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Ron DeSantis, Chris Rufo, and the College Anti-Woke Makeover

The Florida governor’s plan to transform a liberal school turns it into a political kickball.
January 16, 2023
Ron DeSantis, Chris Rufo, and the College Anti-Woke Makeover
New College of Florida’s College Hall and Cook Hall (Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0])

The latest battle in Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s ongoing crusade against “wokeness”—or, if you prefer, the latest maneuver in his march toward the 2024 Republican presidential nomination—is getting a lot of attention. After earlier attempts to clamp down on progressive left ideologies in schools, colleges, and other institutions via legislation, DeSantis is moving to reshape a state college in a more conservative image by overhauling its leadership. On January 6, he announced the appointment of six people to vacant seats on the thirteen-member board of trustees of the New College of Florida, a small but highly rated and politically progressive liberal arts school in Sarasota, Florida.

The most prominent among the new trustees is also the youngest: Manhattan Institute fellow and anti-woke culture warrior Christopher Rufo, who told New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg that he plans to conduct a “a top-down restructuring” of the college—and that he sees it as the first step in a broader plan for conservatives to “reconquer public institutions all over the United States.” Most of the other DeSantis appointees are in the same ideological mold. Once approved by the GOP-dominated state senate, they will likely form a solid conservative majority on the board, with two allies who are already on it and with the filling of another vacancy by the heavily pro-DeSantis Florida Board of Governors.

DeSantis’s move has been met with alarm by progressive media and by many New College students who see the school as a haven for social justice-friendly values. But harsh rebukes have also come from some people who are themselves strongly critical of the progressive academy and its illiberal bent—such as New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait, who has been writing about “social justice” zealotry and its baneful effects on public discourse for the past eight years (and has taken his share of lumps for it). Indeed, in his column slamming DeSantis’s power grab, Chait wrote:

It is important to understand that there is a critique of the academic left rooted in free-speech norms that posits that many schools have had an atmosphere of ideological pressure that discourages or punishes professors who violate left-wing taboos. This is not the belief system animating DeSantis’s academic mission. He is not seeking to protect or restore free speech, but to impose controls of his own liking.

The DeSantis brand of “anti-wokeism” is classic right-wing illiberalism. (Chait rightly compares it to the conservative institutional takeover in Hungary under the stewardship of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who proudly embraces the “illiberal” label—and who was cited as a model by a DeSantis spokesperson at the National Conservatism Conference in Miami last September.) But that brand is also bad news for those of us who oppose left-wing illiberalism from a liberal, libertarian, or classical conservative perspective favoring the values of free expression, individual rights, and intellectual openness.

To start with: It’s not at all clear that New College of Florida is an egregious example of progressivism run amok. (As one example of its alleged leftist excess, a National Review writer cites the school having an institutional webpage dedicated to Black History Month—and, even worse, celebrating it by hosting events.) In a column on the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal website, Rufo calls New College “a notoriously left-wing campus, similar to that of Evergreen State in Olympia, Washington.” But Evergreen gained its notoriety in 2017 due to a viral video in which a professor who had questioned a racially exclusionary social justice initiative—Bret Weinstein, who later emerged as a core member of the “intellectual dark web”—was verbally abused and intimidated by a mob of protesters. In another viral video, the president and other administrators of Evergreen were apparently held in a meeting room pending their acceptance of students’ demands, with the president at one point forced to tolerate having an escort accompany him to the bathroom. By contrast, New College of Florida hasn’t been implicated in any “cancellation” scandals, or even in any particularly blatant “woke” silliness like the recent decision to purge the word “field” from USC’s social work program because of purported negative connotations of “field work” for those descended from enslaved or migrant laborers.

New College of Florida was founded in 1960 as a progressive private college—progressive not only in having enlightened policies on racial and sexual equality, but also for its innovative teaching methods. It was folded into the University of South Florida in 1975 and became an independent public liberal arts college in 2001. Today, it is an honors college that preserves a distinctive system in which written evaluations are used instead of grades, a complicated pass/fail system is used for college credit, majors are individualized, and independent study projects are an essential part of the curriculum. While Rufo’s City Journal article paints New College as a failing school, it actually seems to have a pretty good record of academic achievement: A 2020 guest column in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune by Republican State Senator Joe Gruters hailed it as a “top producer of students who earn prestigious fellowships,” including a large number of Fulbright Awards for research projects in everything from musicology to animal behavior to teaching English abroad.

Yes, New College has a fair amount of woke-coded aspects, like its prominent gender studies program and gender identity activism, and its website features now-standard “diversity, equity and inclusion” language. But its defenders say that the school, for all its unorthodox ways, extensively teaches the classics, Western history, and other material that woke academe is supposed to have swapped for Genderfluid Dance Therapy and The Evils of Whiteness 101. A look at the publicly posted list of courses and syllabi for the fall 2022 and spring 2023 semesters tends to support these claims.

The course list includes, for instance, an advanced Latin class focused on the satires of Horace and an intermediate Greek class focused on Homer’s Iliad, literature classes in ancient and medieval epics, and a class called “To the Revolution!” which, it turns out, is not an Antifa workshop but a course on Enlightenment-era French literature featuring Voltaire’s Candide and other classics. An art class on the history of museums includes modern-day controversies on “decolonialization” and diversity but also provides solid coverage of historical material. Even a history class on the First Crusade sounds like regular history, not an ideologically tendentious reframing. Of the nearly 300 independent study projects listed for this semester, only a handful are on identity-related subjects (such as “Queer female musicians and their impact”); the vast majority are in science, and a good number deal with fairly traditional topics from the humanities.

That doesn’t mean New College does not have a problem with progressive groupthink, whether in the curriculum or in the campus atmosphere. For instance, a Spring 2023 anthropology course on “Race and Ethnicity in Global Perspective” appears to build its section on North America entirely around Ibram X. Kendi’s 2017 book, Stamped from the Beginning: A History of Racist Ideas in America, which has been criticized as reductive and dogmatic by people who are neither conservative nor reflexively “anti-woke.” Moreover, at times New College officials have candidly acknowledged that left-wing intolerance on campus could be a problem, particularly on the school’s students-only electronic forum where dissenters—not only conservatives but moderates—could find themselves “called out” by name and shunned. In a 2019 interview with the Herald Tribune, then-New College outgoing president Donal O’Shea (who retired in October 2020 and was replaced by current president Patricia Okker) mentioned a campus study which found that “some students were leaving New College because the political atmosphere had become too hostile.” O’Shea thought that there was a need for more intellectual diversity and tolerance at the school and that the political “echo chamber” might be one of the reasons for its flagging enrollment. (New College is currently some 500 short of its 2018 goal of 1,200 students by the fall of 2023; on the other hand, the incoming class last fall was the largest since 2016, with a 30 percent increase over the fall of 2021, so reports of the school’s near-death from too much woke are greatly exaggerated.)

But what does the DeSantis model have to offer in place of the current one?

Rufo, who unironically tweeted about coming to the Sarasota campus with a “landing team,” formulated the “agenda for transforming the New College of Florida” as follows:

  • Shift the university to a classical liberal arts model
  • Restructure the administration and mission statement
  • Create a new core curriculum and academic master plan
  • Abolish “diversity, equity, and inclusion” and replace it with “equality, merit, and colorblindness”
  • Restructure the academic departments to reflect the new pedagogical approach
  • Hire new faculty with expertise in constitutionalism, free enterprise, civic virtue, family life, religious freedom, and American principles
  • Establish a graduate school for training teachers in classical education

Some of this may sound unobjectionable. Equality, merit, and race neutrality are fine principles, and further, they’re ones that need not contradict diversity or equity if all those concepts are properly understood. I think a classical liberal arts model is good—although discarding all literary or historical analysis that focuses on issues of gender, sexuality, and race/ethnicity amounts to throwing out the baby with the bathwater; the same goes for New College’s extensive independent study projects. But Rufo’s next-to-last bullet point above strongly suggests that the hiring process will select scholars with conservative views. (Additional proposals posted by Rufo since then include a plan to “rebrand New College in a neoclassical visual style”—which sounds like a pricey exercise in traditionalist fantasy, especially given that New College’s current look is very far from being an ultra-modernist eyesore.)

Meanwhile, DeSantis’s chief of staff, James Uthmeier, had told the Daily Caller that the administration hopes to remake New College into “Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the South.” Rufo, in turn, mentions a “new core curriculum and academic master plan following the Hillsdale model” in his additional proposals for the New College overhaul. The idea of Hillsdale, a private, nondenominational Christian college in Michigan, as a model for the new New College is further reinforced by the fact that one of the DeSantis-appointed trustees is Hillsdale dean Matthew Spalding.

Hillsdale does have a strong classical curriculum. But it is also quite explicitly a religious school whose website stresses “learning, character, faith, and freedom” as “the inseparable purposes of Hillsdale College”; obviously, this could not be replicated at a state college without running afoul of the First Amendment. No less relevant is the fact that Hillsdale is distinctly politically conservative—and, in recent years, solidly on the MAGA train.

During the Trump presidency, Hillsdale developed strong ties to the administration, to the dismay of people like Atlantic columnist Conor Friedersdorf who had earlier admired the college’s commitment to classical education and moral values. Hillsdale President Larry Arnn chaired Trump’s Advisory 1776 Commission, created in September 2020 to promote “patriotic education” and fend off radical assaults on American history such as the New York Times’s 1619 Project; its sole output was the “1776 Report,” which even most critics of the 1619 Project decried as simplistic, polemical and badly flawed. (Among other things, its roster of “challenges to America’s principles” listed twentieth-century American progressivism on a par with slavery, fascism, and communism.) Hillsdale’s politics, and its level of politicization, can also be gleaned from its list of recent campus speakers, whose talks are printed in the school’s Imprimis newsletter. Among them: include Roger Kimball on “The January 6 Insurrection Hoax,” the Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway on how Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg rigged the 2020 election, right-wing lawyer Harmeet Dhillon on the alleged persecution of law-abiding patriots by the Justice Department, a slew of COVID cranks, and—I could go on, but you get the picture. Oh, and DeSantis himself appears in the Hillsdale archive as the keynote speaker at the college’s National Leadership Seminar last September. So, too, does Christopher Rufo, who delivered a speech titled “Laying Siege to the Institutions.”

Now, Rufo is celebrating the New College Board of Trustees takeover as a success in this “siege,” seeing as he and his team are now “over the walls.”

Rufo is also fairly unabashed about the political nature of his intended remake of New College, telling Goldberg, “We want to provide an alternative for conservative families in the state of Florida to say there is a public university that reflects your values” (italics in the original). On Twitter, Rufo was plainspoken about the fact that he agrees with progressives on one thing: institutional neutrality is a myth.

Rufo’s blatant political hackery—which compromises the value of his sometimes-worthwhile investigative work on progressive excesses in schools, the public sector, and the corporate world—is something I have noted before. On this occasion, he was spotted on Twitter tangling with New York magazine’s Chait, whose column on the DeSantis appointment to the New College board mentioned in passing that Rufo had attacked DeSantis critics as “groomers.”

The gist of Rufo’s complaint was that he had used the verb “grooming,” not the noun “groomer,” when attacking DeSantis critics (specifically, Disney and teachers’ unions). No, seriously:

Chait had the text of his column tweaked accordingly. He also posted evidence that Rufo had not only accused DeSantis opponents and other progressives of “grooming”—via teaching kids about transgender and gay identities—but used the “g-word” as a noun when he bragged about getting “Disney groomer” to trend on social media. In fact, it’s worse than that: As Chait himself chronicled last summer, Rufo had insinuated, aiming to score a cheap point and marshaling junk statistics to support his case, that public schools are infested with actual child molesters.

In any case, except to his hardcore supporters, Rufo did not come out of this looking well.

A few words are in order about the other DeSantis appointees to the New College board. Charles Kesler, a professor of government at California’s Claremont McKenna College and editor of the Claremont Review of Books, is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, which styles itself as the intellectual center of the MAGA movement. (Kesler was also a member of Trump’s 1776 Commission.) Mark Bauerlein, an Emory University English professor emeritus, is a senior editor at First Things, the Catholic magazine with strong “national conservative” leanings. Among his recent oeuvre: a hagiographic essay on “The Historical Meaning of Donald Trump” for the conspiracy-peddling Epoch Times and a tweet bemoaning Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s appearance in the U.S. Congress with a Ukrainian flag (a gift from Ukrainian frontline soldiers) as an assault on America’s civic integrity:

The two Florida-based nominees, securities attorney Debra Jenks and educator Eddie Speir, are fairly low-profile people. Jenks, a top-rated lawyer in Palm Beach, is the only New College graduate in the bunch; she seems to have no record of political or ideological activism, and even her political donations appear more or less evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Speir, the cofounder of Inspiration Academy, a Christian school in Bradenton, Florida, is another story. For one thing, Inspiration Academy’s website indicates that its curriculum is based primarily on textbooks from Bob Jones University Press (which apply a “Biblical worldview” to history and are explicitly Creationist). The Sarasota Herald-Tribune also reports that Speir’s Twitter feed is full of COVID-19 conspiracy theory, including, most recently, the baseless claim that football player Damar Hamlin’s near-fatal cardiac arrest during a game was vaccine-related:

Perhaps, to really round it out, the still-existing vacancy on the board could be filled with Candace Owens, the MAGA flamethrower who suggested the other day that she would unhesitatingly kill Dr. Anthony Fauci if he “came at [her] kid with a vaccine.”

To give credit where it’s due: For all his Trumpiness, Bauerlein is a man who, by all appearances, genuinely cares about the humanities and the classical curriculum. This has brought him into apparent contradiction with Rufo. In an interview last week with the Herald-Tribune, Bauerlein said that drastic changes at the college are unlikely, that the existing students and tenured faculty would complicate any plans for a complete overhaul, and that a public university should have “a certain measure of pluralism” rather than a narrow political orientation. (Earlier this month, he also argued on Twitter that a classical education cannot be “right wing conservative” since it must include thinkers associated with the left, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche.) Bauerlein told the Herald-Tribune he is not even sure that New College can be entirely reinvented as a school of classical education, let alone a conservative one. He also wants to acquaint himself with the actual situation at the school before making conclusions about what changes are needed (what a concept!).

In the same interview, Bauerlein stressed that no one from DeSantis’s office told him how he was expected to vote and concluded that DeSantis and his team “want independent minds, they really do.”

Which is presumably why every single DeSantis pick for the board of trustees, with the possible exception of Jenks, is a Trump fan and a DeSantis ally.

If DeSantis’s objective had been simply to appoint board members who would counteract excessive “woke” influence at New College, he could have picked plenty of people who weren’t in that mold. For instance, Columbia University professor and author John McWhorter, a self-identified black liberal whose book Woke Racism is scathingly critical of Kendi-style “anti-racism” even as McWhorter has been no less scathing about Trump. Or, say, Christina Hoff Sommers, a former academic who is sufficiently “anti-woke” to have been classed among the earlier-mentioned “intellectual dark web” and to have been targeted for deplatforming at several progressive universities, but has said that she regards Trump as an example of “amoral masculinity” rather than positive masculinity. Or social psychologist and New York University professor Jonathan Haidt, who has strongly criticized academia’s move toward prioritizing “social justice” over truth and who recently resigned from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology over a new rule requiring presenters at the society’s annual conference to submit a statement on equity, inclusion, and anti-racism.

Then again, those critics of left-wing zealotry in academia might not have been on board with the DeSantis and Rufo bid for a right-wing power grab. In an email to me last week, Haidt had this to say about DeSantis’s latest sortie against the Woke Peril:

People who think the ends justify the means are dangerous, especially when they are leaders of institutions, or political leaders. If they violate longstanding norms to achieve their current goals, they set a precedent. They remove norms and bring us closer to a country of chaos where all that matters is power. This is what DeSantis is now doing with New College. I am horrified that a governor has simply decided, on his own, to radically change a college. Even if this is legal, it is unethical, and it is a very bad precedent and omen for our country.

Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which deals extensively with academic freedom issues in our universities, refrained from overt criticism of the new board but also sounded a cautionary note:

Trustees of public universities must work toward expanding and protecting academic freedom for all, consistent with their obligations under the First Amendment. Students, faculty, alumni, and the general public benefit when trustees foster a campus environment where academic freedom and free expression flourish, and FIRE will praise them when they do so. Conversely, FIRE is concerned whenever public universities depart from their obligations under the First Amendment. If that happens at New College of Florida, we encourage students and faculty to contact FIRE.

Obviously, it’s too early to tell what will happen at New College of Florida. If the board does choose the thoughtful and moderate approach Bauerlein advocates in his Herald-Sun interview, it could conceivably redound to the benefit of the school. But culture warriors like DeSantis (for whom, again, the anti-woke crusade is a key part of his expected presidential bid) and Rufo are unlikely to be interested in a thoughtful and moderate approach.

Are they interested in effectively rolling back the excesses of “social justice” zealotry? If they are, they’re going about it in the worst possible way: To associate such a pushback with a right-wing brand is to lose centrists and liberals who also dislike those excesses; in many cases, it will make those centrist critics more reluctant to criticize the illiberal left because they know that to do so is to play into the hands of the illiberal right. Stoking the culture wars, rallying the Trumpist base, and using the power of the state to defeat bad ideas is not the road back to sanity.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.