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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.
Hillsdale keeps, or at least releases, no data on the race and ethnicity of its students, but according to a recent article by an alumnus, the college’s graduates are “nearly all white.” He writes that “since the 1980s Hillsdale’s black students, at any given time, have been able to count their total number on two hands, or some years even one.” I suspect that the number of Jews, Muslims, and members of other religious groups is similarly minuscule. The Hillsdale of the South, indeed: This is not a battle about whether or not to read Plato.
The last I checked, public colleges were not permitted to be built around an explicitly Christian ideology.
The most vocal of the new board appointees has been Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who has been credited with inventing the conflict over “critical race theory” and using the term as a political cudgel. Rufo has no real background in higher education, lives in Washington State, and managed to parlay an appearance on The Tucker Carlson Show into a career attacking everything from the theory of evolution to discussions of gender identity in public schools. He stood by the side of DeSantis when the governor went after Disney for opposing the bill popularly known as “Don’t Say Gay.” Now he has been handed an actual college with actual employees and students to use as his personal sandbox.
Rufo appears to know little and care less about the role typically played at a college by the board, the administration, and the faculty. As reported by Michelle Goldberg in The New York Times, his plan is to storm New College with a “’landing team’ of board members, lawyers, consultants, and political allies.” “We’re going to be conducting a top-down restructuring,” he asserts, “design a new core curriculum from scratch,” and “encode it in a new academic master plan.” (“Master plan” is a nice touch.)
The college’s academic departments, many of whose faculty members are both tenured and in a union, “are going to look very different in the next 120 days,” says Rufo. As for those inconvenient students who happened to select the current, non-MAGA version of New College? “We’d be happy to work with them to help them find something that suits them better,” as if transferring from one college to another is like trying on another pair of pants in a department store.
The irony of someone who accuses American higher education of being “corrupted by woke nihilism” acting without any particular concern for the human beings damaged by his actions would be laughable were it not so serious. Nothing I’ve seen in four decades of working in higher education is nearly as nihilistic as Rufo’s enthusiastic embrace of destructive chaos.
The fate of a small college in Florida matters because it reflects the priorities and approach of a politician considered by many to be the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president of the United States. While it is tempting to take the comforting position that “it could never happen here,” remember that many took that position in 2015, when Donald Trump glided smoothly down the escalator in Trump Tower.
My hope is that Rufo’s ignorance and arrogance work to the advantage of New College.
My hope is that Rufo’s ignorance and arrogance work to the advantage of New College and that the governance processes of the college, the resistance of the students, and the intervention of the courts at least slow down and at best stop the transformation of a public liberal-arts institution into a bastion of white Christian nationalism. I would also hope that any responsible accrediting agency would think twice about granting accreditation to an institution whose governance processes are so corrupted.
For better (sometimes) and for worse (sometimes), higher education has excelled at stopping disruptive change. Often I find this frustrating, but in this instance I am rooting with all my might for the forces of inertia to prevail: The current system, with all its flaws, is preferable to one in which equity is an expletive and academic freedom means the freedom to think that the most underrepresented and vulnerable students don’t matter.