Florida is the Testing Ground for Extreme Conservatism

Governor Ron DeSantis’ plot to reshape education in Florida is a blueprint for other states to follow—or avoid.

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After focusing much of its anti-education efforts on public K-12 schools, the Right is now coming after higher education, targeting public colleges and universities in an attempt to transform them into bastions of conservative thought. At the epicenter of this campaign is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has made headlines in recent weeks for his efforts to ban AP African American Studies, end school diversity programs, and overhaul public higher education in the state, starting with New College of Florida. A progressive liberal arts college, New College is home to a small but diverse student body, many of whom have found refuge in the often welcoming and accepting environment of the institution. DeSantis, however, plans to take the college in an entirely different direction, using the conservative Christian school Hillsdale College as a model.

This is part of a much larger conservative effort to root out liberalism and diversity from higher education, which they view as “woke indoctrination.” As a result of this growing animosity toward institutions of higher learning, GOP politicians and political strategists are endeavoring to completely disrupt the current public education system in the U.S, which could have devastating consequences for both students and professors that could ultimately extend far beyond Florida.

To start, DeSantis has appointed six new members to the New College Board of Trustees, including conservative activist and Manhattan Institute fellow Christopher Rufo, the architect of the national anti-critical race theory crusade and anti-LGBTQ “grooming” narrative. In a tweet in early January, Rufo laid out the new board members’ agenda, writing, “Under the leadership of Gov. DeSantis, our all-star board will demonstrate that the public universities, which have been corrupted by woke nihilism, can be recaptured, restructured, and reformed.” Another trustee, Jason “Eddie” Speir, who co-founded the Christian private school Inspiration Academy, recently announced his intention to fire all faculty, staff, and administrative officials at New College and replace them with people “who fit in the new financial and business model.”

Just days later, the new board of trustees ousted New College President Patricia Okker and hired DeSantis ally and former State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to take her place. While trustee Matthew Spalding, the vice president at Hillsdale College’s D.C. campus, has insisted that this revamping is “not a takeover” but a “renewal,” DeSantis has made it clear that he has appointed the new trustees with the express purpose of thrusting a certain political agenda on professors and students. According to Jeremy C. Young, the senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, what is happening at New College is “very troubling” and not at all in the purview of what governors are supposed to do when it comes to public colleges and universities.

“Governors have the right in many states to appoint board members to higher education institutions that are public, but they are expected to do so in a way that serves the interests and identity and mission of the school,” Young said. “Their goal should not be to try to engender some sort of hostile takeover of the institution via the board.” Instead, Young says that board members are supposed to be chosen based on their expertise or support for the school, not on “the basis of partisanship or of their stated commitments to change the way universities are run.”

While Florida is not alone in its endeavors to erode or reshape public education, it is currently a major player with notable reach. Florida’s policies and politics have already greatly influenced bills in other state legislatures around the country, as has been demonstrated with the state’s Stop WOKE Act and “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.

Now, however, the governor has pledged to strip higher education institutions of “trendy ideologies,” which is just another buzzword to describe race, gender, and LGBTQ+ studies, or any other critical lense with which to view and examine the world that attempts to subvert the white cisheteropatriarchy in any way. He also revealed his plans to ban the teaching of CRT at the college level and remove any educational programs or campus activities relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) by cutting funding for these types of courses and activities.

According to DeSantis, the proposed policies would attempt to prevent “indoctrination” and promote “Western tradition” by essentially censoring students and professors and prohibiting them from teaching and discussing so-called divisive concepts. “A lot of what we’ve seen with the right is not even so much what they want to teach, but what they don’t want to teach,” Kyle Spencer, the author of Raising Them Right: The Untold Story of America’s Ultra-conservative Youth Movement and Its Plot for Power, told DAME. “And so what has been demonstrated by the DeSantis administration is a desire to ban books and to ban ideas and to ban history from the classroom.”

Spencer surmises that any new courses would likely focus on Western religions, particularly Christianity, or endeavor to rewrite American history in a more favorable light. For the most part, however, these policies aim to prevent the type of intellectual curiosity universities are intended to stimulate. While Rufo has noted that he and his fellow trustees intend to implement a new core curriculum at New College, so far the onus has been on stamping out any semblance of inclusion and embracing “colorblindness,” focusing on the Western canon to the exclusion of all other reading materials and schools of thought, and removing courses that include the study of any form of activism. If successful, DeSantis’ plans could do a lot of damage to New College as an institution and its current and future students, but it could also set a dangerous precedent for government overreach in education and embolden a much larger assault on academic freedom as a whole.

For one thing, these types of restrictive and intentionally vague policies not only help to create a culture of fear, but they also infringe on students’ and professors’ First Amendment rights. “You can’t have a climate of free speech on campus when everyone is afraid of who the governor might appoint to the board and what the board might do to the professors or the students who are on that campus, and it’s completely antithetical to the success of higher education,” Young noted. The purpose of higher education is not to persuade or indoctrinate students into a certain school of political or ideological thought. Rather, it is a means to create an informed public and multifaceted citizenry. Broadly limiting the free exchange of ideas and restricting the language that students and professors can use on campus and in the classroom undermines this chief aim. It also does a great disservice to students, who are there to learn, not to be suppressed.

Despite this rather egregious example coming out of Florida, however, it is important to note that this is most certainly not happening in a vacuum. Republicans have long been at odds with higher education, with many choosing instead to embrace anti-intellectualism and unfounded skepticism, which have helped fuel an inordinate amount of distrust in government institutions, like public universities, despite the fact that they’re supposed to remain separate from the politics of governance. For instance, the campus free speech debate has been a crux of the GOP’s anti-education crusade for decades now, with conservatives blasting universities for “political correctness” or “wokeism,” decrying the student pushback against discrimination and intolerance under the guise of a newfound concern for censorship. Meanwhile, conservative billionaires like the Koch brothers have spent years working behind the scenes to funnel money into university programs that promote conservative causes and “traditional values.”

Now, however, this anti-education sentiment has become more popular and mainstream among those on the right, and while Florida is certainly helping to lay out the blueprint for a conservative overhaul of public higher education, other states are already down a similar path. In fact, colleges in Texas, Kansas, Georgia, and Louisiana have also been plagued by a culture of fear, causing professors to censor themselves or risk losing their tenure or even their jobs. The Texas state legislature also introduced a bill that would prohibit DEI initiatives in publicly funded colleges and universities under the guise of “viewpoint diversity.” Meanwhile, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania have all proposed bills this year that seek to restrict professors’ discussions of race, racism, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, and more broad concepts like equality.

As a result, Young says the right’s attack on higher education is “best understood as a national phenomenon, in which Florida is playing a leading role, but not the only leading role. This is really is a national movement.” While some have speculated that this is all a political tactic to win elections, Rufo has made it clear that his plans and efforts to dismantle public education on a national level are about much more than simply winning votes. To him, it’s about the very essence of American society and the modern ideals and principles most Americans have come to uphold. In a 2022 speech at Hillsdale College titled “Laying Siege to the Institutions,” Rufo bemoaned the activism and “radical ideologies” of the 1960s based on “identity politics and cultural revolution” and the policies that have been instituted as a direct result of that activism, calling it a “revolution not of the proletariat, but of the elites, and specifically of the knowledge elites.”

According to Rufo, this supposed revolution successfully gained control over American culture and education, invading universities and K-12 schools, among other institutions. “These are public universities that should reflect and transmit the values of the public,” Rufo continued. “And the representatives of the public, i.e., state legislators, have the ultimate power to shape or reshape those institutions. So we have to get out of this idea that somehow a public university system is a totally independent entity that practices academic freedom.”

While some Republican politicians, like DeSantis, may currently find it politically expedient to jump on the anti-education bandwagon, the ramifications of this could far outlast their time in office and pose a real threat to free speech and higher education across the country. While Spencer doesn’t think conservatives are going to be able to recapture colleges and universities “without a tremendous amount of backlash,” Young says that even the attempt can create a much broader chilling effect.

“The goal here is very clearly to make it so professors do not introduce supposedly controversial topics related to race or gender or identity in their classes,” Young said, “and to do so by essentially making them so afraid that if they talk about these issues, that they will be punished, that they simply don’t talk about them at all.” For Rufo, this is the entire point of his efforts to intervene in public higher education: to turn college campuses into environments complete devoid of free thought, where conservatives are not forced to wrestle with ideas and opinions that may vary from their own. And if he has his way, New College will only be the start.

That’s why Spencer says its important to give a name to these authoritarian policies. “I think the more that professors can frame what DeSantis and these other leaders are doing as censorship and as a violation of one’s freedom is a good way to own the argument and to define it,” she said.

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