Commentary

Gov. DeSantis’ attack on New College isn’t about philosophy; it’s about votes

You have to wonder why the governor and his ilk are so terrified of ideas

January 13, 2023 7:00 am

College Hall at the New College of Florida in Sarasota. Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Ron DeSantis likes to say Florida is where “woke” goes to die. If by “woke” he means tolerance, science, inquiry, free expression, and knowledge, yes, Florida is where “woke” goes to die.

Florida is where public education goes to die; Ron DeSantis is poisoning it.

Not content with installing the quack Joseph Ladapo at the University of Florida medical school or attacking the accreditation system because the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools investigated academic freedom in the state, the governor has just appointed six new ultra-conservative trustees to the board of New College of Florida in Sarasota.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 7, the “Individual Freedom” act, into law on April 22, 2022, in Hialeah Gardens. Credit: governor’s office

They want to trash its tradition of intellectual freedom and transform it into an institution DeSantis’ base would love, a Bob Jones-style religious school funded with taxpayer money.

The governor’s office claims he chose these trustees for their “firsthand understanding of the Florida education system.”

That’s just silly. And insulting. While one of the appointees actually went to New College, the others have no expertise in public education. They are graduates of private institutions. They work at private institutions or right-wing think tanks.

New College is a public college. It is supposed to serve the students of the state of Florida, liberal or conservative, religious or secular.

The governor has a well-known antipathy to most universities and colleges, claiming that they have become captive to “trendy ideology” such as equality, anti-racism, diversity, feminism, and climate science.

So, as the governor’s chief of staff says, they mean to destroy New College as it has been known and celebrated, and turn it into “the Hillsdale of the South.”

Easy pickings

New College is easy pickings for educational extremists. It’s small, with a student body of about 700. The college has struggled to get its enrollment up (as have many institutions post-COVID) and has lost revenue. Nearly 100% of students draw financial aid.

At around 4,000, the college’s alumni base is a fraction of FSU’s or U.F.’s. But those alums include winners of the Fields Medal in Mathematics, the first Latino to serve in the Georgia Senate, the director of Peru’s National Library, several college presidents, a raft of celebrated poets, Emmy award-winners, civil libertarians, and distinguished environmental scientists.

DeSantis and his ideological demolition gang are no doubt offended by the way New College prioritizes creativity over conformity; you can craft your own major and progress is measured by “demonstrated competence and real mastery rather than on the accumulation of credits and grades.”

Not for long, alas, not if this batch of MAGA-bots get confirmed. There’s Mark Bauerlein, a Donald Trump-supporting professor at Emory; Debra Jenks, a West Palm Beach lawyer; Charles Kesler, a former member of Trump’s “1776 Commission;” Eddie Speir, founder of a Christian school in Bradenton; and Hillsdale College government teacher, Matthew Spalding.

Spalding is a prolific producer of articles for The Heritage Foundation and the National Review attacking such administrative-state atrocities as equal-pay legislation and attempts to mitigate climate change.

‘Patriotic education’

Kesler promotes what he calls “patriotic education,” the kind that instills pride in young white folks by lying to them. The thoroughly debunked “1776 Report,” which lacked expert historians or even basic fact-checking, insists George Washington freed his slaves (he didn’t) and Martin Luther King opposed affirmative action (not true).

Demonstrating an impressive commitment to nonsense, on Jan. 3 Eddie Speir tweeted that the COVID-19 vaccine might have caused Bills player Damar Hamlin’s heart attack. Speir couldn’t even get Hamlin’s name right, calling him “Devin.”

Hillsdale College campus. Credit: Notorious4life via Wikimedia Commons

But the pick of DeSantis’ litter is a Tucker Carlson favorite, conservative activist Christopher Rufo, whose party trick is whipping up fear and loathing over critical race theory.

Rufo’s a gaslighting master, accusing educators of brainwashing the youth of America with a Marxist-based curriculum calculated to make them hate the Founding Fathers.

He’s spectacularly short on evidence, but he’s managed to convince a lot of Republicans — even ones far less obsessed with lying to their voters than Florida’s governor — that elementary school children are being force-fed lessons on transgenderism while college students are made to immerse themselves in slave narratives and bullied by sinister professors into ditching Sigma Nu for the Socialist Workers Party.

Rufo told The New York Times he means to bring a “landing team” of right-wing fellow travelers to “design a new core curriculum” and “encode it in a new academic master plan.”

New College’s stated commitment to “a balance between recognizing and celebrating difference, respectfully supporting each other’s growth, and ensuring that historically marginalized and oppressed groups are not experiencing trauma and harm” will be junked.

Rufo likens the invasion of New College to Elon Musk’s hostile takeover of Twitter. We all know how that’s working out.

DeSantis’ wrecking crew

One of the nation’s top-ranked liberal arts colleges will become a place where you don’t talk about gender and race, you don’t confront the painful aspects of American history, and you sure as hell don’t say gay.

Rufo says the new New College will offer “an alternative for conservative families in the state of Florida to say there is a public university that reflects your values.”

In other words, none of that satanic critical race theory. DeSantis’ wrecking crew seem obsessed with critical race theory, not that any of them have exhibited the least knowledge of what it is. Eddie Speir, the Christian school huckster, assures us that “critical theory” has even infiltrated the church! It’s “pervasive and has crept into the Body of Christ in frameworks of feminism, Black theology, and other liberation theologies.”

Wouldn’t want the followers of Jesus to acknowledge the humanity of women and people of color, would we?

‘Indoctrination’

Unlike Speir, Rufo isn’t ignorant. He’s calculating, using the bugaboo phrase “critical race theory” to get himself on Fox.

He proclaims that it’s “an existential threat to the United States” — why should blameless white people be reminded that people of color still suffer from institutional disadvantages in education, the justice system, health care, and financial opportunities?

If DeSantis has his way, the new New College will no longer be allowed to pursue higher education’s mission to “engage in difficult conversations that consider a multiplicity of voices to build a more inclusive community.”

DeSantis says he’s against “indoctrination.” He seems to equate indoctrination with questioning authority, questioning national myths, questioning the world as it has been presented to decide what is true and what isn’t. Anyway, if progressive colleges indoctrinate students, surely conservative ones — like Hillsdale — do, too.

You have to wonder why DeSantis and his ilk are so terrified of ideas. He must have encountered “liberal” views at Yale and Harvard. He doesn’t seem to have been unduly swayed by them.

But who are we kidding? The assault on New College isn’t about educational philosophy. It’s about votes. It’s about the presidential election of 2024.

The governor of Florida will do anything to gin up his base, including trample on the rights of young people to receive the education they choose.

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Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts

Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books, most recently Dream State, an historical memoir of her Florida family, and Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She lives in Tallahassee, except for the times she runs off to Great Britain, desperate for a different government to satirize.

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