Author: Josh Moody
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The Ron DeSantis takeover of Florida higher education was on full display Tuesday. First the Republican governor announced plans to defund diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at state colleges and universities. Then, later that day, his handpicked trustees at New College of Florida convened for their first board meeting, where they ousted the president and began the process of reshaping the institution into a facsimile of Hillsdale College, a private Christian institution in Michigan.
DeSantis, now in his second term, launched the opening act on Tuesday when he announced promised higher education reforms. He proposed defunding DEI efforts and restricting the use of DEI statements in hiring practices, giving boards and presidents the power to review tenure at any time, and requiring that state research universities spend $50 million annually on research related to STEM and business initiatives. Lawmakers are likely to take up the reforms when the state Legislature convenes in March.
The legislation DeSantis championed mandates that “any general education course be based on providing a strong educational foundation, and not promote ideological indoctrination.” DeSantis also announced plans to develop civics institutes at the University of Florida, Florida International University and Florida State University.
But it was the new NCF trustees who provided the main event on Tuesday, pushing President Patricia Okker out and moving to hire Republican former state politician Richard Corcoran as interim president, with an NCF staffer holding the role in the meantime. (The board is comprised of six members appointed by DeSantis, five appointed by the Republican-led Florida Board of Governors and one representative each from the student body and the faculty.)
While the authority of the new trustees is limited to one small college of about 700 students, their appointment—and provocative agenda—represent the broader aim of DeSantis’s push into higher education, serving as a laboratory for a conservative experiment to reshape academe in the Sunshine State. And with DeSantis’s eye on a potential White House run in 2024, this week’s events in Florida offered a glimpse of how the battle over higher education could play out on the national stage during the next presidential race.
The DeSantis Plan
At Tuesday’s press conference, DeSantis said there is a debate raging about the purpose of higher education. The “dominant view,” he said, is that higher ed is designed to promote “ideological conformity” and “woke activism,” but he believes it should be about giving students a foundation to think for themselves.
“In Florida, we will build off of our higher education reforms by aligning core curriculum to the values of liberty and the Western tradition, eliminating politicized bureaucracies like DEI, increasing the amount of research dollars for programs that will feed key industries with talented Florida students, and empowering presidents and boards of trustees to recruit and hire new faculty, including by dedicating record resources for faculty salaries,” DeSantis said at the briefing Tuesday.
He also called out “DEI bureaucracies,” arguing that they are imposing critical race theory, a once-obscure academic theory that has become politicized and often conflated with efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. He described such efforts as “hostile to academic freedom” and a “drain on resources,” telling the audience, “It’s a lot of money and it’s not the best use of your money.”
DeSantis was joined on stage by Chris Rufo, a newly appointed NCF trustee and activist who has taken aim at DEI initiatives, often presenting such efforts as critical race theory under a different name.
Rufo promised a series of reports, beginning Thursday, on DEI initiatives at Florida’s public institutions, which he said have been abused to force a radical ideology upon students. He claimed that the state’s DEI efforts have shamed white and Christian students.
DeSantis’s latest reforms have riled educators, Democratic lawmakers and academic freedom groups, who have pushed back on the governor’s sweeping agenda.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression called DeSantis out, noting in a news release that while it “supports prohibiting the use of all political litmus tests in admissions, hiring, and promotions,” DeSantis is in danger of trading “one orthodoxy for another” in an effort to eliminate so-called loyalty oaths.
FIRE also weighed in on plans to expand the power of presidents over faculty tenure.
“Giving university presidents expansive power over hiring, firing, and post-tenure review jeopardizes academic freedom,” FIRE’s statement read. “The more power that one individual has to call the shots on campus, the easier it is for political forces—be they donors, politicians, students, or activists—to dictate the range of acceptable ideas and voices. Administrators with more authority will be pressured to use that authority in ways that today’s political climate cannot forecast.”
After DeSantis’s administration requested last week that the state’s public universities submit all expenditures related to DEI initiatives, the United Faculty of Florida also challenged the governor on issues of academic freedom, arguing that higher education is under attack by extremists.
“We stand with, support and defend Florida’s universities and colleges in their efforts to support DEI initiatives and programs, not just because those programs are vital to ensuring broad access to higher education. Real defense of viewpoint diversity means defending the rights of everyone, regardless of their political or ideological beliefs, to live, work, teach and thrive in Florida’s higher education system,” the United Faculty of Florida said in a statement.
The Trustees’ Meeting
While DeSantis welcomed a swath of new trustees—including several from out of state—to New College of Florida, those appointments have received a frosty reception from students and employees on campus.
At a rally before the meeting, several student speakers raised concerns about a hostile takeover of NCF, expressing fears that trustees will impose a new direction on the college—which has a reputation for being a free-spirited and welcoming place, especially for LGBTQ+ students—against the will of the community.
“This is a metaphorical book burning, attacking our educational freedom,” said student Madi Markham, accusing the new trustees of carrying out “a bigoted attack” on NCF students.
Anna Eskamani, a Democratic member of Florida’s House of Representatives, struck an even sharper tone, accusing DeSantis of trying to indoctrinate students under the guise of attacking indoctrination and calling the efforts by DeSantis and the new NCF trustees “a fucking grift.”
The rhetoric aimed at trustees at the meeting was also sharp—though devoid of f-bombs—with multiple speakers chastising them for their plans to reshape NCF. The business portion of the meeting, however, largely went off peacefully, with few interruptions from the crowd.
While new board members struggled at times with procedural basics, they still managed to push out the president, arguing that new leadership was needed to transform the college. The vote to oust Okker passed 8 to 4, with one trustee on the 13-member board abstaining.
Grace Keenan, the student trustee, provided the most vocal resistance to the new direction of the board, questioning the decision to push Okker out and enter negotiations with Corcoran.
Matthew Spalding, a new trustee and dean at Hillsdale College, supported hiring Corcoran, noting that he had been in contact with Corcoran about the position. “We’re old friends and talk often,” Spalding said.
Okker, in remarks at the meeting, said that she understood “there is a new mandate for this college” but also questioned some of the rhetoric coming from DeSantis and the new trustees.
“I’m going to say publicly, I do not believe that students are being indoctrinated at New College,” said Okker, who is in line to return to the faculty with a $150,000 annual salary, according to the details of her contract.
Other items on the agenda—such as eliminating the college’s Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence—were pushed off for consideration until the next board meeting. Board chair Mary Ruiz—a holdover trustee who stepped down from the chair position during the meeting—cautioned trustees against getting ahead of the governor and State University System of Florida, given the changes promised by DeSantis, while other trustees argued it was time to lead on rejecting DEI.
While the removal of the president prompted student outrage and chants of “shame” from the audience, it fell well short of the stated intentions of one newly appointed DeSantis trustee.
Eddie Speir, who runs an independent K-12 school in Florida, wrote in a newsletter this week that his plan to fundamentally reshape NCF includes asking legal counsel to weigh in on whether trustees could declare “a financial emergency” that would allow them to terminate the contracts for all faculty, staff and administrators and immediately rehire only those “who fit in the new financial and business model.”
Speir’s plans for a massive restructuring, however, did not make it onto the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.
The NCF next board meeting is scheduled for Feb. 28.