DeSantis moves to turn New College of Florida into a conservative school


Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Friday moved to turn the state’s progressive public liberal arts honors college into a bastion of far-right conservatism like Hillsdale College in Michigan, a small but influential Christian school whose leader is aligned with former president Donald Trump.

Three days after declaring that Florida is “No. 1 in public higher education,” DeSantis appointed six new members to the board of the New College of Florida in Sarasota — which is ranked fifth in “top public schools” by U.S. News & World Report and which prides itself on educating “free thinkers.” Its website says that the school community “celebrates diversity, encourages individual expression, and values openness, kindness and mutual respect” and that the private college that was its predecessor was “founded on principles of equality and inclusion.”

That doesn’t seem to be what DeSantis has in mind. DeSantis’s administration recently asked all public colleges and universities to provide it with data about resources they use related to diversity, equity, inclusion and critical race theory. Christopher Rufo, one of the six appointments, tweeted on Jan. 4: “Gov. DeSantis is going to lay siege to university “diversity, equity and inclusion” programs.”

Rufo is a Republican activist who in 2020 caught Trump’s eye with an appearance on Fox News in which Rufo declared that critical race theory had “pervaded every institution in the federal government.” He urged the president “to stamp out this destructive, divisive, pseudoscientific ideology.”

Republicans, spurred by an unlikely figure, see political promise in targeting critical race theory

Critical race theory is a decades-old academic discipline that investigates systemic racism in the United States, which Rufo and others insist doesn’t exist; they say racism is the act of individuals alone. Critical race theory isn’t taught in K-12 schools or regular classrooms, though the fact that there is institutional racism in this country sometimes is. Rufo’s appearance on Fox News came not long after Minneapolis police killed a Black man named George Floyd, which was followed by a racial justice movement in the country that was decried by conservatives.

Within days of Rufo’s appearance on Fox News (on which he has appeared many times), Trump had signed an executive order canceling all federal diversity training programs — though President Biden has since rescinded it. States followed Trump’s move, passing legislation restricting what teachers could say about race and racism. DeSantis signed into law legislation that also barred businesses from providing diversity training to employees, but a Florida judge last year blocked parts of the law.

Another of the six appointees is Matthew Spalding, a government professor and dean at Hillsdale College, which provides education — and has created K-12 curriculums — that is centered on Western civilization and designed to help “students acquire a mature love for America.” Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has called Hillsdale “a shining city on a hill,” and his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, was hired by the college to help establish a full-time presence in the nation’s capital.

Florida Gov. DeSantis’s latest oxymoronic school spiel

James Uthmeier, DeSantis’s chief of staff, told the far-right Daily Caller website (which was founded by Fox News host Tucker Carlson and pundit Neil Patel): “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.”

Hillsdale’s president is Larry Arnn, who was in the news recently when he said that teachers “are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country” and that “anyone” can teach. He headed Trump’s 1776 Commission — aimed at countering the New York Times’s 1619 Project and its aligned K-12 curriculum. The 1619 Project was a collection of essays and articles that put slavery and its consequences at the center of America’s historical narrative.

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The Hillsdale K-12 civics and U.S. history curriculum extols conservative values, attacks progressive ones and distorts civil rights history, saying, for example: “The civil rights movement was almost immediately turned into programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the Founders.” Hillsdale College itself offers a “classical liberal arts core” to its students; the website lists more than 30 authors and thinkers that students will encounter — nearly all of them White men. The college has helped launch dozens of “classical” charter schools across the country (Hillsdale doesn’t own or operate the schools but trains faculty and staff and shares curriculum).

DeSantis also appointed to the board:

Charles R. Kesler, government professor at Claremont McKenna College and editor of the Claremont Review of Books, a publication of a conservative think tank in California called the Claremont Institute; Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University who is aligned with Trump; Eddie Speir, superintendent of a private Christian school in Florida called Inspiration Academy; and Debra Jenks, a graduate of New College who works as a mediation lawyer in Florida.

DeSantis signaled that he would take action in the higher education arena on Tuesday when he gave his second inaugural speech and said:

We must ensure school systems are responsive to parents and to students, not partisan interest groups, and we must ensure that our institutions of higher learning are focused on academic excellence and the pursuit of truth, not the imposition of trendy ideology.

My Washington Post colleagues Laura Meckler and Josh Dawsey wrote about Rufo in 2021, saying in part:

Rufo has played a key role in the national debate, defining diversity trainings and other programs as critical race theory, putting out examples that legislators and others then cite — though not all of Rufo’s details hold up to scrutiny.

He continues to appear regularly on Fox News to discuss the issue and often offers strategic advice over how to win the political fight. In March, he wrote on Twitter that his goal was to conflate any number of topics into a new bucket called critical race theory.

“We have successfully frozen their brand—’critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category,” Rufo wrote. “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

Rufo said in an interview that he understands why his opponents often point to this tweet, but said that the approach described is “so obvious.”

“If you want to see public policy outcomes you have to run a public persuasion campaign,” he said. Rufo says his own role has been to translate research into programs about race into the political arena.

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