Florida conservatives abandon their small-government roots | Column
The latest examples comes courtesy of the takeover of New College in Sarasota.
The New College campus in Sarasota pictured in January.
The New College campus in Sarasota pictured in January. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA Press ]
Published Feb. 23, 2023

For years, conservatives have warned us about government getting too big and too controlling. Now the shoe is on the other foot. Conservatives hold the governor’s office and both branches of the legislature in 22 states and have a solid foothold in Congress. They have worried about big government and now seem intent on creating one. They have seen the enemy and will discover it is themselves.

A. Lee Fritschler
A. Lee Fritschler [ Courtesy of A. Lee Fritschler ]

Conservative politicians are seizing their opportunity to force education, both K-12 and higher education, to be more in tune with conservative, right-wing views.

Now, local school boards, governors and state legislatures are banning books and telling teachers what to teach and what not to teach — setting a model for big government in conservative-led states throughout the country. It is a huge irony, and a dangerous one.

Conservatives are targeting public universities. Florida is leading the charge. Big government in the Sunshine State is led by a big-government Republican governor, Ron DeSantis. He decries big government but is eagerly willing to use the power of intervention when he finds a course or something on a syllabus with which he disagrees. His goal is to stop “wokeness.” His motto is, “Florida is where woke goes to die.” He views all classroom speech by faculty as something he and other politicians should control.

Then, in a subsequent breath, without an explanatory transition, DeSantis decries big government. It does not occur to him that government control of university curricula based on political ideology stifles discussion of diverse points of view, discourages critical analysis and hampers creativity. Consideration of conflicting ideas, especially controversial opinions, is the basis of a strong democracy.

Florida is one of the few states with a liberal arts college in its system, the New College. Most liberal arts colleges in the U.S. are privately funded. Florida took an imaginative step many years ago when it acquired the New College in Sarasota. It has thrived academically. Today, it is one of only 30 members of the National Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges. It is currently ranked No. 5 among public liberal arts colleges by U.S. News & World Report and No. 4 among “Best (public) schools for making an impact” by The Princeton Review. In moves which most certainly will destroy that success, the governor has appointed a board of his political allies and replaced the president with one of his own at a salary twice that of the person the board removed. The base salary of the president rose from $305,000 a year to $699,000. Small government looks large in Sarasota.

Unfortunately, the features that make the New College unique and highly rated — ideological independence and identification with the liberal arts — now seem too extreme for Florida’s political culture. The continued existence of the New College as a progressive institution is threatened. DeSantis and his recent appointees to the governing board appear to want to destroy it as a place of vigorous thought and debate. Ironically, the conservatives now leading Florida’s government seemingly cannot tolerate an institution of higher learning that might teach something they do not like or have faculty assign books of which they do not approve. This small campus is in the crosshairs of politicians who want to negate its rich contributions to academic freedom.

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The self-declared small-government conservatives are the ones now abusing power in their attempt to take control of public colleges and universities. Alas, while they worried about powerful government intervention by the left, they have become big government enablers. Passing a Stop Woke law, attempting to kill diversity, equity and inclusion programs at universities, appointing Ben Sasse to head the University of Florida without public input, and rejecting key elements of the College Board’s new African American AP course are examples of big government in action. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.

The model of education they are imposing on Florida’s colleges and universities is likely to serve as a template to one degree or another by some other states. One hopes that other states will hold the line and keep politicians out of course content and faculty hiring. If we fail to keep political hands off, we will weaken or destroy more than higher education. We will weaken our democracy.

A. Lee Fritschler is Professor Emeritus of Public Policy at George Mason University and President Emeritus of Dickinson College. He served as Assistant Secretary for Post-Secondary Education in the administration of President Bill Clinton.