The Far Right is Coming for Colleges

Historians in the News
tags: far right, higher education, academic freedom, colleges and universities

Last fall, when professors at Flagler College, a private liberal arts school in St. Augustine, Florida, gathered for a faculty senate meeting, they learned that the college administration had worked with their local legislator to propose a new academic center on campus, the Flagler College Institute for Classical Education. To administrators, it was an exciting prospect: the chance to receive $5 million from the state to shore up their "first year seminar," a universal core curriculum for incoming freshmen intended to help students, particularly first-generation students, prepare for the rigors of college. 

But some faculty members felt concerned, reading between the lines in a state that has become ground zero for the nation's education debates — where Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Trump-style Republican with his eyes on the White House, has imposed gag orders and mandates on K-12 schools and described universities as "hotbeds of stale ideology" and "indoctrination factories." 

Flagler's institute would, the proposal said, promote "free inquiry" and "critical thinking," which struck some faculty members as a confusing restatement of what was already their primary job. Then there was the promise to promote "a balanced world-view," "the value and responsibilities of citizenship," or what the college's president characterized as classical education without an "ideological slant," which sounded like potentially coded language for the sorts of measures DeSantis and his allies had been promoting. 

It didn't help that one Flagler trustee perceived as being a key driver of the proposal, John Rood, a former ambassador under George W. Bush, also chairs the governing board of the Jacksonville Classical Academy — part of the nationwide charter school network created by Hillsdale College, a private Christian college in Michigan that has become a major player in America's culture wars. To some faculty, the proposed institute felt like an attempt to "make Flagler College the Hillsdale of the South." 

Flagler's vice president of academic affairs, Arthur Vanden Houten, said in an interview that while Rood had "enthusiastically responded" to plans for the institute, he wasn't its only supporter or inspiration. If the proposal is ultimately funded, Vanden Houten said — it was approved by the legislature in March but still awaits DeSantis' review — it will only help Flagler continue the work it already does. 

While the outcome at Flagler is still unclear on multiple levels, there were legitimate reasons for faculty to be alarmed, given the range of recent conservative assaults on public education, particularly but not exclusively in Florida. At a number of prominent colleges and universities around the country, big-money conservative interests are proposing and creating a roster of educational centers dedicated to conservative ideology or laissez-faire economics, often wrapped in the language of "classical education," "civics" or "freedom." The concept in itself isn't new; right-wing philanthropists have been creating academic programs in their own image for decades. But these days, the model has been adopted by Republican-led legislatures too, effectively using taxpayer dollars to implant conservative ideology in public institutions. 

"It's not that the faculty suspect the administration is scheming or duplicitous in any way," said Flagler history professor Michael Butler, director of the school's African American studies program. "The concern is that the culture wars of 2022 are moving into higher education, and we're not sure what that means for Flagler College. This proposal does not come in a vacuum." 

Read entire article at Salon