Opinion | ‘The Death Knell for Higher Education in Florida’

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One exception is Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who addressed the complexity of the debate in an email:

Higher ed and K-12 are different. States are on much firmer ground in seeking to establish or constrain what gets taught in K-12 education, where the concept of academic freedom simply doesn’t exist. Public school teachers aren’t independent free agents or independent professionals who can exercise free speech in public schools; they are generally regarded by the law as “hired speech” delivering a curriculum set by school boards, districts, or state authorities.

In contrast, students in colleges and universities, Pondiscio continued,

are adults and generally enrolled by choice, not compelled or coerced by the state to attend. So even if states are within their rights to exert their authority (and even if higher ed tends to be politicized or an intellectual monoculture), there’s a risk of overreaching. What is appropriate and defensible for K-12 education starts to feel less so at the college or university level.

DeSantis, in turn, has demonstrated the quintessential politicization of higher education in his takeover of New College, a small progressive public college on Sarasota Bay that has described itself as a “community of freethinkers, risk takers and trailblazers” while winning relatively high marks from ranking organizations like U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, Kiplinger’s and The Princeton Review.

In January, DeSantis replaced six of the 13 members on the college’s board of trustees with such conservative ideologues as Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute; Matthew Spalding, professor in constitutional government at Hillsdale College; Charles R. Kesler, a professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College and the editor of the Claremont Review of Books; Mark Bauerlein, a senior editor at First Things and a professor of English at Emory University; and Jason Speir, a founder of the Inspiration Academy, a private Christian school in Bradenton, Fla., and the author of the article “‘Florida, Where Woke Goes to Die,’ What Does It Mean?”

On Jan. 29, Speir posted on his Substack his plan, as a member of the board of trustees, to “declare that all hiring and salaries changes be frozen” to “employ a zero-based budgeting policy of terminating all contracts for faculty, staff and administration and immediately rehiring those faculty, staff and administration who fit in the new financial and business model”; to ask “for a legal opinion regarding our ability to remove tenure from New College of Florida”’ and to “create a curriculum review committee.”

Speir called on the board to root out from the New College curriculum

aspects of wokeness that are dogmatic. These aspects should not be incorporated into a curriculum nor supported through school sponsored programs or activities. One example of a dogmatic expression of wokeness is the assertion that America and its institutions are systemically racist and must be torn down.

He also called for a prohibition of “aspects of wokeness that are in essence pledges of fealty,” which, he argued, “are antithetical to Floridian’s shared values. One such example of a pledge of fealty is the demand that woke pronouns are used.”

On Feb. 28, Rufo posted his own plans for New College on Twitter:

We will be shutting down low-performing, ideologically captured academic departments and hiring new faculty. The student body will be recomposed over time: Some current students will self-select out; others will graduate; we’ll recruit new students who are mission-aligned.

In some respects, DeSantis has been on target in his critique of contemporary education both at the K-12 level and in colleges and universities. Many D.E.I. initiatives have been found to be ineffective or counterproductive. Some of the leading proponents of critical race theory make intellectually questionable assumptions.

DeSantis promises to “elevate civil discourse and intellectual freedom in higher education, further pushing back against the tactics of liberal elites who suppress free thought in the name of identity politics and indoctrination.” As he leads the charge against what he describes as a corrupt and bankrupt left, however, he not only calls for the substitution of one ideology for another but also appears to be willing to potentially damage the credentials of Florida’s highly ranked public university and college system.

DeSantis faces a strategic problem. As a graduate of Yale College and Harvard Law School — bastions of the liberal intellectual elite — he fully understands “academic rigor” and “standards of excellence.” Nonetheless, he has adopted tactics for his expected presidential bid that, in the Trump era, require the abdication of reason. He is now feeding red meat to an enraged, predominantly non-college-educated Republican electorate.