Ron DeSantis Chose the Wrong College to Take Over
The populist right has portrayed New College as a notorious example of indoctrination in higher education—a narrative that does not withstand scrutiny.
Before this year, life at New College of Florida could feel like a retreat into a pleasantly forgotten corner of the country. Students walked on paths that wound past wisps of Spanish moss and a stately banyan tree to a park on Sarasota Bay, where the outside world often felt as distant as the sun setting into the Gulf of Mexico. Then on January 6, Ron DeSantis, Florida’s popular Republican governor, seized control of the college by appointing six new members to its board of trustees.
Suddenly, the Sarasota campus found itself at the center of the culture wars. A DeSantis spokesman declared that the college had been “completely captured by a political ideology that puts trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning.” Christopher Rufo, the most outspoken new trustee, vowed to take it back. “We are now over the walls and ready to transform higher education from within,” he tweeted. In New College, Rufo saw every excess of “wokeness” in academia. He believes that critical theorists spent decades pursuing the “ideological capture” of universities, installing “coercive ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ programs.” At New College, he charges, the students and faculty faced something like “a hostage situation.”
On a recent visit, though, I found that New College bears little resemblance to this caricature.
New College has problems, some typical of left-leaning colleges. Some of the criticisms and proposals put forth by the new trustees are reasonable. But Rufo’s indictment, which has been embraced by the populist right, is mostly wrong. New College was never captured by a large and fearsome DEI bureaucracy. In fact, the academic program cultivates a fierce and idiosyncratic independence. And when it hired its first dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion in 2022, it wasn’t surrendering to the woke left. It was responding to an explicit mandate from a DeSantis appointee.
Here, an example is useful to clarify how anti-woke dogma does and doesn’t square with the facts on the ground. It concerns diversity, equity, and inclusion––a trio of concepts, like God, country, and family, that most people support in the abstract, but that warrant skeptical scrutiny when they are put forth as official orthodoxies in higher education, given how often they are invoked to justify ideological discrimination or bias in hiring, infringements on academic freedom, free-speech violations, and bloat. Recall that Rufo advanced a narrative of radical leftists imposing a “large” DEI bureaucracy on New College to coerce and bully professors and students while undermining free speech and open inquiry. DeSantis to the rescue!
The real story of DEI at New College: The bureaucracy that Rufo inherited was largely the result of directives from a DeSantis appointee in the state capital, not radical leftists on campus. Here’s how it happened. Florida’s public colleges are overseen by a 17-member board of governors. In 2016, then-Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, appointed a future chairman of that board: Sydney Kitson, an NFL player turned real-estate developer. In 2019, DeSantis made a consequential appointment to the same board: Brian Lamb, who’d played point guard at the University of South Florida (ask alumni about the clutch free throws he sank in the last seconds of a 1998 game against Florida State University) before becoming a banker.
After George Floyd was murdered in 2020, Kitson announced an initiative “to examine the inequities in our society.” He put Lamb in charge, perhaps because Lamb was by then the global head of diversity and inclusion at JPMorgan Chase. Lamb sent a strongly worded memo to all the presidents of public colleges in Florida, announcing the board of governors’ “clear and steadfast commitment to prioritize and support diversity, racial and gender equity, and inclusion” and “to hold each university accountable for policies, programs, and actions.” The memo called for “total integration of D.E.I. initiatives throughout the institution.” It declared that “a university’s strategic plan, as well as its mission statement, should prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion;” that a senior administrator should establish DEI as a strategic priority; that “universities should consider the integration of D.E.I. best practices into their academic curriculum”; and that DEI performance indicators would be monitored by the state.
In short, a banker appointed by DeSantis led an aggressive top-down push for sweeping new DEI initiatives in all of Florida’s public colleges, compelling every campus, including New College, to put more emphasis on DEI. Months later, Rufo (who says DeSantis appointees should be obeyed for the sake of democracy) arrived at New College and lambasted the very DEI bureaucracy another DeSantis appointee had helped create, talking as if it had been imposed by leftist radicals.
That isn’t to say that DeSantis approved of what his appointee did or that there wasn’t any support at the left-leaning New College for a bigger DEI bureaucracy. And these events cut in a different direction too. Republican political appointees foisted a top-down ideological agenda onto every public university in Florida in 2020, and few journalists, progressive faculty members, or students objected. Now, as new trustees excise that same DEI bureaucracy that Lamb pushed, left-leaning critics decry the top-down interference of political appointees in college governance.
All of that aside, there was no large DEI bureaucracy at New College running roughshod over dissenters. Ironically, despite its leftward tilt, New College never fully obeyed the board of governors, perhaps due to its long-standing culture of quietly ignoring authorities who tell others what to do. Its DEI bureaucracy turns out to have been so tiny and oft-ignored that its elimination––which mostly meant firing one person––constituted a minor change, for better or worse.
New College was founded as a private institution in the 1960s. Its approach was distinguished by faculty contracts with students who pursued personalized study plans rather than a fixed curriculum. In 1975, facing financial difficulties and declining enrollment, the institution joined Florida’s public system of higher education, at first merging with the University of South Florida. In 2001, it became an independent public college, and the state legislature designated it as Florida’s official honors college. In 2016, as liberal-arts colleges everywhere saw declining applications, New College, while struggling to recruit and retain enough students to stay financially healthy, set the goal of expanding its size from fewer than 700 undergraduates to roughly 1,200––a number it has never achieved, despite ongoing pressure from the state.
Today, its unusual and highly regarded academic program and its in-state tuition of less than $7,000 a year are draws. Deteriorating dorms and spartan amenities are repellents. Social life can be as tight-knit and comforting—or as gossipy, limiting, and stifling—as in a small town. And the student culture, variously described to me as hippie, alternative, woke, creative, social-justice oriented, and queer friendly, tends to be self-reinforcing, attracting students with whom its vibe resonates, even as the dearth of Division I sports, Greek life, and preprofessional majors causes other sorts of students to rule it out.
“It tends to be the case that moderate or more conservative students had a hard time making friends and connections in groups,” an alum named Eugenia Quintanilla told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 2019, “just because the ideas that they believed were considered to be offensive.” Opposition to LGBTQ rights looms largest among social taboos, partly on behalf of students like Alaska, who is trans and declined to give a last name. She told me about the hardship of growing up in Jacksonville, where looking and dressing differently made her a target of bigots. At New College, she found “an oasis” where she feels safe and accepted. Nothing is likelier to trigger conflict with the many students who take pride in their community’s acceptance of queer people than anyone seen as threatening that oasis. Of course, many moderate and conservative teenagers today are tolerant of gay and trans people. And New College’s failure to be more welcoming of nonprogressives limits the school’s appeal.
The faculty culture is mostly shaped by the school’s unusual approach to academics. The opportunity to help students tailor a custom course of study and research, in accordance with their curiosity and passions, attracts professors who like classroom instruction, academic mentoring, independent studies, and frequent shifts in the material that they are discussing, lecturing on, and evaluating. Many value independence and flexibility in their teaching and research more than the different benefits of life at a larger, better resourced, and more bureaucratic institution.
That’s why many New College faculty members, including professors who are broadly sympathetic to concerns about leftist excesses in higher education, were bewildered when DeSantis and Rufo began to characterize it as an institution where the academic program is ideologically captured by leftists and engaged in indoctrinating students. Professor Peter Cook, whose fields of expertise include animal cognition and comparative neuroscience, acknowledges that many of his colleagues are left-leaning, but insists that there is no organized resistance within the New College faculty or its administration to competing viewpoints. “Plenty of us would welcome more ideological diversity at New College,” he told me.
In Cook’s account, which multiple professors corroborated, New College offers faculty radical freedom in their domain. Though most of its courses align with the classical liberal arts, “each professor is able to teach what they want how they want,” he emailed. “We do not have a curriculum committee, and there are no formal departments with structured oversight and control of course offerings and content.”
This autonomy insulates the academic program against top-down coercion and groupthink alike. Cook said he has never had any pressure, from colleagues, administrators, or students, to frame his research or coursework through an ideological lens. “It’s simply not how the school operates,” he said. “The college has its struggles, as nearly all smaller colleges currently do, but they are not the product of its being a top-down ideological training camp, which, point of fact, it is not.” (My search for professors who felt ideologically pressured yielded a single outlier, who worried that students might file a complaint after class if referred to by the wrong pronouns.)
The curricular freedom that New College offers is not for everyone—unless you’re a self-motivated student who is energized by exploring your curiosities, I would recommend a different school—but it helps a particular kind of undergraduate to thrive. While browsing student research in the anthropology lab, I met Nickolas Steinig, who told me that he finished high school near the top of his class and chose New College because of its cheap tuition. He created his own major in media production, completing classes in documentary filmmaking, tutorials via the school newspaper, and an internship at a local radio station. He found a course on the ethics of news photography offered by the Poynter Institute and took it as an independent study with a professor who oversaw his progress, suggested additional reading, and engaged in one-on-one conversations. For the thesis that all students are required to complete, he is creating a video-production company. “I found a classmate who’s a cinematographer and another who was doing a thesis on entrepreneurship,” he told me, “and we decided we would form a start-up.” He may not earn as much a year out of college as graduates of other schools, a metric tracked by the board of governors on which New College underperforms, but his nascent for-profit business may well prove to have a bigger upside than a higher-paying entry-level job.
Chloe Rusek, a second-year student, excelled in high school, earning a 4.6 GPA while participating in various programs in the visual arts, but between the coronavirus pandemic and striving for exemplary grades, she felt burned out and nearly decided against college. “New College resparked that light in me because it was not as much ‘Do busy work; get good grades,’” she told me at a used bookstore a short drive from campus. “The emphasis was, ‘What do you want to explore?’”
She wants to create an area of concentration that fuels her love of learning, but worries that the new trustees don’t intend to conserve the features of academic life at New College that make it intellectually rigorous and unusually invigorating.
I sympathize with her uncertainty. “It is our hope that New College of Florida will become Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the South,” James Uthmeier, DeSantis’s chief of staff, told the Daily Caller, referencing a Christian liberal-arts college that is a darling of movement conservatives. But more like Hillsdale could mean a lot of things. Recruiting more conservative faculty and students but preserving the bespoke approach to courses of study? Educational requirements covering the “great books” and other classics? Injecting Christianity into the school? Raising funds from conservative donors by leveraging the culture war in the style of Hillsdale’s president, Larry Arnn?
“By the end of this calendar year,” Rufo emailed me, “I hope to see a new core curriculum based on the classical model and the hiring of new humanities faculty who are aligned with our mission to restore New College as a center for classical liberal teaching and scholarship. In the short term, I expect that we will have some instability, turnover, and perhaps a short-term decline in the student population, but I hope to see enrollment numbers increasing over a two-to-three-year time horizon, after we have established a new marketing, recruiting, and admissions strategy.”
Adding to the confusion on campus, Rufo sometimes presents himself as a champion of academic freedom, viewpoint diversity, and freedom of speech, but other times talks of believing in “an uncompromising new conservatism” that includes eliminating whole fields of study. “We will be shutting down low-performing, ideologically-captured academic departments and hiring new faculty,” he tweeted on February 28. “Some current students will self-select out, others will graduate; we’ll recruit new students who are mission-aligned.” (A DeSantis-backed bill introduced in the Florida legislature this month would instruct the board of governors to direct all colleges to remove “from its programs any major or minor in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems.”)
Everyone is dealing with the uncertainty differently. Faculty members are contacting union representatives to parse their collective-bargaining agreements, updating résumés, and wondering if their tenure reviews will be delayed or if their tenure is still worth anything.
I spoke with a couple of students who were looking into transferring and one student who hates the new trustees but wants to stay to spite them, fearing that a mass exodus will only help them to transform the institution. Another confessed that he can’t afford to go anywhere else. The turmoil surely weighs on prospective students too.
Among the trustees, I’ve focused on Rufo because he has done the most to shape the public’s views of the college and to detail an agenda that is being watched by right-leaning politicians and activists. Over time, differences may emerge among the trustees––whole articles could be spent describing the distinct and interesting worldviews of Eddie Speir, who co-founded a Christian charter school, and Charles Kesler, a college professor and the editor of the Claremont Review of Books—but so far the DeSantis appointees have voted together.
Amy Reid, a professor of French language and literature at New College, was among the faculty members whom I most wanted to interview. She is the institution’s director of gender studies, which Rufo characterizes as a “massive” and “radical” department that indoctrinates students and is affiliated with a third of all faculty. In Reid’s telling, the gender-studies program at New College has a budget of just $7,000 or so for programs and expenses, plus a 15-hour-a-week office-manager position. Like the heads of all the interdisciplinary programs, Reid gets a stipend of $10,000 from the provost’s office. She oversees one faculty member and, this semester, an adjunct teaching one course. In a typical semester, she told me, an introductory course and one other course in gender studies are offered, along with courses cross-listed in gender studies. (This semester, according to Reid, there are four cross-listed courses.)
Rufo points to a long list of “affiliated faculty” to suggest that gender studies is large. But being on that list often just means you teach at least one course in a different discipline that you’re willing to make eligible for gender-studies credit. For example, Manuel Lopez Zafra, a professor of religion, teaches a class called “Growing Up Amish in Sarasota” and might be willing to work with a student whose concentration is gender studies to focus their assignments on topics related to gender. Similarly, Robert Zamsky, a professor of English, teaches a course named “Emerson, Dickinson, Whitman: Questions of American Literature,” and getting gender-studies credit for the class is a possibility.
If the field of gender studies as a whole suffers from a dearth of viewpoint diversity, then the ability to earn gender-studies credit in courses taught by professors who haven’t spent their academic lives in gender-studies departments, journals, or conferences would seem to function as a bulwark against ideological capture. And whatever one thinks of gender studies as a whole, gender studies at New College can be properly evaluated only by probing the approach taken at the institution.
Reid’s account of the value of gender studies was anything but radical, and she struck me as diligent about refraining from indoctrination. “This is a field students have real curiosity about––and part of what New College offers students is the ability to align what they study with their curiosity and enthusiasms. What we do is help students to identify the questions they want to ask and to begin looking for their answers,” she told me over lunch at the Ringling Museum.
If a conservative high-school student wanted to come and study gender in a rigorous way, Reid told me, “I would tell them that this is a good place to do it.” Were they to advance conservative arguments on abortion or pornography in class, she’d ensure they got their say. “You listen to what people say and make sure that no one is slapped down for their statements,” she told me. “My colleagues and I in our classes try to emphasize that learning spaces require trust and confidence … You have to give students space to think for themselves.”
Reid was neither naive nor evasive about the fact that, as a result of voicing conservative views, students might face blowback from peers outside of class, something she worried about less before the internet. “In the past several years, some conversations, mostly in spaces faculty don’t have access to, have become more venomous, and cruel things are said––to, by, and about students,” she said. “That’s not right. So a student who came here who was really conservative, depending on what they said, might end up getting flamed out by somebody. And that would be unfortunate.”
Multiple faculty members expressed similar concerns: Many students and alums belong to a private email list that the college does not administer or control. It perennially results in a handful of students feeling bullied, some for being out of step with prevailing campus ideology. Rufo is correct to flag that dynamic. I found no evidence, though, for his claim that bullying students exploit the DEI bureaucracy “to isolate, shame, intimidate, and expel” others. (When I asked him for examples, Rufo revised his claim, charging instead that “the DEI bureaucracy turned a blind eye to harassment and bullying of conservative, white, and Christian students.”) But regardless, the campus “climate” is among the obstacles to recruiting and retaining more diverse students: Social stigma is hard anywhere, but especially intense on a tiny residential campus.
At the same time, New College students are adults with free-speech rights posting on a forum that is outside the control of the institution. If a few behave like jerks, they resemble bullies on every social-media platform. If you’re skeptical of college bureaucrats mandating “training” in “inclusion,” as Rufo and I both are, the question of how best to address a forum where some students are jerks is tricky, with no obvious answers. That, in my estimation, is why the problem endures, not because of any top-down support for the bullying. Contra Rufo’s narrative, the director of gender studies was actively working against bullying among students, as was New College’s former president.
Nineteen months before the new trustees arrived, Patricia Okker became New College’s president. Perhaps no single action by the trustees has alienated the faculty and students more than firing her and replacing her with Richard Corcoran. Partly, that’s due to the perception that DeSantis’s appointees are lining the pockets of a political ally. Corcoran is a former Republican speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and was a former Florida education commissioner on DeSantis’ recommendation. For his work as interim president, the trustees awarded him a base salary of $699,000, or $400,000 more than Okker had earned, Inside Higher Ed reports. The article goes on to note that “Corcoran will receive an $84,000 annual housing stipend, a $12,000 automobile allowance and the potential to earn a 15 percent goal-based salary bonus.”
The trustees will decide if he gets the bonus.
Okker was generally liked and trusted by both faculty and students, several of whom told me that by firing her, the new trustees proved themselves to be either clueless or disingenuous. Okker’s fans felt she was focused on making the institution more friendly to conservatives even before the new trustees arrived.
I wasn’t able to speak in person with Okker, but she spoke to me by phone, and I reviewed many of her publicly available statements. Far from urging students to accept any set of beliefs uncritically, she explicitly emphasized that all good scholarly research begins with unanswered questions. “The best questions––this is what I always tell my students––are hard ones,” she declared in one major address on campus. “I especially love hard questions where you’re not exactly sure how to go about finding the answer, because that process is where we learn.”
Okker did disagree with the new trustees about diversity, equity, and inclusion. She told me that though she welcomed “opportunities to engage with the critics of DEI to find ways of improving our practices,” at bottom, “I strongly object to eliminating DEI.” She explained, “In more than 15 years in higher-education leadership, I have seen firsthand the benefits of thoughtful work in DEI, and DEI professionals often have significant experience mediating tense situations among people with strongly opposing views, an expertise we need more, not less, of.”
Searching Okker’s speeches for passages that might grate on conservatives, I thought that the most obvious candidates are paeans to diversity. “We must foster a sense of belonging—for all,” she said at her inauguration. “For example, we must ensure that the Black and brown members of our community experience a powerful sense of belonging here. We must make sure that our policies and processes create an environment where our LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff can thrive. We must ensure that our neurodiverse community members and people with disabilities and people with mental illnesses know that they are valued for the essential contributions they make.” Perhaps it is unnecessary, or counterproductive, to list identity groups in a bid to make everyone feel welcome; regardless, the next lines in Okker’s inauguration speech show that she sought to welcome other groups too.
“We must develop new programs to create solutions to the national challenge of young men turning away from a college education, while also continuing to work for gender equity,” Okker said. “And we must ensure that people from all sides of the political spectrum are welcome here—not as visitors, but as valuable, respected, and necessary members of our community. Why is this our first charge? Because talent and creativity are not confined to any one demographic.” Surely this is not the “woke nihilism” that was ostensibly causing New College to struggle.
One of the first outside speeches she gave as president of New College was to the Military Officers Association of Sarasota as part of an effort to increase viewpoint diversity on campus. “I met a New College alumna who was a veteran, and she had a pretty rough experience,” Okker told me. “So you think, What about a veterans’ group on campus, how can we get that started? How can we reach out to more conservative high schools and not assume they’re not interested in sending us students just because they haven’t in the past? I reached out to conservative business organizations and conservative alumni, who felt, to be honest, really pissed off with the college. I thought of it as a year of laying a foundation, bringing together people who might help us change into a more welcoming place.”
She told me that though colleges should support all of their students, they should also challenge them. “I reject the idea that to support students you have to shield them from people who don’t share their politics,” she said. “We have to prepare them for that. I talked openly with people in student affairs about how, you know, we’re actually not doing our students any favors if they are so isolated from other points of view that they don’t develop the skills to interact with others. If they don’t know anybody who is conservative, someone that they really know and love and trust, that’s not going to serve them well in the workplace, or even at the holiday dinner table, where most encounter people with different views.”
Whether Okker would have been the best choice to continue as president is a judgment call. But the notion that she was pro-indoctrination or resistant to increasing viewpoint diversity is preposterous––and by firing her, the trustees lost a potential ally on many issues who was trusted by faculty and students.
“That’s the heartbreak for me: believing change would be good for all students, conservative students, liberal students, for the whole campus. And the way to do that is not to have chaos and fear, but to build trust,” she said. “Because to achieve real cultural change, you have to be methodical and disciplined and get everybody rowing in the same direction, committed to the mission. If instead, everyone is constantly asking, ‘Do I have a job?,’ that makes real cultural change, which takes a lot of hard work and dedication, harder.”
The notion of the struggle for control of tiny New College as a fight of national importance, let alone a blueprint for academic takeovers everywhere, strikes some as absurd. “Is this bug important enough to step on?” the neoreactionary writer Curtis Yarvin asked in a Substack post. Yarvin suggested that if DeSantis really wanted a Hillsdale of the South, he would go about it differently. “Does Florida have some shortage of land, or of builders? How hard is it to pour a little concrete, hire a bunch of nerdy classics victims and STEM postdocs, and put up a quirky viral application site? Start now and really hustle—by September, you’ll be teaching Virgil to homeschooled virgins on occupied Seminole land.”
Yarvin and others suggest that DeSantis targeted New College not because he saw potential for a model that he could next apply to a school like Florida State University, with its more than 30,000 undergraduates, huge faculty, and numerous graduates in the state legislature, but because New College was a small, flailing, defenseless target with a hippie reputation. In this telling, it is too sui generis to yield a model for reform, but close to perfect, in a time of negative polarization, for a politically advantageous spectacle akin to punching hippies: baiting New College students, then filming the most radical, who ideally have blue hair, facial piercings, or gender-nonconforming dress, to mock them as they intemperately shriek “Fascists!”
DeSantis partisans, though, insist that the takeover is more than a PR stunt and fundraising gambit. Many progressives also perceive the stakes to be substantive. For DeSantis, the fight over New College is part of a broader quest to crush any hint of progressivism in public education, Michelle Goldberg argued in her New York Times column. She added that, for Rufo, a reconstructed New College would serve as a model for conservatives all over the country to copy. Whether or not New College is similar enough to other institutions to offer lessons for reforming them, I expect its fate will be treated as a sign of whether conservative takeovers can work elsewhere. If it succeeds, others will follow; if it fails, confidence in DeSantis will take a hit.
In Rufo’s telling, they’ve already won some major victories, too.
On February 28, the New College board of trustees voted to eliminate the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence. The next day, Rufo took a victory lap on Twitter. “We are the first university in America to abolish its DEI bureaucracy and restore the principle of colorblind equality,” he wrote. “‘Diversity, equity, and inclusion’ is a euphemism for left-wing racialist ideology.”
The trustees voted after hearing a report by Bradley Thiessen, an administrator whom they temporarily made president and instructed to survey the entire institution to clarify the scope of DEI. Exactly how big and influential was the bureaucracy that Rufo repeatedly cast as running and ruining the college?
As it turns out, the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence, where almost all DEI work was housed, had four staffers and a total annual budget of $440,000. Of those employees, just one worked mostly on DEI initiatives: Yoleidy Rosario-Hernandez, the DEI dean hired in 2022 and fired this month. Tasks performed by others in the office included compliance with federal and state laws and requirements of accreditors, teaching financial literacy to students, and outreach to prospective students. The new trustees and president are preserving many of those functions, and continuing to employ three of the four staffers, in different administrative units.
Thiessen also found that the college had one online training course in DEI that it called mandatory (though 70 to 75 percent of the faculty failed to complete it without consequence) and that, recently, the college had started requiring applicants for faculty jobs to complete a diversity statement. Under the new regime, the training session will no longer be mandatory and the diversity statements will no longer be required. Those are, I think, good changes that should be cheered by everyone who values the independence of faculty or objects to the politicization of hiring scholars. I credit Rufo and all the trustees who voted with him on that matter.
But most of Rufo’s rhetoric about the size, scope, and power of the college’s DEI bureaucracy was nonsense. One tiny office required very little of anyone in theory––and even less in practice.
On some level, Rufo seemed to grasp the dissonance between his initial rhetoric about DEI at New College and its reality. “I’m actually quite happy to see this report, to see what the status quo is, and for those who are concerned about disruption, this is really not as great of a disruption as even maybe I would have predicted,” he said at the meeting where the trustees heard Thiessen’s report. “But these are decisions based on principle.” But later, he emailed me that “you have to look at this on a proportionate, rather than absolute, basis.” New College is tiny, so “on a per capita basis, this is a large DEI department,” he argued, adding that “as the old phrase goes, one rotten apple ruins the bunch.”
A principled opposition to DEI bureaucracies of any size is fine. In the populist-right media ecosystem, however, the audience still believes that DEI run amok was among the biggest problems at New College––and that eliminating it was a major step toward turning the college around. “You are really engaged in what I would really call a liberation tactic,” the conservative talk-radio host Dennis Prager told Rufo during a recent interview. “It’s like when the Berlin Wall fell down and how much the East German authorities were disgusted by it. I think the parallel, unfortunately, is actually almost precise.” In fact, every significant problem at New College long predated the DEI bureaucracy and remains just as challenging after the board’s actions. And that isn’t the only reason that most of New College is not greeting the new trustees as liberators.
Calls by DeSantis, Rufo, and others to axe whole academic departments are a bigger threat to academic freedom at the college than the one DEI dean was. And if gender studies is eliminated? That will likely make it more difficult for the college to retain and recruit excellent faculty members in all disciplines, undermining the quality of the academic program that is New College’s biggest strength while in no way fixing any of the factors that are keeping enrollment low.
But in Rufo’s telling, there is no contradiction between calling himself a champion of free speech and free inquiry and targeting departments he regards as “ideologically captured” for dissolution. “Academic freedom is a procedural value that must be oriented toward some highest end, namely, the discovery and transmission of genuine knowledge,” he emailed me. “If an academic department in a public university is oriented toward promoting partisan ideologies and engaging in political activism,” he continued, begging both of those questions, “it is betraying the highest principle of the academic enterprise and, as such, violating the implicit compact with the university and, in the context of public universities, the legislators, citizens, and taxpayers who support them with generous public funding.”
Trying to change New College by attacking “wokeness” is a bit like trying to change the NYPD by attacking white supremacy––poke around and you may find examples of either, but these are complex institutions with cultures that emerged over decades, that shaped and were shaped by individuals, most of them both well-intentioned and also prone to reflexively resisting radical transformation.
As an admirer of New College’s faculty, students, and curricular approach, and as a critic of leftist excesses in higher education, I would love nothing more than for New College to emerge as a model for transforming institutions with too little viewpoint diversity into thriving colleges. Beyond that, I would love the trustees to find ways to mitigate the Ph.D.-pipeline problem that leads to most faculties in America being overwhelmingly left-leaning.
And I’m glad to see pushback against DEI administrators in higher education, as I don’t want faculty or students at any college to be stifled by bureaucrats who impose notions of right-think and wrong-think, whether through top-down control or by leveraging social stigma. But this can happen in the guise of “wokeness” and “anti-wokeness,” and I object to both on the same grounds.
Rufo once bragged, “I’ve spent the last two years reading my Gramsci, reading my Marcuse, reading my Freire, reading my Davis, reading my Derek Bell. We’re taking those strategies, we’re reappropriating them, we’re adapting them to a new conservative counterrevolution, and … it starts with this hostile takeover of the New College of Florida and on the beaches of Sarasota.” By treating New College as a means to the end of advancing the ideological program he pursued long before arriving, no matter how poorly that program’s grievances map onto it, Rufo, more than any administrator or professor I encountered in Sarasota, strikes me as enthralled by the romance of marching through an institution in the zealous style of leftist radicals like Herbert Marcuse.
To be a good trustee, he’ll have to master that impulse. That’s no way to improve a college, let alone colleges on a national scale. Maybe there’s a failing college out there where DEI bureaucrats are ruining everything and the key is to retake power from them. New College isn’t it.