Florida’s Assault on One Small Progressive Public College
Gov. DeSantis wants to remake the New College of Florida along the lines of Hillsdale College, a private, conservative bastion of white supremacy waging war on public education.
Here’s how to break a great state college without asking permission.
First, appoint six new college trustees who are on your side in the culture wars. Make one of them Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist who labeled public education “corrupted by woke nihilism” and described critical race theory as “an existential threat to the United States.” Rufo told the New York Times that if this attack is successful, it will “spur conservative state legislators to reconquer public institutions all over the United States.”
Have your Education Commissioner, named Manny Diaz, Jr., announce: “It is our hope that New College of Florida will become Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the South.” (“Classical college” is conservative doublespeak for “whites only.”)
Of course, this is not okay. It is being done totally in bad faith. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is imposing his will on students and faculty who have chosen to be a part of a college that embraces inclusion, diversity, and progressive values. To each his or her own. Nobody has a right to force wholesale changes in campus culture. The folks at New College are outraged and are preparing counter-measures.
DeSantis could care less about those folks. This is all about performance art, playing to the hard right grievance base, and deflecting everyone else’s attention from the governor’s hardcore opposition to popular government programs like social security, articulated during his “Freedom Caucus” years in Congress (2013-18). Florida is one of only 11 states that refuses to adopt Medicaid expansion.
The attack on New College is like Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on a smaller scale.
The Florida governor is using Hillsdale College as the prototype to impose conservative culture on New College. Why Hillsdale? Some background is in order.
Hillsdale College is a private conservative Christian college based in Michigan. It is openly scornful of the “dehumanizing, discriminatory trend of so-called ‘social justice’ and ‘muti-cultural diversity.'” That’s a similar dog whistle to what DeSantis rants in his “anti-woke” agenda.
Hillsdale has begun structuring its curriculum to resemble the conservative talking points laid forth in the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission, conveniently chaired by Hillsdale president Larry P. Arnn. The commission document basically instructs educators to minimize teachings about people of color because it “teaches students to discriminate.” That twisted logic is manifested in its deep hostility to the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory.
It should be noted that not a single historian served on the 1776 Commission. The document contained no citations or bibliography. In a statement supported by 47 other organizations, the American Historical Association commented, “[Its] authors…elevate ignorance about the past to a civic virtue.”
War on Public Education
Hillsdale’s disdain for public education is coded in its support for “school choice,” encouraging parents to send their kids to charter schools, private, religious, or to homeschool them. Never mind that this approach starves underfunded public schools, which still welcome 90% of American students.
Putting its money where its mouth is, Hillsdale has opened more than 20 charter schools since 2010. All of them follow the edicts of the 1776 Commission. The curriculum is available online for free and Hillsdale president Arnn claims that it has reached 3.5 million students.
New College of Florida
When New College was founded in the early sixties, one could get a sense of its operational values when the school’s first chairman, Phillip H. Hiss (third cousin to the infamous Alger), declared that New College would embrace “complete freedom of inquiry” and “no canned patriotism.”
New College has more than lived up to the chairman’s expectations: first college in Florida to have an open admissions policy…first to establish a program in environmental studies…first to be somewhat of a haven for LGBTQ students. A former student estimates that 10% of the student body is trans.
The school’s academic life is student-driven. Students are encouraged to plot their own courses of study and design their own majors. That surely doesn’t jibe with DeSantis’s and Rufo’s repeated claims that New College students are “being indoctrinated.” Senior environmental studies major London Weier: “I find that really interesting because almost all of our programs are student-initiated.”
Student Derek Black, whose father was a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, finds it laughable that DeSantis and his confederates want to mold New College into a “classical college.” Black:
New College could rebrand itself as a classics college tomorrow. They have so many classics classes already. You can take Latin, you can take Aristotle and Socrates, you can spend so much of your time studying premodern Europe, learning about the Middle Ages…and the formation of Christianity.
[I’ve] never been anywhere that was more focused on being academically rigorous.
A group of New College students is putting together a plan to defend the school from the governor’s hostile takeover. “We will not go down without a fight,” declared London Meier for the group.
“Hillsdale wants the government to keep its hand off its campus,” said Michelle Roberts, parent of a New College student. “My daughter and her bright, intellectually curious peers only ask that DeSantis keep his hands off theirs.” Stay tuned.