Professor David Walton got the email while he was out of town: His college president wrote that his contract teaching anthropology at Lake-Sumter State College in Leesburg, Fla., would not be renewed. The president gave no reason.
To be fired via email would be a shock all by itself, but Walton, who had built up a good reputation over the six years he taught at LSSC, had what Florida faculty consider the equivalent of tenure—a “continuing contract.” He’d been teaching five courses a semester, advising student clubs and contributing to the faculty community by serving as a leader in LSSC’s chapter of his union, the United Faculty of Florida. He thought his job was secure.
Now he is fighting for his position, arguing that he was fired without just cause or due process.
But Walton’s job loss is not just about him. He was the only professor at the school teaching anthropology, archaeology and geography, so those classes have been eliminated. His departure has had a chilling effect on faculty, who are already low on morale. Florida faculty and academic advocates see his experience as a threat to other social science professors, to social science programs and to the humanities, where funding has been cut.
In addition, Walton’s union activity, including his position as an outspoken member of the collective bargaining team, suggests he may have been targeted for removal. The efficacy of faculty unions in Florida is also at stake.
In many ways, higher education is under attack in Florida, and LSSC is a prime example. Base pay is $44,000 for professors with master’s degrees, according to UFF research, ranking 26th among Florida’s 28 state colleges and far below the national average of $61,506 (for an assistant professor at a two-year school, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education).
Academia in general is undervalued: Education advocates were facing steep cuts to higher education in state budget proposals last spring, and it was an uphill battle until legislators tapped into federal COVID-19 relief funding to avoid the deepest reductions. And that hasn’t erased the impact of cuts in 2020, when state colleges were asked to slice 8.5 percent from their budgets, the University of South Florida eliminated the undergraduate component of its College of Education, and the University of Florida prepared for furloughs and a hiring freeze.
But money is only part of the problem. Academic job security is also on the line. Most professors in Florida are adjuncts, meaning they have temporary contracts that can be canceled at any time. But even people with long-term contracts, like Walton, are threatened. The union points out that such actions will have a chilling effect on the professoriate writ large.
“What Dr. Walton brought to the college was substantial,” said UFF-LSSC chapter president and political science professor Jeremy Norton. In addition to having the terminal degree in his field, “he brought a legacy of research, he set up a student review board, he was a sponsor of our student clubs.”
“If they can dismiss someone with Dr. Walton’s credentials without a reason, then nobody is comfortable about their jobs going forward,” said former chapter president and biology professor Debra Hicks, in an interview with the Orlando Weekly.
Walton’s job loss also illustrates a threat to academic freedom. Tenure is designed to protect academic freedom, so that professors can teach difficult ideas free from the fear that administrators or financial supporters will fire them when they disagree with class content—or with their union views. In this case, such protection failed.
Across Florida, academics have been targeted by conservative politicians eager to control ideology on campus. In June, the state passed a law requiring faculty to report their intellectual viewpoints and allowing students to record professors in class without their knowledge. UFF recently filed a lawsuit against the measure, calling it “a draconian measure that will have a long-lasting chill on college and university campuses across the state.”
“Political litmus tests have no place in Florida’s education system, and if left unchecked, this law threatens to turn our state into a place where freedom of speech is a myth, rather than a reality,” says UFF President Andrew Gothard.
Some administrators also want control over hiring and firing: Florida Atlantic University Board of Trustees member Barbara Feingold is supporting a proposal that would give trustees final say in awarding tenure to faculty. Trustees do not typically have academic backgrounds and are often political appointees with priorities that may differ from advancing academic freedom, excellence and rigor.
Is it union busting?
With conditions like these, it’s no wonder faculty union membership is rising in Florida. UFF has added four new college chapters in the last three years, and it has affiliates at 15 colleges and one independent university.
But it’s been a difficult battle. When LSSC faculty voted to unionize in 2018, the administration fought their efforts. When the pandemic hit in 2020, the administration refused to bargain over Zoom and all contract negotiations stopped. In June of 2021, when Walton’s contract was terminated, he was one of two union members who lost their jobs. The other was Luis Ortiz, a professor of organizational management, who was not given reasonable notice and whose annual contract status did not require justification for termination.
Overall, these events threaten the “integrity and future” of LSSC, says Norton, referring not only to the faculty dismissals but the class cancellations and funding cuts. “Social science courses and programs of study are in jeopardy. As dedicated faculty we believe students in Lake and Sumter counties deserve access to a wide range of courses and activities as part of the whole college experience.”