The Right's Chaos Politics Meet Institutional Inertia in the Fight for Florida's New CollegeRoundup
tags: Florida, critical race theory, Ron DeSantis, Christopher Rufo, New College of Florida
Brian Rosenberg is president emeritus of Macalester College and a visiting professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Ron DeSantis is the gubernatorial equivalent of the bully at the bus stop who identifies the frailest and most isolated child and kicks over his backpack. Having been (partly) thwarted by the courts and the faculty in his attempt to intimidate and reshape the mammoth University of Florida, he has opted instead to steal the lunch money from New College, by far the smallest four-year institution in the state’s public system of higher education.
New College is one of a handful of public liberal-arts colleges in the United States, and appears in many ways to be admirable but unremarkable. A glance at its list of available majors reveals no surprises. Yes, it has a major in gender studies, a favorite target of conservatives, but it also has majors in such trendy areas as classics and religion. Its student services are pretty much what one would expect at a college in 2023, meaning that it has the temerity to offer support services to students of color and students of varying gender identities.
Unlike many small colleges nationally, it appears to be doing reasonably well in its admissions efforts. It does offer narrative evaluations in place of grades, but this is neither unique nor deeply controversial in higher education. About the only reason to single out New College is that it has the misfortune to be a public institution in the state where, in the words of its governor, “woke goes to die.” It also happens to be the state where governmental overreach into all levels of education and — let’s be honest — white Christian nationalism and homophobia come to live.
DeSantis has appointed to the board of New College a group of six conservative ideologues. Some have almost nothing to do with Florida, some have almost nothing to do with higher education, but all are part of a plan to remake New College into what James Uthmeier, DeSantis’s chief of staff, calls the “Hillsdale of the South.” In fact, one of the new board members is a dean at Hillsdale.
While I am not a particular fan of the extent to which Hillsdale has inserted itself into conservative, and particular Trumpian, politics, it is explicitly a Christian college built around a set of clearly articulated principles. It is also a private college that accepts no funding from the government and is therefore free to ignore certain governmental requirements. New College is public, and the last I checked, public colleges and universities were not permitted to be built around an explicitly Christian ideology. There is little hidden about the DeSantis agenda, but the reference to Hillsdale and not to a “great books” college like St. John’s in Annapolis totally gives away the game: This is not about teaching the Western canon but about scoring political points and creating not a traditional college but a conservative Republican college.