Kevin Knudson, who is the chair of the University of Florida’s department of mathematics, left, Patricia Okker, who is the past president of New College of Florida, center, and Irene Mulvey, who is president of the American Association of University Professors, right, participate in a panel discussion during the Mathematical Association of America’s MathFest 2023 at the Tampa Convention Center in downtown on Wednesday, August 2, 2023. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The message, to mathematicians who gathered amid some controversy in Tampa, was bleak: Criticalthinking is under attack in the arts and humanities.

“But no field is immune,” Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, said Wednesday at the Tampa Convention Center, where the Mathematical Association of America hosted a gathering called MathFest.

“The demonization of higher ed is really unfortunate and higher ed has been dragged into the culture wars, whether we like it or not.”

Speakers included Patricia Okker, the ousted president of New College; and Kevin Knudson, the University of Florida math department chair.

Both cautioned that a wave of restrictive laws affecting higher education is not limited to Florida. Twenty-nine bills were introduced in 18 states regarding divisive concepts in recent years, said Mulvey, a statistics professor. Ten bills in eight states popped up about diversity, equity and inclusion; and nine bills in six states centered on tenure protections, she said.

“These are extremely dangerous and unprecedented in my opinion,” Mulvey said. “During McCarthyism, individual professors were attacked. Here they’re attacking our whole profession.”

Knudson, the UF math chair, said so far the day-to-day of his job has not changed. But he’s anxious for what happens in the fall.

He’s seen colleagues in the humanities struggle to retain their faculty and fill open positions as professors leave for other jobs outside Florida or academia.

In his own department, he said he saw two faculty members leave because of “personal decisions about what they perceive as the current political climate in Florida not being a place for them.”

“It’s very much a time of cautious trepidation on the part of faculty,” he said. “I think some faculty, especially in the humanities and social sciences, feel uncertain about how they should approach their students in the classroom.”

Locating the conference in Florida did not happen easily, as some organizations are boycotting Florida. The 108-year-old mathematical association acknowledged on its website that Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature have passed laws eliminating diversity efforts and restricting the free exchange of ideas in educational settings.

State leaders are limiting the rights of marginalized groups to protest, and “restricting the choices of women and non-gender conforming individuals’ freedom to make deeply personal decisions regarding healthcare and even restroom use,” they wrote.

But, the group went on to say, “Florida is not homogeneous, and the Tampa community does not reflect the perspectives expressed in these laws.”

Catherine Paolucci, a math education researcher, moderated the panel on which Mulvey spoke. Paolucci gave this account of her own experience: She left her position as a faculty member at the University of Florida, where in her four years she saw the landscape shift rapidly.

In the beginning, she was encouraged to join a collective for Black student advancement that was created in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd.

Later she found her internal communications requested for review by the Florida House of Representatives because she was a member of that collective. While initially her research proposals were lauded for their social justice components, a right-wing expose later published one of her department’s projects and listed names and contact information of those involved.

Though Paolucci said her decision to leave UF was personal and not directly related to the political climate, she found herself questioning whether her social justice activities were worth the risk.

Mulvey described other ways in which the political climate can work against math and science instruction. Statistics courses analyzing data about home ownership or health outcomes could veer into issues of race that could result in complaints.

“I would argue as mathematicians and people in mathematical sciences, what type of campus do you want to work on?” Mulvey said. “Do you want to work on a campus community in which your colleagues in the history department are stifled in doing their work? We need to get out of our silos.”

Okker, a literature professor and former president of New College who was terminated after DeSantis recast the university’s board of trustees, said she believed universities need to band together and start creating political power to fight back.

“We come together and have a conference and are much more likely to seek connections with colleagues 1,000 miles away than we are with someone who teaches a different subject 5 miles from our campus,” she said. “We have to develop a statewide network of faculty, staff and students together, and administrators ideally.”

Okker said she believed it was time for universities to “radically change how they do business.”

Divya Kumar is a higher education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

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