DeSantis seeks conservative overhaul at Florida liberal arts college

DeSantis picks Christopher Rufo, Hillsdale College dean and four others as New College trustees.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the crowd before publicly signing HB7, "individual freedom," also dubbed the "Stop Woke" bill during a news conference at Mater Academy Charter Middle/High School in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., on Friday, April 22, 2022. On the right is Christopher Rufo.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the crowd before publicly signing HB7, "individual freedom," also dubbed the "Stop Woke" bill during a news conference at Mater Academy Charter Middle/High School in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., on Friday, April 22, 2022. On the right is Christopher Rufo. [ DANIEL A. VARELA | AP ]
Published Jan. 6, 2023|Updated Jan. 6, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed a group of hard-line conservative loyalists Friday into leadership positions at the New College of Florida, a move that comes as the Republican governor plots a remake of the state’s higher education system.

Several of the appointees are vocal opponents of gender- and race-related education issues that have fueled the right’s culture wars in schools. They were picked as DeSantis, who is eyeing a potential 2024 White House run, vows to fight “philosophical lunacy” in the schools.

The new appointees will now help oversee the Sarasota college, which has a reputation for being one of the most progressive higher-education institutions in the state.

Of the six appointed by DeSantis, the marquee names are Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who helped turn critical race theory into a conservative rallying cry, and Matthew Spalding, a government professor at Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian college in Michigan.

Rufo and Spalding have backed DeSantis’ proposals targeting critical race theory, a 1980s academic legal concept that holds that racial disparities are systemic in the United States, not just a collection of individual prejudices.

DeSantis also appointed:

• Charles R. Kesler, the editor of the conservative Claremont Institute’s publication, The Claremont Review of Books;

• Eddie Speir, the superintendent of Inspiration Academy, a private Christian school in Bradenton that has as its mission to “cultivate, nourish and inspire students, using a mentorship model to develop an integrated life of faith from the inside out, in an environment of family, care and love.”

• Mark Bauerlein, a pro-Donald Trump English professor at Emory University, whose latest book, “The Dumbest Generation Grows Up,” casts a critical eye on education for giving up on the classical canon and instead allowing students to choose for themselves what they want to learn.

• Debra Jenks, a New College alumna who currently is a securities mediation lawyer in Palm Beach County.

These individuals were picked, in part, because New College needs a new direction, DeSantis spokesperson Taryn Fenske told the Times/Herald in an email.

“NCF needs new leadership that sends a clear and attractive signal to students, throughout Florida and nationwide, that this is an institution intending to remain humble in size yet nation-leading in its approach to ‘innovation’ and ‘excellence,’” Fenske said.

Rufo celebrated the appointment by declaring: “We are recapturing higher education.”

“Recapturing higher education”

As DeSantis kicked off his second term in office on Tuesday, he made clear that he plans to focus on reshaping the state’s higher education. In particular, he said, he wants to ensure his administration eradicates “trendy ideologies” from the classroom.

“We must ensure that our institutions of higher learning are focused on academic excellence and the pursuit of truth, not the imposition of trendy ideology,” DeSantis said during his inaugural speech at the steps of the historic Florida Capitol in Tallahassee.

Then, DeSantis’ office made public a memo that it had sent out to state colleges and universities asking for information about resources they are putting into activities and programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory.

Related: DeSantis to scrutinize diversity programs at Florida colleges, universities

“As the Executive Office of the Governor prepares policy and budget proposals ahead of the 2023 Legislative Session, it is important that we have a full understanding of the operational expenses of state institutions,” Chris Spencer, the director of DeSantis’ Office of Policy and Budget, wrote in a memo Dec. 28.

The information needs to be submitted by Jan. 13. It remains unclear exactly what will be done with the information once it is collected.

Signs of a major shake-up

As word spread of DeSantis’ appointments to New College on Friday, reaction from academics came swiftly via social media.

“Terrible news,” tweeted Ohio State University political science associate professor Benjamin McKean. “DeSantis is aiming to destroy New College.”

Acadia University politics instructor Jeffrey Sachs wrote, “With leadership like this, how could college NOT educate freethinkers?”

Rufo lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and three sons, according to his website. He caught the attention of national figures, like DeSantis, during the pandemic after frequently appearing on conservative media outlets to criticize the concept of critical race theory.

Eventually, the ire against the theory became a rallying cry for conservatives, many of them in Florida. And DeSantis tapped into those ideas to build a reputation as a warrior. He often has declared that Florida is where “woke goes to die.”

When Rufo tweeted his enthusiasm for the appointment, he drew a barrage of congratulations from conservatives, including Erika Donalds, the wife of U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds, who was nominated this week for U.S. House speaker.

Hillsdale connection

Spalding’s appointment marks another instance in which Hillsdale College is helping DeSantis reshape the state’s higher education system.

“I am honored by the appointment and look forward to advancing educational excellence and focusing New College on its distinctive mission as the liberal arts honors college of the State of Florida,” Spalding said in a statement Friday. “A good liberal arts education is truly liberating and opens the minds and forms the character of good students and good citizens.”

Hillsdale President Larry P. Arnn called DeSantis “one of the most important people living,” during the Hillsdale National Leadership Seminar in Naples last February. And the Times/Herald found that the private Christian college was among several national groups that helped the governor develop a civics education training program for teachers that some educators said was seeped in “Christian fundamentalist” overtones.

Related: Conservative Hillsdale College is helping DeSantis reshape Florida education

DeSantis chief of staff James Uthmeier told the National Review that the administration intends to convert New College, which has fewer than 700 students, to a classical model akin to that of Hillsdale College.

Twelve years ago, Hillsdale College set out to reshape public education through the growth of charter schools and in recent years has expanded its reach in Florida’s education system.

In Florida, Hillsdale’s influence has been seen in the state’s rejection of math textbooks over what DeSantis called “indoctrinating concepts,” the state’s push to renew the importance of civics education in public schools, and the rapid growth of Hillsdale’s network of affiliated public charter schools in Florida.

Arnn, Hillsdale’s president, was appointed by Trump to be chairperson of the president’s Advisory 1776 Commission, which was formed to “advise the president about the core principles of the American founding and to protect those principles by promoting patriotic education,” according to Spalding, who Trump appointed as the commission’s executive director.

Spalding is also the vice president for Washington operations and the dean of the Van Andel Graduate School of Government at Hillsdale’s Washington, D.C., extension.

Hillsdale’s digital digest, Imprimis, features the writing of conservative thinkers like Rufo, who has worked with DeSantis to combat issues like critical race theory and gender identity. The publication also includes articles with titles, like “The January 6 Insurrection Hoax,” “The Disaster at Our Southern Border,” “Gender Ideology Run Amok,” “Critical Race Theory: What it is and How to Fight it,” and “Who is in Control? The need to Rein in Big Tech.”