DeSantis took over the education establishment and built his own brand
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is putting himself in the presidential race next year, has become an increasingly vocal culture warrior, championing liberal conservatism and its cause, whether at Disney, on Martha’s Vineyard or the state. K Public Library.
But his crusade has perhaps played out most dramatically in classrooms and on university campuses. He has banned instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, limited what schools and employers can teach about racism and other aspects of history, and outlawed math textbooks. given what the state calls “practice”. Most recently, he banned the College Board’s Advanced Placement courses in African American studies for high school students.
On Tuesday, Governor DeSantis took his most aggressive swing yet at the education establishment, announcing a proposed overhaul of the state’s higher education system that would eliminate “ideological conformity.” If enacted, it would mandate courses in Western civilization, eliminate diversity and equity programs, and reduce security of tenure.
His plans for the state’s education system are in lock step with other recent moves — banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, sending Venezuelan immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard and stripping Disney, once a politically outcast corporate entity. He was a giant. enjoyed for half a century.
His aggressive approach was rewarded by voters, who re-elected him in November by a margin of 19 percentage points.
Appearing Tuesday at the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota, one of the state’s 28 publicly funded state and community colleges, Mr. DeSantis took page on an agenda he called “hostile to academic freedom” in Florida’s higher education. vowed to turn on system. The programs “impose ideological conformity to try to incite political activism,” Mr. DeSantis said. “This is not what we believe is appropriate for the state of Florida.”
He had already moved to lead the transition to New College of Florida, a small liberal arts school in Sarasota that is struggling with enrollment but calls itself a place for “freethinkers.” It is considered the most progressive of Florida’s 12 public universities.
Mr. DeSantis pointed to low enrollment and test scores at New College as part of the justification for seeking change there.
“If it was a private school, making those choices, it’s like, well, I mean, what are you going to do,” he said. “But it is paid for by your tax dollars.”
More on America’s College Campuses
The college’s board of trustees, with six new conservative members appointed by Governor DeSantis, voted in a raucous meeting Tuesday afternoon to replace the president, and appointed former state education commissioner Richard Corcoran as interim president starting in March. agreed to do.
(Because Mr. Corcoran cannot serve until March, the board appointed an interim incumbent, Bradley Thiessen, the college’s director of institutional research.)
Mr. Corcoran will replace longtime English professor and college administrator Patricia Oker, who was appointed in 2021.
Expressing his love for both the college and its students, Dr. Okkar called the move a hostile takeover. “I do not believe that students are being included here at New College,” she said. “They are taught, they read Marx and they argue with Marx. They take world religions, they don’t become Buddhists in February and Christians in March.
Patricia Oker, who is being replaced as president of New College. Credit… New College of Florida
Governor DeSantis also announced Tuesday that he has asked the Legislature to immediately free up $15 million to recruit new faculty and provide scholarships for the new college.
In total, he requested $100 million per year from the Legislature for the state’s universities.
“We’re putting our money where our mouth is,” he said.
New College is small, with about 700 students, but the shake-up was echoed throughout Florida, as Mr. DeSantis’s proposed overhaul did.
Andrew Gotthard, president of the state’s faculty union, said the governor’s comments on the state’s higher education system were perhaps his most aggressive to date.
“The idea is that Ron DeSantis feels he and the Legislature have the right to tell Florida students what classes they can take and what degree programs they can pursue,” said Dr. Gotthard, who is on leave from his faculty job at the University of the Atlantic. “He says out of one side of his mouth that he believes in liberty and then he passes and proposes legislation and policies that are the exact opposite.”
At the board meeting, students, parents and professors defended the school and criticized the board members for acting unilaterally without their input.
Betsy Braden, who identified herself as the parent of a transgender student, said her daughter thrived in school.
“It seems that many students who come here are determined that they don’t necessarily fit in at other schools,” Ms. Braden said. “They embrace their differences and display incredible bravery along the way to forge ahead. They thrive, they flourish, they go out into the world for the good of society. It’s well documented. Why would you take it from us?
Mr. Corcoran, a DeSantis ally, had been mentioned as a possible president of Florida State University, but his candidacy was dropped after questions about whether he had a conflict of interest or the appropriate academic background.
A letter from Carlos Trujillo, president of the consulting firm Continental Strategies, in which Mr. Corcoran is a partner, said the firm expected his title at New College to be made permanent.
Republicans seeking the Oval Office have not made school reform a central agenda item since George W. Bush became “education president” in 2000. This may be because, for years, Democrats had a double-digit advantage in voting on education.
But since the pandemic began in 2020, when many Democratic-led states kept schools closed longer than Republican states, often under pressure from teachers’ unions, some polls have suggested that education is no longer a Republican favorite. plays better And Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 victory in the Virginia governor’s race, after a campaign focused on “parental rights” in public schools, was seen as a sign of the political power of education with voters.
Mr. DeSantis’ attack on diversity, equity and inclusion programs coincides with recent criticisms of such programs by conservative organizations and think tanks.
Examples of such initiatives include campus sessions on “subtle aggression” – usually subtle slights based on race or gender – as well as requiring that candidates for faculty jobs submit statements describing their commitment to diversity. .
“It’s basically like people taking a political oath,” DeSantis said Tuesday. He also attacked the programs for “draining resources and contributing to high costs”.
Proponents of DEI programs and diverse courses say they help students understand their own biases and beliefs along with those of the wider world, thereby improving their competence in personal relationships as well as in the workplace.
Mr. DeSantis embraced civics education, as well as establishing special civics programs at several of the state’s 12 public universities, with the development of similar programs across the country partly funded by some conservative donors.
Programs emphasize the study of Western civilization and economics, as well as the thinking of Western philosophers, often focusing on the Greeks and Romans. Critics of the programs say that they sometimes overlook the shortcomings of Western thought and ignore the philosophies of non-Western civilizations.
“The core curriculum needs to be based on real history, the real philosophy that shaped Western civilization,” Mr. DeSantis said. “We don’t want students to go on, at taxpayer expense, and graduate with a degree in zombie studies.”
The shake-up of the new college, which also included the election of a new board president, could continue and be dramatic given the six new board members appointed by Mr. DeSantis.
They include Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who is known for his vigorous attacks on “critical race theory,” an academic concept that historical patterns of racism are embedded in law and other modern institutions.
At the time of his appointment, Mr. Rufo, who lives and works in Washington state, tweeted that he was “reclaiming” higher education.
Another new board member is Eddie Spear, who runs a Christian private school in Florida. He recommended in a Substack posting prior to the meeting that all faculty and staff contracts at the school be canceled.
Other new appointments include Matthew Spalding, dean of the Washington, DC, campus of Hillsdale College, a private college in Michigan known for its conservative and Christian leanings. An aide to the governor has said that Hillsdale, which he says offers a classical education, is widely regarded as the model for the governor to rebuild New College.
In addition to the six new governor appointments, the university system’s Board of Governors recently named a seventh member, Ryan T. Anderson, head of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank that focuses on contemporary Judeo-Christian traditions. applies to. Questions of law, culture and politics. His selection was seen as giving DeSantis the majority vote on the 13-member board.
Jennifer Reed contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.