A mystery group pushed for $3M in state funding for new UF academic center

The state’s flagship university didn’t ask for the money for the new Hamilton Center for Classic and Civics Education.
In this aerial view, Century Tower rises from the center of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville.
In this aerial view, Century Tower rises from the center of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. [ University of Florida ]
Published July 13, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — The University of Florida has received $3 million in taxpayer funds to establish a new academic center focused on civics courses. But the university did not ask for it, a secretive group did.

The group is so obscure that even the Florida lawmaker who asked the Legislature for the funding on the organization’s behalf does not know who is behind the group.

“I don’t know really much about that group at all,” Sen. Keith Perry, a Gainesville Republican, said in an interview. “I don’t know who they are.”

The university also did not interact with the group — the Council on Public University Reform — or the man who represents it: Joshua Holdenried, who has a long history of working with conservative and religious groups.

Yet the group had sway. The Legislature approved its initial $2 million funding request, and added $1 million more in a state budget approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis in June. Now, the state’s flagship campus is poised to open the Hamilton Center for Classic and Civics Education. A university spokesman said the $3 million in nonrecurring state funds are expected to be used “over time.”

“While the center wasn’t part of our legislative budget request, we look forward to establishing the center and think it will make positive contributions to the university’s academic life,” said Steve Orlando, a spokesman for the university.

Once established, the goal will be to educate university students in the “principles, ideals and institutions of the American political order,” the “foundations of responsible leadership and informed citizenship” as well as to offer courses and training on civic education and the “values of open inquiry and civil discourse” to support students from kindergarten to college, according to the language approved in the state budget.

The center will also coordinate with the Florida Institute of Politics at Florida State University and The Adam Smith Center for the Study of Economic Freedom at Florida International University to help curate a new state education resource that aims to tell first-person accounts of victims of other nation’s government philosophies, including Floridians who fled communist regimes like Cuba and Venezuela.

The Hamilton Center’s vision mirrors an education model that DeSantis and other Republican leaders have embraced as they challenge what they say is a progressive tilt to Florida’s public education system. In recent years, DeSantis’ interest in civic education has become more pronounced as he seizes on culturally divisive issues and accuses the political left of trying to indoctrinate children with the belief that the United States is inherently wicked or fundamentally racist.

Related: Conservative Hillsdale College is helping DeSantis reshape Florida education

“We absolutely support the goal of the center; the governor has prioritized civics, leadership, and classical studies in education. So, of course, we approved the line item in the final budget. It is also evident from UF that they welcome the center,” said Bryan Griffin, a spokesman for the governor.

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Ties to conservative, religious groups

Not much is known about The Council on Public University Reform, a nonprofit organization that was established in November 2021 in Delaware. The group has no website, virtually no information about it online and no working phone.

But its representative, Holdenried, has a long history of working with conservative groups, like the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank, and advancing the mission of religious organizations. Holdenried is the executive director of Napa Legal, a nonprofit that advises faith-based groups to “protect their organizations and achieve their missions” in a way that protects religious liberty in the public square.

In a May 2021 interview, Holdenried identified the Alliance Defending Freedom and its founder Alan Sears as one of Napa Legal’s closest allies. The alliance’s successes have been marked in court battles to limit the separation of church and state and to reverse laws on same-sex marriage and reproductive rights. A spokesperson for the Alliance Defending Freedom said it was not involved with The Council on Public University Reform.

Holdenried is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian college with ties to DeSantis’ administration. He is also board member of Free Speech, a group that often challenges what it believes to be the silencing of conservative voices on college and university campuses.

That issue has become a recent target for DeSantis and Republican lawmakers, who last year passed a law that requires Florida’s public colleges and universities to ask students and employees about their political leanings and the political climate on their campuses. The law mandated a voluntary “intellectual diversity” survey meant to gauge whether politics are seeping into the classroom. Critics worry it could be used as a “political tool” as Republicans increasingly claim public universities and state colleges are dominated by “woke ideologies.”

Holdenried’s ties to these groups raise questions about who else is behind the Council on Public University Reform.

The Times/Herald reached Holdenried in an email to ask about the council’s mission, who else is involved with the group, why he asked to establish the Hamilton Center at UF, and who in the state he talked with prior to making the request for the center. He declined to be interviewed and instead sent a broad statement.

“The Council on Public University Reform educates policymakers about ways to enhance civil discourse, civics education, and liberal education in public universities. It’s no secret that our nation is facing a crisis of civic literacy and incivility,” Holdenried said. “The Council supports constructive solutions that strengthen universities so they may adequately educate the next generation of citizens and leaders.”

There is no documentation or explanation for the name “Hamilton Center” or whether it refers to Alexander Hamilton, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers.

A plan in motion

The University of Florida is not familiar with Holdenried and did not have any interactions with him since it was directed to launch the Hamilton Center, a university spokesman said.

Perry, who made the funding request, said he only met with Adrian Lukis, a lobbyist hired by the council to make the case for the Hamilton Center during the legislative session. Lukis works with the lobbying powerhouse Ballard Partners and previously worked for DeSantis, first as deputy chief of staff and later as chief of staff. Lukis declined to comment.

Related: Some teachers alarmed by Florida civics training approach on religion, slavery

The governor’s office did not respond when asked if DeSantis or his staff knew Holdenried or anything about the council’s mission. But Griffin, the governor’s deputy press secretary, did say the Hamilton Center “merited approval.”

“In principle, the governor supports the teaching of classical civics and political thought — the work of the same thinkers and writers that inspired our Founding Fathers in setting up our exceptional republic. Our university system needs more of this,” Griffin said, while noting the budget item was negotiated by lawmakers, not the governor.

In a news conference last week, DeSantis said the state is “unabashedly promoting civics and history that is accurate and that is not trying to push an ideological agenda” as he promoted his Civics Literacy Excellence Initiative. The initiative, however, has sparked complaints from several high school government teachers who said a state civics training program they attended was ideologically driven with strong “Christian fundamentalist” and conservative overtones.

What is classical education?

The “classical” education model focuses on liberal arts and sciences, Latin, and incorporates instruction on the principles of moral character and civic virtue in everyday lesson plans.

Perry, for example, said he agreed to sponsor the council’s budget request because he believes a classical education teaches history in an unbiased way and teaches students how to critically think by analyzing primary sources. His daughters got a classical education, he said.

The concept is not a new one, but in recent years many conservatives have gravitated toward that education model as they express dismay in a public school system they say is being influenced by a modern, progressive movement.

Hillsdale College, for instance, has helped launch and support “classical” charter schools across the country, including several in Florida.

While the college does not own or operate the local schools, it trains educators and shares its curriculum. The conservative college’s classical education model, as described in an essay written by one of its chief architects, offers a “clear break from modern, progressive education and a return to traditional aims and methods.”

UF setting up center

At the University of Florida, university officials are already taking steps to launch the Hamilton Center.

On Monday, UF Provost Joe Glover appointed John F. Stinneford, a professor at the UF Levin College of Law, to be the inaugural director of the center. Stinneford will report to Glover and will be subject to an annual review. His appointment is effective July 1.

“What I can tell you is, the Hamilton Center will be operated in strict accordance with UF’s high academic standards,” Orlando said.

UF’s Board of Trustees and president — a search is underway for a new president — will appoint the Hamilton Center Board of Fellows and an external advisory board to assist in the recruitment of faculty to the center, according to the legislative budget request.

Those appointments have yet to be announced.

When fully operational, the goal is to enhance the civic education of up to 50,000 Florida high school students and provide opportunities to 5,000 UF students, according to the budget request.

“We expect that initial activities will include optional undergraduate courses and public events,” Orlando said.