While clear evidence of a "brain drain" is hard to come by, many in Florida's academic community contend the state's new laws are pushing talented faculty to other states. [ Photo illustration by LISA MERKLIN | Times; Shutterstock ]

In the months before the Florida Board of Governors met in late March, more than 1,000 people wrote in, mostly to complain. Now, a dozen speakers lined up to be heard in person.

They had come to weigh in on a proposed state rule that would make it harder for university faculty to keep tenure. The board, which oversees the state’s 12 public universities, was nearing a decision. But many in the audience had other concerns.

Gov. Ron DeSantis had been talking since January about his plans to rid higher education of “woke” influences. He spoke of weeding out liberal professors, killing diversity programs and restricting course content. He railed against “zombie studies,” the college majors he saw as frivolous.

The speakers warned of damaging effects. Some faculty, they said, already had taken lower-paying jobs in other states, with more sure to follow. Top professors from elsewhere were staying away. The quality of a college education in Florida would quickly decline, they predicted.

“If you pass this regulation, Florida’s university system will go from the most competitive in the country to the least — and it will happen overnight,” said Andrew Gothard, head of the state’s faculty union.

It wasn’t true, said university system chancellor Ray Rodrigues, pushing back against the notion of a Florida brain drain. In the past when confronted with similar changes, he argued, people made “dire predictions” that hadn’t happened.

Which view is closer to accurate? Three months later, the answer remains elusive.

But some signs of an exodus are apparent.

The Tampa Bay Times reviewed records showing an upward tick in staff departures at some of Florida’s largest universities. And, as the Board of Governors discovered this spring, doubts about the state’s academic workplace are spreading fast.

Matthew Lata, a music professor at Florida State University, told board members that candidates were turning down positions in his college “because of the perceived anti-higher education atmosphere in the state.”

Talk of the phenomenon is everywhere, he said. “More and more often we are hearing ‘Florida? Not Florida. Not now. Not yet.’”

Help wanted

Across the State University System, the murmurs are getting louder: Some Florida schools are having trouble filling positions.

A candidate who applied to join the University of South Florida’s philosophy department instead took a job at a lower-ranked school in another state, pointing to Florida’s political climate.

Among the hundreds of messages sent to the Board of Governors in recent months was an email from a finance professor at the University of Central Florida who wrote to say his department lost a candidate over concerns about tenure.

A University of Florida employee reported giving tours to a half dozen prospective hires, all of whom “expressed mixed feelings about moving to Florida in the current political climate.”

A report from the American Association of University Professors pointed to a law school position that couldn’t be filled and said some candidates were turning down Florida offers with nothing else lined up.

Wyn Everham, a professor of ecology at Florida Gulf Coast University, said it’s becoming more difficult to attract faculty to the Fort Myers school. Open positions that once drew over 200 applicants now see fewer than 20, he said.

The lack of interest isn’t just about state politics, Everham said. Faculty pay in the state hasn’t kept up with the cost of living and the school does not offer tenure to sweeten the deal. People also are wary about moving to a city still recovering from Hurricane Ian, he said.

Everham said his department has lost three of its 19 faculty in the past year, more than any year in memory. Some cited politics; others simply got anotherjob.

What matters, he said, is that qualified educators felt they could do better outside the state.

History professor Robert Cassanello, the union chapter president at UCF, said he hears every other week about job searches at the university where no qualified candidates have applied. He said he worries about the impact on students’ education.

Faculty members, he said, have shared concerns about being called out by online critics like Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist and a DeSantis ally who has been vocal in his opposition to critical race theory.

“They’re changing their classes or they’re not assigning books they would normally assign out of fear that if that stuff gets published that Chris Rufo is going to come and target them and tweet about them and they’ll be in the crosshairs,” said Cassanello, who has considered leaving himself.

“I don’t mind staying,” he said. “I don’t mind fighting. I think ultimately when the DeSantis fever leaves Florida, I think there might be some good that comes out of it — if those of us who have been here can tell the story.”

State Sen. Shev Jones, D-Miami Gardens, said he’s been thinking about what comes next after a 2023 legislative session that brought major change to higher education.

During the debate over the legislation, he said, a human resources official at one school told him that 300 candidates had reconsidered offers over the last year.

“We knew this was going to happen,” Jones said. “The latest attacks on our higher education system, I don’t know how that plays out in the coming years. It just didn’t have to be this way. There are real-life implications.”

‘An easy decision’

The Times obtained records from four of the state’s biggest schools, including data on faculty departures and searches dating to 2018.

At the University of Florida, 1,087 employees resigned in 2022 — the only time in the last five years that the number exceeded 1,000. Departures could top that mark again if they continue at their current pace. More than 730 employees had left UF this year as of May 31.

The University of Central Florida said 103 faculty did not return for the 2022-23 academic year, the highest number in the last five years.

Florida State University also hit a five-year high, losing 136 faculty to resignation last year.

And the University of South Florida said it lost 146 faculty in 2022, up from an average of 95 over the previous four years. This year, the school lost 55 through May, on pace for the upward trend to continue.

Ylce Irizarry is among those saying goodbye.

She arrived at USF in 2009 to teach and conduct research on a broad range of Chicanx and Latinx literature.

She said she entered the field with hopes of helping first-generation students complete their degrees. She had found a home in USF’s English department, where she was the first Latina faculty member to be tenured.

But pressures crept in as time went on, starting after cuts to the budget and to general education requirements under former Gov. Rick Scott. They grew more acute when Donald Trump became president in 2016.

“Then the pressures clearly exacerbated when Gov. DeSantis took over and started his restructuring of education,” Irizarry said.

In 2021, at the governor’s urging, the Legislature passed the Intellectual Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity Act. It encouraged lawsuits as a way to address alleged violations of people’s “expressive rights” at colleges and universities and allowed students to record class lectures as evidence. It also required schools to conduct surveys gauging whether people on campus felt free to express their beliefs and ideas.

Then last year came the Individual Freedom Act, also known as the Stop Woke Act, aimed at topics like systemic racism. It prohibited workplaces and schools from promoting concepts that make anyone feel “guilt, anguish or other psychological distress” related to race, color, national origin or sex because of actions “committed in the past.”

Irizarry said the two measures forced her to add language to her syllabus and review her course materials. During classes, she became vigilant to make sure no one said anything that violated the law.

She said she grew increasingly concerned that someone would take a video recording and post something out of context that would get picked up by Fox News. She had seen colleagues in the ethnic studies field experience harassment and receive death threats. Students she’d taught previously — both liberal and conservative — grew more reticent.

It was difficult to think about applying elsewhere. Irizarry had bought a home. She had gotten involved in service projects, been a mentor and imagined herself building a career at USF.

But when she got an offer last year from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the choice was made easier. By then, Florida lawmakers were considering more legislation, this time with the potential to root out entire subjects, limit diversity efforts and further restrict faculty tenure.

The measures were passed easily by the Republican-dominated legislature and signed into law by DeSantis.

“It was difficult to choose to give up things that I had worked very, very hard for,” Irizarry said. “But it was an easy decision because I felt I literally would not be able to do my job. I simply could not see a way to do the job I was hired to do under the Gov. DeSantis regime.”

Carolyne Ali-Khan, who came to the University of North Florida in Jacksonville to teach social justice in education 12 years ago, made a similar calculation.

In 31 years of teaching, she hadn’t seen a climate like this. And it was rapidly unfolding in front of her.

After the Individual Freedom Act passed, she and her colleagues scrambledto figure out what it meant.

The law said no person should be made to feel guilt for actions committed in the past. Ali-Khan wondered how she could be responsible for how someone felt.

“All of a sudden, I’m not just thinking about what the research says in my field and how best to convey that to students and how to bridge that gap between what the research says and how they can apply what the research says in their lives and in their classrooms, which is what I’m trained to do,” she said. “My focus was that, plus, ‘Am I going to lose my job if I talk about what the research says? Am I going to come under attack? What is the university going to do? What can the university do?’”

In January, the state required all universities to list expenditures related to diversity, equity and inclusion, a major focus for DeSantis this year. Ali-Khan heardfrom a journalist that UNF had included her course in its report. No one at the university had informed her.

She felt increasingly vulnerable as laws targeting unions and easing gun restrictions were proposed and passed. She knew of colleagues who were planningwith their spouses and kids what to do in case they lost their jobs.

“It’s not safe here anymore on so many levels,” Ali-Khan said. “It’s not physically safe. It’s not economically safe. It’s not professionally safe. It’s not intellectually safe. That was not true when I got here.”

This fall, she’ll teachat Molloy University, a small liberal arts college in New York. She said she is heartbroken to leave behind colleagues and students in Florida.

Sometimes she grapples with guilt, particularly about leaving behind underrepresented and LGBTQ+ students, who increasingly expressed uncertainty over whether their university would protect them.

“I can’t support them if I don’t have a job,” she said.

‘Not a good signal’

State Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said she believed a variety of factors are impacting people’s decisions to leave the state, including Florida’s new abortion law and its climate toward the LGBTQ+ community.

It’s what prompted her to introduce an amendment to this year’s higher education bill that would have tracked whether those policies influenced faculty departures. She wanted the state to compile data on failed searches to fill university positions. Her proposal failed.

Hope “Bess” Wilson planned to spend the rest of her career at the University of North Florida, where she taught educational psychology at the school’s College of Education for the past 10 years.

But recently, as she packed her belongings into cardboard boxes for a move to Chicago, she paused to wonder: “How had things gotten so off-course?”

It felt like the past few years had brought one blow after another, Wilson said. As she saw it, lawmakers were chipping away at her rights as a faculty member and a mother.

She said it became increasingly difficult to do her job: training the next generation of teachers without stepping into territory outlawed by Florida’s increasingly restrictive laws. Whenever she felt herself wading into contentious waters, she eyed students for anyone pulling out a cell phone to record her.

For a time, she thought staying in Florida was the right thing to do for her career and her family.

That changed late last year when Florida’s medical boards voted to prohibit the use of puberty blockers, hormone therapies or surgeries to treat gender dysphoria for anyone under 18.

Then a bill signed in March codified those restrictions, also allowing the state to take custody of a child if they are “subject to sex-reassignment prescriptions or procedures.”

Wilson’s 14-year-old transgender daughter is considering whether to proceed with gender-affirming care. She worried that if she remained in Florida she could lose the sole custody that was granted as part of a divorce.

After receiving an offer to teach at Northern Illinois University, she accepted without a second thought.

Divya Kumar covers higher education and Ian Hodgson is an education data reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.

Education data reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.