Henry Reichman, of the American Association of University Professors, speaks at a news conference on Wednesday in Tallahassee. Reichman is co-chairperson of a special committee convened by the association to investigate political interference and academic freedom in Florida. [ Photo courtesy AAUP. ]

The American Association of University Professors has released a blistering assessment of higher education in Florida, saying its yearlong “special investigation” revealed a system under assault from Republican leaders determined to limit academic freedom and impose their worldview on the state’s public campuses.

The report, released Wednesday, cited a string of laws, policy changes and political maneuvers over the last two years, concluding they amounted to an “ideologically driven assault unparalleled in US history.” It was based in part on interviews with more than 65 people, including faculty, students, trustees and former university presidents.

The report opens with a quote from Florida A&M University professor LeRoy Pernell, a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state’s Intellectual Freedom Act, also known as the Stop Woke Act: “What we are witnessing in Florida is an intellectual reign of terror.”

The investigating committee released a preliminary report in May, warning of dire circumstances ahead. The full investigation expanded on those findings.

“What is unfolding in Florida is horrifying,” the final report said, comparing events in the state to far-right administrations across the world. “It should serve as a cautionary tale to all in higher education, but we are mindful that this tale has yet to reach its conclusion. The time for intervention has not passed — yet.”

Jeremy Redfern, a spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis, called the report “a hoax” and pointed to some of the governor’s comments Tuesday while announcing his state budget for next year.

DeSantis proposed $150 million for faculty recruitment and retention and touted a new state policy on tenure as a check on quality. The policy calls for tenured faculty to be reviewed every five years and opens the possibility of termination.

”Everyone’s been complaining for years about college professors trying to indoctrinate and stuff,” DeSantis said. “For Florida, that’s not what we want with your tax dollars. We want academic rigor. We want the pursuit of truth.”

Henry Reichman, a professor emeritus at California State University-East Bay and co-chairperson of the investigating committee, said he was “deeply moved” by the process of developing the report.

“One of the things that struck me was the pain,” he said. “In almost every single interview we had, there were people kind of mourning.”

Afshan Jafar, another co-chairperson and a sociology professor at Connecticut College, said the committee’s interviews stunned her as well. Jafar has co-chaired other special committees including a recent investigation into the University of North Carolina system.

“At the time of that report, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, things are so terrible,’” she said. “But what we have seen in Florida, there’s just nothing like it.”

Jafar recounted days when she was unable to sleep after interviews, replaying what she’d heard in her mind. Several people had broken down crying while talking to the committee.

Investigators said they encountered educators in crisis over their careers, unsure whether to quit and leave or stay and push through. Some wanted to resign but circumstances stood in their way.

“They don’t know what to do,” Jafar said. “They have nowhere to go. They’re trying to find an outlet where someone would listen to them, hoping it would have an impact.”

In his remarks on Tuesday, DeSantis acknowledged talk of professors leaving the state, but said it wasn’t a concern.

”Just understand: If you have Marxist professors leaving, that is a gain for the state of Florida,” he said. “That’s not a negative.”

He also said his administration had kept costs down by getting rid of universities’ diversity, equity and inclusion programs, which he described as divisive. ”That’s a bureaucracy that can wither and go away,” DeSantis said.

The investigation was broken into five sections titled: “The Takeover of New College,” “Academic Governance in Florida Higher Education,” “Academic Freedom,” “Bias and Discrimination” and “The Human Toll.”

In a detailed and heavily footnoted chronology, the committee reviewed this year’s events at New College of Florida in Sarasota — beginning with DeSantis’ appointment of six conservative trustees and continuing with their decisions to oust the president, replace her with former education commissioner Richard Corcoran, deny tenure to some faculty, disband the school’s diversity office and remove gender studies as a major.

“What’s happening at New College is a disgrace,” former University of Florida president Bernie Machen told the committee.

The report also chronicled faculty leaving for other jobs outside the state or leaving academia. It cited a survey that found 300 of the 642 Florida professors who participated planned to seek employment elsewhere. Andrew Gothard, president of the statewide union United Faculty of Florida, told the committee he predicted some universities would lose between 20% to 30% of faculty in the next year.

“No job is worth selling out everyone below you,” Florida Atlantic University’s union chapter president, Dawn Rothe, told the committee.

Several educators spoke to the committee about their decisions to leave or retire early. Some were based on the faculty members’ fear they could no longer teach their subject, while others were made because of their kids’ education. Others felt inclined to move because of laws surrounding transgender health care and the climate toward LGBTQ+ people.

“It has impacted so many different aspects of people’s lives,” Jafar said. “It’s not just higher ed.”

The committee also outlined how Florida’s universities are governed — by a Board of Governors at the top and locally by a board of trustees at each school. Both levels are largely controlled by the governor through board appointments.

Tensions about that system have long existed, the committee wrote, but “past governors of both parties tended to make appointments … of candidates with higher education experience and relied less on political or ideological criteria.”

That changed under DeSantis and former Gov. Rick Scott, they wrote.

Reichman, the committee co-chairperson, said he was taken aback by the silence of leaders who are not political appointees.

“The people who are professional educators, their acquiescence to just go along and not speak out, it’s terrible,” he said, adding that he hoped the report inspires faculty to take action, whether by signing a petition or joining a union.

The American Association of University Professors has conducted fewer than 10 special investigations since 1915. Three have been within the last three years, and point to a larger trend in higher education, Reichman said.

“There’s always been a strain of anti-intellectualism in American life,” he said. “It comes to the fore at times of backlash and fear — a world some people took for granted is vanishing. They’re frightened by the new multicultural diversity of the country and they lash out.”

Jafar said appealing to community members outside academia about what’s at stake might be more fruitful than arguing the point with lawmakers.

“People are suffering, and I don’t use that word lightly,” she said. “There are days the situation seems far worse and hopeless than others. The response has to come at different levels.”

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

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