Last Tuesday, Ron DeSantis to action to reform Florida’s education system. First, the governor proposed two measures for the state legislature to consider in their upcoming session. Taking the position that the programs are ideologically biased and wasteful, DeSantis proposed defunding DEI programs across the state, a move that would save the University system an estimated $34.5 million. His second request was for the legislature to pass a law enabling university presidents to initiate tenure reviews at any time.
The action that caught national attention, however, came later. The Board of Trustees for New College of Florida, a small liberal arts college in Sarasota, voted to terminate the university president effective immediately. Headed by Christopher Rufo and a slate of five other DeSantis appointees, the board also appointed former education commissioner Richard Corceran as the next president. At DeSantis’ discretion, the board seems likely to continue overhauling the college, known for its unique education style and lack of letter grades. The stated goal is to turn New College into what the current Florida education commissioner Manny Diaz called the “Hillsdale of the South,” referencing the renowned private conservative liberal arts college in Michigan.
There is much to love in these proposals if you are conservative. State taxpayer dollars going to ideologically one-sided bureaucracies like the DEI departments are both a shameful restriction of academic freedom and a waste of Florida taxpayer dollars. Another part of his proposal worth applauding announced on Tuesday was to require students to learn about western civilization. Given how many superfluous classes Florida students are required to take (I would know; I am one), making students learn about the philosophical foundations of their society is a great step in the right direction. This shift is particularly strong here at the University of Florida, where $3 million in funding for a new center of civics education was approved over the summer. These kinds of reforms should be applauded loudly because they represent a push to shift university life back toward its classical roots.
The rest of these proposals require a more nuanced response. Of the six new appointees to New College’s board, five of them are worth recognition as serious scholars. The appointment that should be viewed with the most concern, though, is the most prominent. Christopher Rufo has made a name for himself in national circles for his dogmatic stances on culture war issues such as critical race and gender theory. His combative style may make him popular among hardline conservatives, but how that translates to education reform remains to be seen.
Likewise, the proposal to grant university presidents the power to unilaterally review tenure should be seen cautiously. In a 2015 piece discussing the topic, David French makes a good point regarding an end to tenure; without overhauling the staff, ending tenure could have disastrous effects for conservative professors already in place. The proposal here may lead to increased academic freedom at places like New College or UF, where conservatives sit in the president’s office, but elsewhere it could lead to a purging of tenured conservative academics. If the logical next step is to summarily replace all of Florida’s university presidents with conservatives, the blowback to such a move would be justified; replacing one form of academic unfreedom with another should not be cheered, but condemned.
Conservatives have plenty of cause to dismiss the liberal wailing about academic freedom as it stands, but we should not be blind to our own potential for overstepping. As DeSantis, and other conservatives across the country, begin to leave their mark on higher education, we should be cautious in how we approach these reforms. True academic freedom is a noble cause that conservatives everywhere should take up; replacing one illiberal approach with another is not. As it stands, the reforms in Florida should be viewed with measured optimism. Time will tell if that optimism pans out.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.