By Benjamin Wallace-Wells, The New Yorker, February 22, 2023
DeSantis is not simply inveighing against progressive control of institutions. He is using his powers as governor to remake them.
In the context of other universities—the sort of assessment the Princeton Review’s guidebooks might do—New College of Florida, situated on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, a few miles north of downtown Sarasota, has a number of standout features. Its curriculum is unusually self-directed: it gives out no letter grades, and has an academic research project built around independent study in partnership with professors. Two-thirds of its seven hundred students are women, and there is a prominent queer community; in the past, New College ranked among the most “gay-friendly” campuses in the country. Those attributes make it seem like a progressive northern liberal-arts college, to which alumni often compare it, but New College is a public school, which means that in-state tuition costs under seven thousand dollars annually—a bargain—and also that it is subject to the influence of Florida’s state politics.
Early in January, the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, announced that he would be making six new appointments to New College’s Board of Trustees, and, weeks later, the Florida Board of Governors appointed a seventh, which gave DeSantis’s incoming choices an immediate majority on the board. DeSantis’s chief of staff, James Uthmeier, told National Review that he hoped New College would become a “Hillsdale of the South”—a reference to the private, Christian conservative college in Michigan. Shortly afterward, Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist and one of DeSantis’s new appointments to New College’s board, gave an interview to the Times’ Michelle Goldberg that was even more pointed: he spoke of a “top-down restructuring” of the school’s curriculum and culture, and suggested that if professors and students weren’t in line with the changes, they could leave. The project, Rufo went on, could serve as a model for similar takeovers around the country. “If we can take this high-risk, high-reward gambit and turn it into a victory, we’re going to see conservative state legislators starting to reconquer public institutions all over the United States,” he said.
For the past few years, DeSantis’s culture-war campaigns have operated in American politics like a spooling synth loop: it keeps coming around. The Governor of Florida has sought to suspend the Walt Disney Corporation’s tax breaks because the company opposed his “Don’t Say Gay” bill; has moved to limit what teachers can say in public school classrooms about race and gender, and what books can be available in libraries; has encouraged state police to arrest and prosecute ex-felons for voting; and has flown migrants to Martha’s Vineyard as a political stunt. These campaigns have raised an enormous political war chest for DeSantis, and helped give him a regular perch on Fox News. But what distinguishes DeSantis from other culture warriors, especially in the eyes of conservative intellectuals, is that he not only uses his profile to inveigh against progressive control of institutions but also his powers as governor to remake them. After Rufo made his comments about New College to the Times, he called DeSantis’s aides. “I was, like, ‘Man, did I go too far?’ ” Rufo told me recently. “They were, like, ‘No, it’s great. Keep going.’ ”
Rufo, a documentary filmmaker and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has had one of the most dynamic trajectories of any conservative intellectual over the past few years, having been at the center of the right-wing campaign against critical race theory, which is what initially drew him into DeSantis’s orbit. He has since consulted with the Florida Governor on the Stop woke Act and aided DeSantis’s campaign against Disney by writing articles about its theme parks employing dozens of pedophilic sex predators and indoctrinating their employees with diversity politics. (A Disney spokesperson said that insuring “a safe environment for children and families is a responsibility” the company takes “very seriously.”) Rufo seemed to see his arrival in Sarasota as an event unto itself: he had with him an aide, a cameraman, and a security guard—a large, loping, bearded guy, who, Rufo told me, had been a golden-glove boxer in Ohio—which seemed an extreme precaution for a conservative trustee visiting the campus of a hippie college.
But Rufo’s arrival was hard for the New Collegers to dismiss. DeSantis had just won a large majority by running on aggressively defending social conservatism. Florida’s constitution and laws gave him the power to assert control over its public universities. Rufo explained to me the story, as he saw it. New College was a struggling campus. The most recent data shows that it accepted seventy-five per cent of students who applied, but enrolled only thirteen per cent of those who were accepted. Twenty per cent of students dropped out before the end of their first year; a third were not employed or in graduate school a year after they got their degree; and, of those who were employed, the median salary was thirty-two thousand dollars. The source of these failures, Rufo went on, was a culture that valued protest and activism over work. Consultants’ reports found that the top words students associated with New College’s culture were “politically correct,” “druggies,” and “weirdos.” The environment had become a problem, he said. “The trustees need to reëstablish authority.”
I asked for details about how the curriculum would change. “I’m the narrative guy, the political guy,” Rufo told me, waving off the question. “I’m a soldier in DeSantis’s army.” The sun was setting over the Gulf, leaving just a fuzzy pink line on the horizon. To our south, past downtown Sarasota, were the rich, beachy hubs of Longboat and Siesta Keys, with day-drunk strips of restaurants and residential roads that tracked the shore; most of the houses had a dock with a big boat out back. This has long been politically conservative territory; now it’s DeSantis country. “This is really a brilliant strategy on behalf of the Governor to say, we are losing our democratic control of these institutions because we aren’t using our democratic power at all,” Rufo said. “Let’s actually use the power of the Board of Trustees in the way that it was intended, in a way that is authorized in the Constitution, to turn political will into institutional outcomes. New board, new trustees, new majority, new vision. It’s either turn around or shut down.”
The next morning, Rufo and another new DeSantis-appointed trustee, Jason (Eddie) Speir, who co-founded and is the superintendent of a Christian school in Bradenton, held a public Q. & A. session with New College’s faculty and staff. (Someone had e-mailed the University threatening Speir just beforehand, and the Sarasota Police and campus administration had tried to cancel the event, only for Rufo and Speir to overrule them.) Rufo was challenged about whether he thought members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community were a threat to campus life. At one point, Rufo responded, “We should have a unified standard by which we treat people fairly. Identity-based preferences are policies that I strongly disagree with.” Mostly, though, the faculty tried to defend the curriculum. One reason that so many students quit after their first year, someone suggested, might be that New College was a very specific educational environment, and they hadn’t realized what they were getting into. Amid a generally tense conversation, some members of the faculty seemed to be searching for “where we can find common ground, particularly around the ideals of a liberal arts education,” as one history professor put it.
The academics in the audience might not have much liked Rufo—might even, in many cases, have feared what he represented—but there was no confusion: he was prepared and aggressive and camera-ready, a facsimile of DeSantis himself. Nearly all the questions went to him. Speir, buff and bearded, with a spacey manner and an elliptical speaking style that at times scanned as Christian and at others as stoner, was somewhat harder to fathom. He spent a couple of minutes detailing his complaints with his treatment at the hands of the local Sarasota paper, and his failed efforts to suspend the “unwelcoming” comments section. Later in the day, at a meeting with students, Speir spoke out in favor of increasing the number of Christian students on campus. When he was asked whether he favored open carry on campus, he said that “we cannot sacrifice our freedoms for safety.”As a conciliatory gesture to the faculty, Speir acknowledged that his own school’s philosophy was designed to be self-directed in a way somewhat similar to New College’s, but he also kept hinting that the Governor would send more money if the campus were to “go along” with the imminent changes.
At one point, when a student accused Rufo of being anti-science, Speir took out his microphone and said, “If there’s somebody that would be anti-science, that would be me.” He mentioned a social-media thread he had made, questioning whether the Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, who went into cardiac arrest after being slammed in the chest on the field, owed his near-death experience to the fact that he had taken the covid-19 vaccine. “I think questions need to be asked. I think that’s the beginning of science,” Speir said. (The following week, Speir would propose that the new Board of Trustees summarily fire every single faculty member—most of them unionized and most of them with tenure—by asking the Florida legislature to authorize a “financial emergency” as rationale. His idea was not formally presented to the board.) If Rufo represented a modern, media-savvy social conservatism, then Speir embodied a more atavistic traditionalism, both more wandering and more truculent. But that is part of DeSantis’s coalition, too.
DeSantis came to Sarasota a week later. He delivered a speech outlining some legislative proposals regarding public higher education in Florida: he would ban diversity, equity, and inclusion (D.E.I.) programs and the teaching of critical race theory, give trustees broader powers to review and fire faculty, and compel colleges to deprioritize fields deemed to fit a “political agenda.” At New College, the action was more direct, and swift. With each of DeSantis’s appointees voting in favor, the Board of Trustees fired the college’s president, Patricia Okker, a scholar of nineteenth-century literature, and replaced her with Richard Corcoran, a former Republican speaker of the Florida State House and DeSantis’s first Commissioner of Education. “It was very illustrative of their intentions, because with Dr. Okker you had someone who was a career educator,” Alex Obraud, a junior majoring in anthropology and a leader of recent student protests against DeSantis’s appointees, told me. “I didn’t agree with her about everything, but she was in it for the right reasons, and she was smart and effective. Getting rid of her summarily to pay more than twice as much money to a career politician who is coming in with an agenda—that’s not someone who’s in it for the students.”
In the public forums I attended, the students seemed more likely to perceive the takeover as an effort to make the campus less welcoming to gender difference, while the faculty were more inclined to see it as a misunderstanding of what made the college educationally distinct. Donal O’Shea, a math professor who served as New College’s president before Okker, told me, “If you think about the state-university system as an educational portfolio, then New College is an alternative investment that occasionally paid enormous dividends.” One year, O’Shea went on, New College had supplied four of the state university system’s six Fulbright scholars; another year, the school’s student scientists had won forty per cent of the Goldwater scholarships awarded in Florida.
Universities, like cities, often look politically uniform from a distance but have a dense and highly contested internal politics. The argument that New College was a political monolith is complicated by the most famous story told about the campus before the DeSantis takeover: the conversion of R. Derek Black, who had grown up in a prominent white-nationalist family, in West Palm Beach, before coming to New College in 2010. While on a study-abroad program, Black was exposed in campus-wide chat forums as the host of a white-nationalist Internet radio show. Demonstrations ensued. Black had chosen the school because it had an excellent medieval-studies department and because it was affordable. Family lore also held that one thing that the Blacks did at college was learn to argue with leftists. But after he had been exposed, Black found himself being drawn away from white nationalism by his classmates. There were small gestures—people making conversation in the lunch line—and large ones: a Jewish student invited him to attend weekly Shabbat dinners. By graduation, he had split with the white-nationalist movement and his family and now considers himself something of a progressive; he also married one of the women who had engaged with him after his return to campus.
Black is now a doctoral candidate in medieval history at the University of Chicago. When I spoke to him last week, I asked whether he thought his conversion would have happened at another college. “I really don’t think so,” he said. The key, Black went on, was New College’s small scale. In the school forum, “there were all these threads that said ‘Don’t speak to him, don’t acknowledge him, we want to make him feel like a pariah,” Black said. “But the underlying thing is that is so difficult to enforce.” Black has been involved in the campaign against the trustees. “I think the school is a good enough institution that the state should want to support it,” he said. His hope is that “DeSantis loses interest or it proves too difficult or they can’t figure out what victory looks like.”
I had been wondering about what victory might look like to the new trustees myself. Another new DeSantis-appointed trustee, Matthew Spalding, a former official at the Heritage Foundation and now a vice-president at Hillsdale College, took pains to explain that Hillsdale is “a private, Christian college” that accepts no government funds, while New College is public and funded by taxpayers. “That will not change,” Spalding wrote to me. “The legislatively defined ‘distinctive mission’ of New College is to be ‘the residential liberal arts college of Florida.’ This is important.”
Another board member I spoke with, Mark Bauerlein, a retired English professor at Emory, took a similar line. Bauerlein, a “vigorous, ruthless, and relentless” opponent of D.E.I. programs, has some quirky points of view—he wanted more organized sports and was bothered by a campus that was sixty-five per cent female. “Any society with that kind of gender imbalance is inherently unstable,” he said. But he also sounded like he mostly wanted a “great books” liberal-arts education; he told me that he would like to bring the academic Stanley Fish to campus. “The work demand, the intensity of the liberal-arts education—that’s pretty good,” Bauerlein said. “I do not doubt the commitment of the faculty.”
For the people at New College, this has been an often confusing situation to read. The sort of reforms that Bauerlein and Spalding were suggesting did not really seem so scary, but they also did not seem like they matched the more aggressive rhetoric coming from the Governor and Rufo. This is a characteristic of DeSantisism. Andrew Spar, the President of the Florida Education Association, which has battled DeSantis over separate laws regulating how race could be taught in Florida classrooms, how gender could be taught in Florida classrooms, and what materials should be allowed in school libraries, pointed out to me that, in each case, the law had created enormous confusion about what exactly schools were supposed to do, and led to different districts and teachers following the rules in different ways. “All three of those laws are really vague,” Spar said. “And because the laws themselves are so vague, and there’s so much confusion, the impacts of these policies are really damning, because people don’t know what to do.”
New College is dealing with a similar vagueness. With his new trustees, DeSantis has assembled some leading intellectuals who represent different strains within social conservatism, but among them there are internal contradictions. Did the new trustees want a traditional liberal-arts education, or a university that sends graduates to higher-paying jobs? Did they want to defend the rights of the faculty to say whatever they pleased, or ask the Florida state legislature to fire all of them? A Christian college or a secular one? Should it try to grow dramatically, or stay about the same size? If a woke culture was supposed to be the problem, how were they defining “wokeness,” anyway?
At times, DeSantis’s vagueness has been seen as a cover for a hidden agenda—for instance, to drain resources from public schools for private ones, or to keep Floridians from publicly acknowledging the existence of gay people. My own view is that his politics are less programmatic than that. DeSantis has pursued some of these campaigns extensively, and quietly dropped others not long after they made a splash. The process underway in Florida and at New College is less about ideology than about power. DeSantis’s culture war has teeth because he is the governor of a large and growing state with unified political control and—unlike Trump—he understands and can make use of his bureaucratic powers. What makes DeSantis both distinct and formidable is that his campaigns are about not ends but means.
Image Credits: Octavio Jones – Bloomberg – Getty