All Commentary
Tuesday, June 6, 2023

DeSantis Reminds Public Universities of Uncomfortable Truth About ‘He Who Pays the Piper’

Public universities are complaining about Ron DeSantis's latest move. But do they have any right to object?

Image credit: Gage Skidmore from Surprise

“He who pays the piper calls the tune” is a familiar proverb. Wiktionary tells us it means that “The person paying for something is the one who gets to say how it should be done.”

It’s difficult if not impossible to argue against its wisdom. What’s the alternative? I suppose it would be something like, “You cough up the money, and I get to decide how it’s spent whether you like it or not.” That strikes me as eminently unreasonable, unfair, domineering, arrogant, and dictatorial, but it’s precisely the position that some academics with a sense of entitlement are assuming in Florida.

The Washington Post reports that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis just signed into law a bill that stops the state’s public colleges and universities from spending money on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. The report quotes the governor as declaring that “DEI is better viewed as standing for discrimination, exclusion and indoctrination.”

DeSantis is exactly right. DEI is a virtue-signaling fad that justifies speech police on campuses and in businesses. At its worst, it empowers academics and administrators to impose their twisted agendas on other people while wrapping themselves in moral superiority. That’s my personal opinion with which you, the reader, may disagree but it’s also not the point of this essay. The bigger issue, in the context of the Florida law, is who gets to decide whether DEI should be policy at public universities.

An Orlando Sentinel story on the bill cites an academic on the question: “The government has no role in banning or censoring subject matter in higher education.” Another remarked to The Washington Post, “It’s basically state-mandated censorship, which has no place in a democracy.” (I have my problems with the God of “democracy,” but isn’t democracy where majorities get to decide the rules, and didn’t DeSantis just win in a popular landslide?).

Bear in mind that the new Florida law applies to public colleges and universities, that is, institutions of higher education that the state of Florida created and subsidizes. It doesn’t apply to private institutions. It might also be worth noting that most public colleges and universities these days don’t include viewpoints when they promote “diversity.” They are, all too often, one-view-fits-all monopolies when it comes to intellectual perspectives.

So, what the two academics are saying, in essence, is this: Once we get taxpayer money (essentially at gunpoint, since you go to jail if you don’t pay your taxes), we get to do what we want with it. Neither those who pay the bill nor their elected representatives who forked over the money get to tell us how we spend it. In other words, even highway robbery is OK if we’re the beneficiaries of it; nobody else gets a say.

And of course, those academics would probably be delighted if even more loot fell from the sky into their entitled laps.

I don’t care how many PhDs follow your name. If you’re so self-focused and sanctimonious to declare an inviolable right to other people’s money, you need to go back to school and learn about the piper.

Do I like the notion of politicians telling teachers what they can and cannot teach? No, I don’t. Nor do I like the notion of teachers demanding my money and behaving indignantly when I, through elected representatives, decide I don’t care for what they’re selling.

There’s an inherent problem in this matter that begs for only one solution. The problem is that when governments subsidize anything with taxpayer money, unresolvable disagreements will inevitably arise. Not so in free markets: If I don’t like one restaurant, I don’t have to pay for it, end of story. The solution, then, is freedom—freedom to choose what you want, to pay for what you want, and not to pay for what you don’t want.

In a free society, you don’t get to take money from somebody at gunpoint and complain when the victim says, “No thanks.” DeSantis should instruct Florida colleges and universities as follows: If you want complete autonomy to do whatever you want, then fine. We’ll stop subsidizing you. You will then be free to raise your revenues in other ways—essentially from willing customers, investors, donors, or whomever. Or do what just about everybody else must do when revenues decline—cut your costs.

Researchers have shown that at Georgia Tech here in my state, there are “3.2 times as many DEI staff people as history professors.” Sorry, Georgia Tech, that’s not what I thought I was paying for. If my legislators and governor decide to spend my money in other ways more pleasing to me, you’ll just have to eat it.

It’s ironic that some of the very same academics who want to foist unwanted policies on unwilling citizens are also the first to decry as “fascist” anyone with a different opinion. But forcing people to pay for your personal agenda is at the very core of what fascism is all about.

To those who demand money from others but freak out when accountability is introduced to the “exchange,” I say, quit your whining and grow up. At the very least, if you feel strongly about the matter, then go work for a private school or start your own.

He who pays the piper has every right to call the tune.

This article first appeared on The Epoch Times

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is