Gov. Ron DeSantis talks during a news conference on Monday, May 15, 2023, at New College of Florida before signing a bill that banned state funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at state universities. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

A survey of more than 4,250 faculty across four states, including Florida, highlights growing concern over political involvement in higher education and a widespread desire to find new employment.

Close to half the 642 respondents in Florida said they planned to seek employment in a different state within the next year.

“The brain drain that we’ve been concerned about, and the trends that we’ve been wondering about, based on what we’ve seen here, are certainly happening,” said Andrew Gothard, president of United Faculty of Florida, the statewide faculty union.

The survey was administered by faculty groups in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, including local chapters of the American Association of University Professors. Faculty in those places had been hearing their colleagues talk anecdotally about wanting to leave their states after lawmakers passed legislation that restricted tenure, gutted diversity programs and targeted other long-standing practices in higher education.

Members responded to the surveys from Aug. 14 to Sept. 1. Two-thirds of them held tenure.

Lower ranked faculty were more likely to look for other jobs. About 41% of assistant professors had interviewed for a new job, compared to 26% of associate professors and 23% of full professors.

Across all four states, 31% of those surveyed said they were “actively considering” interviewing in a different state this year. In Florida, it was about 46% — and 28% said they’d already interviewed.

The top destinations included California, New York, Massachusetts — and North Carolina, by faculty in the other three states.

Almost 85% said they would not encourage a graduate student or faculty in another state to come to Florida and about 36% said they planned to leave academia.

More than 95% described the political climate around higher education as “poor” or “very poor.”

The respondents listed various reasons for wanting to leave in addition to the overall political climate in their states. Seventy-one percent cited academic freedom concerns. Sixty-eight percent mentioned their pay. And 58% identified tenure, the targeting of diversity initiatives and/or LGBTQ+ issues.

About half of faculty across the four states shared concerns over the low number of applicants for teaching positions at their schools, and about 45% shared concerns over the applicants’ qualifications. About 40% said a significant number of applicants had refused offers at their schools.

Fifteen percent said the new laws affecting higher education in their states had no impact.

Florida funds more than 18,000 faculty at its 12 public universities, according to the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who this year led a campaign to change higher education in Florida, has dismissed the idea of massive turnover at the state’s colleges and universities. During a July address in Orlando, he said state schools have “seen a flood of applications coming in” even as the new laws he signed take effect.

DeSantis added: “The media will say, ‘Oh, some of these professors are leaving, like New College. Like, isn’t that bad? Is that a brain drain?’ Well, you know, if you’re a professor in like, you know, Marxist studies, that’s not a loss for Florida if you’re going on, and trust me, I’m totally good with that.”

His remarks included a reference to New College of Florida, where his appointment of six new trustees in January sparked a controversial transformation that made national news. That action, along with many of his other education policies, have become major talking points in the governor’s 2024 presidential campaign.

Matthew Boedy, the Georgia conference president of the American Association of University Professors, said he hoped the concerns would catch the attention of lawmakers.

“These universities and these systems, these states, are losing both their top grant-makers and our big fund drivers and some of the best teachers at all levels,” he said. “I don’t think it’s just one type of person that’s willing to leave. I think there are people in education that are upset with the changes. I think there are people upset in the humanities for cuts and I think there are people in sciences who are upset at the bad opinion of higher education.”

Gothard said he was not surprised by the results but said he hoped the “madness” would stop and “reasonable policymaking” resumed.

“Bottom line, while it looks like it’s the professors who are being harmed by this at the end of the line, it’s actually students and families who are suffering,” he said.

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

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

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