Critics of change at Sarasota’s New College of Florida have read too much into statements by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ chief of staff and others that they would like to see New College become more like Hillsdale College.
Hillsdale is a private Christian college in Michigan, which unlike virtually every other college or university in America, accepts no government funding. Suggesting that the governor wants to turn New College into Hillsdale is misinformed. As a unit of the state of Florida, it is constitutionally prohibited from advancing Christianity or any other religion. Gov. DeSantis, the trustees, interim President Richard Corcoran and their teams of course understand that completely.
What Hillsdale’s admirers are referring to is its “classical liberal arts” curriculum, which Hillsdale describes as “a journey through literature, philosophy, theology, history, the fine arts and the natural sciences,” with the goal of allowing students “to see the world as a cohesive whole.” It is intended to be a shared experience, a foundation for further intellectual exploration.
Those who know New College’s history understand that Hillsdale’s approach coincides in many respects with that of New College’s own founders, who in 1964 implemented a core curriculum very similar to Hillsdale’s. Five years later, they added a student-contract system emphasizing the role of individualized study plans, field study and undergraduate research.
The results were remarkable. New College students’ SAT averages were the third highest in the country when I applied in 1973, according to college guides at the time. Wherever the fault lies, New College’s leadership and faculty were unable to maintain the standards it inherited when the college was merged into the University of South Florida in 1975. According to the Niche ranking, today New College ranks 405th in the nation, 21st in Florida.
New College stopped being a real honors college some time ago. Its administration and faculty chose, instead, to become a haven for those who embrace the ideology of so-called progressivism. Think about what DeSantis calls “woke” — an emphasis on unconventional pronouns, a dominant LGBTQ+ community, referring to conservatives as fascists, homophobes, transphobes and so on.
This choice coincided with a decline in academic standards among its faculty and students, with notable exceptions, to a point where many graduates openly state they would not even have considered applying to the New College that emerged in the last decade or so.
Reflecting on the implicit aspersions cast on Hillsdale by critics of the governor, it’s worth taking a quick look at its history. Founded in 1844 by abolitionists, it was the first American college to prohibit — in its charter — any discrimination based on race, religion or sex.
It was also only the second college in the nation to grant four-year liberal arts degrees to women. And a higher percentage of Hillsdale students enlisted during the Civil War than from any other northern college — nearly 80%. Sixty gave their lives.
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The governor’s critics not only know very little about Hillsdale, they seem oblivious to New College’s predicament before the governor got involved. It’s no wonder that the Legislature was ready to close it down in 2020, an outcome only avoided through the intervention of the area’s state senators.
Interim President Corcoran and New College’s trustees looked to Hillsdale because they believe in the classical liberal arts, which most of America’s colleges have abandoned. Pragmatically, they also understand that demand for admission into Hillsdale is at an all-time high while demand for admission to New College in recent years has been at an all-time low. What they are seeking is a balance between a core curriculum and independent study — a blend of the best of New College’s academic traditions.
Let’s hope that New College’s board of trustees is inspired not only by the courage of Hillsdale’s founders but by the wisdom of its own. And that Floridians begin to view the “Save New College” signs that abound near the campus in a different light. DeSantis and the Florida Legislature saved New College.
What is happening at New College — as it moves away from the mediocrity, intolerance, and group-think that have come to dominate much of modern American university culture — gives us hope that we might just save American higher education.
Robert Allen Jr., a 1978 graduate of New College, serves on its presidential search committee and as chairperson of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute.