

One course that Buggs had developed and taught was “Critical Race Theory.” She last offered it in the spring of 2021. The following September, she learned that it was the only Florida State course listed on the Critical Race Training in Education website, which has been featured on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and describes CRT as a “radical ideology” that challenges “the very foundations” of American democracy. Buggs discovered that the website was a project of something called the Legal Insurrection Foundation.

The term “insurrection” alarmed her. Anxious that she might be trolled or harassed, Buggs was receptive in May 2022 to another Tillman request — to change the name of the course. Tillman told me that she and Buggs had discussed whether another title would help avoid “potential misperceptions about the course’s intent. Together, we agreed to give it a try.” The course, which Buggs plans to teach in the upcoming semester, was relisted as “Sociology of Race and Ethnicity.”

The purpose of the Critical Race Training in Education website is to “document what students can expect at a particular campus,” according to William Jacobson, a Cornell University law professor and the president of the Legal Insurrection Foundation. Jacobson told me that, because he had criticized the Black Lives Matter movement, Cornell alumni petitioned to have him fired, a faculty statement denounced him and a student group called for boycotting his courses. “Considering what I have gone through, I am very sympathetic to left-leaning faculty who come under attack, but it also is clear that the overwhelming campus cancel culture is from the left towards the right, not the other way around,” he said.

A Florida State spokesperson told me critical race theory scholars should have no concern that their specialty will hurt their tenure chances. But Katrinell Davis, the director of the university’s African American Studies program and the only tenured Black woman in the college of social sciences, says she is “saddened” by Buggs’ predicament. “Her trajectory as a scholar may be impacted” by the Individual Freedom Act “and because of the doubts that might arise around the value of CRT,” Davis told me.

For her part, Buggs said she is open to leaving Florida for another state where she can teach critical race theory without legal consequences, but she doesn’t want to. “I have enjoyed working here,” she told me. “I’m a stubborn person. I don’t want to give DeSantis the satisfaction.”

Buggs also worries that the political climate is rubbing off on students. In the past year or two, Buggs said, some students have begun to “ding” her in evaluations as judgmental or biased. Last spring, one called her a “misandrist” — a man-hater. “Part of what pissed me off is, he got an A,” she said. She has added a disclaimer provided by the faculty union to her syllabi: “No lesson is intended to espouse, promote, advance, inculcate, or compel a particular feeling, perception, viewpoint, or belief.”

Florida State University’s campus in Tallahassee Credit: Tara Pixley, special to ProPublica and The Atlantic

Other untenured teachers at Florida State are tweaking their pedagogy. When the doctoral candidate Taylor Darks taught a section of Buggs’ “Race and Minority Group Relations” course this past fall, she invited students to suggest questions for discussion — but told me that she generally weeded out queries that mentioned “white privilege.” And Tyler McCreary, an assistant geography professor, made what he calls a “strategic adjustment” in his fall 2022 honors course on environmental justice. For a class project on a pipeline in northern Canada that affects Indigenous people, McCreary told me he’s been “much more cautious of not just critiquing the development but making sure to include the company’s perspective.”

McCreary, who is up for tenure this year, has also shifted his teaching method from lecturing to class discussion. He wants to avoid complaints under another new Florida law that allows students to record professors’ lectures for evidence of political bias. The law doesn’t apply to class discussion, because students must consent to be recorded.

Parked one October afternoon on the Florida State campus was a minibus covered in graffiti of various political persuasions. One commentator had scrawled “Socialism Sucks,” only to have another cross out “Sucks” and replace it with “Is Sexy.” Outside, a field rep for Turning Point USA, a conservative campus network, invited passersby to a speech by the group’s founder, the talk show host Charlie Kirk. Turning Point USA, which has spent millions of dollars through its advocacy and political arms backing Donald Trump and candidates he endorsed, has what it calls a “watchlist” dedicated to “unmasking radical professors.”

Turning Point USA, a conservative campus network, had a minibus on campus that invited passersby to write whatever they wanted on it. Credit: Tara Pixley, special to ProPublica and The Atlantic
Florida State University students protest outside a Tallahassee speech by Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA. Credit: Tara Pixley, special to ProPublica and The Atlantic

The minibus was intended to signify Kirk’s opposition to censorship. But when I asked him at his talk that night in Tallahassee’s civic center whether he supports laws restricting the teaching of critical race theory, he said he does, and that it’s not a free-speech issue. “It’s a matter of curriculum, right?” he said. “Should we teach the flat-Earth theory in physics, right? Should we teach bloodletting in biology? … There are some ideas that are so reprehensible and provably wrong, they shouldn’t be anywhere close to an academic environment.” (Kirk bridles at the very notion of systemic racism: In his talk, he referred to the aftermath of George Floyd’s death as “Floydapalooza, when we decided to destroy our entire country around a lie that America is systemically racist, which of course we’re not; we’re the least racist country ever to exist in the history of the world.”)

Kirk’s denial of systemic racism is at odds with the experience of students half a mile away, across the railroad tracks, at the public, historically Black Florida A&M University. Founded in 1887, and located since 1891 on a former plantation, FAMU has long been slighted by the state. When Nathan B. Young, the school’s president from 1901 to 1923, supplemented its agricultural and vocational programs with liberal arts, state officials feared that too much learning might make Black students dissatisfied with manual labor, and dismissed him. After World War II, hoping to avoid desegregating white law schools, Florida opened a law school at FAMU. In 1966, the state prohibited FAMU from enrolling a new law school class and transferred funding to Florida State, which wanted its own law school. FAMU’s law school reopened in 2002 in Orlando, where it wouldn’t compete with Florida State’s.

This past September, a group of FAMU students sued the state of Florida, accusing it of discriminating by underfunding FAMU compared with traditionally white schools. Among the disparities cited: In 2015, the state moved the almost $13 million budget for a joint FAMU-Florida State engineering college from FAMU’s general operating revenues to a separate line under Florida State’s authority. (A Florida State spokesperson said that presidents of both universities had agreed to the shift.) Also, the lawsuit says, linking funding to measures such as four-year graduation rates hurts FAMU and other universities that primarily serve low-income students.

In November, the state moved to dismiss the lawsuit, contending that the benchmarks used to determine funding are “wholly neutral,” and that the goal is to “reward institutions who have better student outcomes,” not to “diminish the performance of historically black institutions.”

In contrast to Florida State’s lush, impeccably maintained campus, FAMU’s shows signs of neglect, including cracked walkways and rusted pipes. Interviewed on campus, plaintiffs in the lawsuit described more indignities: beds with broken frames, a dormitory infested with rats and cockroaches, computers so old that current professors had used them when they were undergraduates.

One of those plaintiffs, FayeRachel Peterson, a first-year graduate student in chemistry, told me that some of the labs she worked in as a FAMU undergraduate lacked vital equipment. She and her classmates frequently had to finish their lab work at Florida State. “FAMU tries its best to give us what it can with what’s given to them,” she said. “What’s given to them is less than what’s given to others.”

Another student, Nyabi Stevens, a third-year psychology major, told me that the state’s treatment of FAMU illustrates the importance of discussions that the Individual Freedom Act is trying to silence. “That’s what the lawsuit is about — pointing out the systemic racism we see,” she said. “I came to an HBCU so I can learn about my history. I am very proud to be in the lawsuit and be a voice for people who don’t have a voice.”

First image: FayeRachel Peterson. Second image: Nyabi Stevens. Credit: Tara Pixley, special to ProPublica and The Atlantic

UCF students who wanted to learn about critical race theory this past fall had few options. Not only had the three sociology courses been canceled, but an anthropology course on racism was nixed because not enough students signed up for it.

One course that did survive has “flown under the radar,” Christian Ravela, an associate humanities professor, told me. His 18 students learned “how colorblindness has become the dominant racial ideology” and examined the anti-CRT movement, including the Individual Freedom Act, he said. Ravela received tenure in 2022. If he hadn’t, “I would have been most likely to just request to cancel the course.”

The preliminary injunction against the Individual Freedom Act pleased untenured faculty who teach critical race theory, but it hardly allayed their concerns. “There is still an ongoing battle,” Jonathan Cox, the UCF professor, told me. “It seems just as likely that if a more conservative appeals judge reviews this, they will simply reinstate the law. Regardless, DeSantis and his conservative majority in the Florida Legislature will probably continue working to keep this law and others in place.”

After canceling his two fall courses on race, Cox has committed to teaching “Race and Ethnicity” in the semester that’s about to begin. His wife has returned to work, so the family could get by on her income if he were to lose his job. Beyond that, he said: “I just decided, ‘I’m not going to run from it.’ This is what I teach. This is what I study. There’s tremendous value in students learning about these things.”

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Kirsten Berg contributed research.