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DeSantis Takes On the Education Establishment, and Builds His Brand

Patricia Okker, facing camera, president of New College of Florida in Sarasota, is embraced by a supporter on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023.  (Todd Anderson/The New York Times)
Patricia Okker, facing camera, president of New College of Florida in Sarasota, is embraced by a supporter on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023.  (Todd Anderson/The New York Times)Patricia Okker, facing camera, president of New College of Florida in Sarasota, is embraced by a supporter on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. (Todd Anderson/The New York Times)

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, as he positions himself for a run for president next year, has become an increasingly vocal culture warrior, vowing to take on liberal orthodoxy and its champions, whether they are at Disney, on Martha’s Vineyard or in the state’s public libraries.

But his crusade has perhaps played out most dramatically in classrooms and on university campuses. He has banned instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade; limited what schools and employers can teach about racism and other aspects of history; and rejected math textbooks en masse for what the state called “indoctrination.” Most recently, he banned the College Board’s Advanced Placement courses in African American studies for high school students.

On Tuesday, DeSantis, a Republican, took his most aggressive swing yet at the education establishment, announcing a proposed overhaul of the state’s higher education system that would eliminate what he called “ideological conformity.” If enacted, courses in Western civilization would be mandated; diversity and equity programs would be eliminated; and the protections of tenure would be reduced.

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His plan for the state’s education system is in lockstep with other recent moves — banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, shipping a planeload of Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and stripping Disney, a once politically untouchable corporate giant in Florida, of favors it has enjoyed for half a century.

His pugilistic approach was rewarded by voters, who reelected him by a 19 percentage-point margin in November.

Appearing on Tuesday at the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota, one of the state’s 28 publicly funded state and community colleges, DeSantis vowed to turn the page on agendas that he said were “hostile to academic freedom” in Florida’s higher education system. The programs “impose ideological conformity to try to provoke political activism,” DeSantis said. “That’s not what we believe is appropriate for the state of Florida.”

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He had already moved to overhaul the leadership of the New College of Florida, a small liberal arts school in Sarasota that has struggled with enrollment but calls itself a place for “freethinkers.” It is regarded as among the most progressive of Florida’s 12 public universities.

DeSantis pointed to low enrollment and test scores at New College as part of the justification for seeking change there.

“If it was a private school, making those choices, that’s fine, I mean, what are you going to do,” he said. “But this is paid for by your tax dollars.”

The college’s board of trustees, with six new conservative members appointed by DeSantis, voted in a raucous meeting Tuesday afternoon to replace the president and agreed to appoint Richard Corcoran, a former state education commissioner, as the interim president beginning in March.

Corcoran will replace Patricia Okker, a longtime English professor and college administrator who was appointed in 2021.

While expressing her love for the college and its students, Okker called the move a hostile takeover. “I do not believe that students are being indoctrinated here at New College,” she said. “They are taught. They read Marx and they argue with Marx. They take world religions. They do not become Buddhists in February and turn into Christians in March.”

DeSantis also announced Tuesday that he had asked the Legislature to immediately free up $15 million to recruit new faculty and provide scholarships for New College.

In all, he requested from the Legislature $100 million a year for state universities.

“We’re putting our money where our mouth is,” he said.

New College is small, with nearly 700 students, but the shake-up reverberated throughout Florida, as did DeSantis’ proposed overhaul.

Andrew Gothard, president of the state’s faculty union, said the governor’s statements on the state’s system of higher education were perhaps his most aggressive yet.

“There’s this idea that Ron DeSantis thinks he and the Legislature have the right to tell Florida students what classes they can take and what degree programs,” said Gothard, who is on leave from his faculty job at Florida Atlantic University. “He says out of one side of his mouth that he believes in freedom and then he passes and proposes legislation and policies that are the exact opposite.”

At the board meeting, students, parents and professors defended the school and criticized the board members for acting unilaterally without their input.

Betsy Braden, who identified herself as the parent of a transgender student, said her daughter had thrived at the school.

“It seems many of the students that come here have determined that they don’t necessarily fit into other schools,” Braden said. “They embrace their differences and exhibit incredible bravery in staking a path forward. They thrive, they blossom, they go out into the world for the betterment of society. This is well documented. Why would you take this away from us?”

Corcoran, a DeSantis ally, had been mentioned as a possible president of Florida State University, but his candidacy was dropped following questions about whether he had a conflict of interest or the appropriate academic background.

A letter from Carlos Trujillo, the president of Continental Strategy, a consulting firm where Corcoran is a partner, said the firm hoped that his title at New College would become permanent.

Not since George W. Bush ran in 2000 to be “the education president” has a Republican seeking the Oval Office made school reform a central agenda item. That may have been because, for years, Democrats had a double-digit advantage in polling on education.

But since the pandemic started in 2020, when many Democratic-led states kept schools closed longer than Republican states did, often under pressure from teachers unions, some polling has suggested that education now plays better for Republicans. And Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 victory in the Virginia governor’s race, after a campaign focused on “parents’ rights” in public schools, was seen as a signal of the political potency of education with voters.

DeSantis’ attack on diversity, equity and inclusion programs coincides with the recent criticisms of such programs by conservative organizations and think tanks.

Examples of such initiatives include campus sessions on “microaggressions” — subtle slights usually based on race or gender — as well as requirements that candidates for faculty jobs submit statements describing their commitment to diversity.

“That’s basically like making people take a political oath,” DeSantis said Tuesday. He also attacked the programs for placing a “drain on resources and contributing to higher costs.”

Supporters of diversity, equity and inclusion programs and diverse curricula say they help students understand the broader world as well as their own biases and beliefs, improving their ability to engage in personal relationships as well as in the workplace.

DeSantis’ embrace of civics education, as well as the establishment of special civics programs at several of the state’s 12 public universities, dovetails with the growth of similar programs around the country, some partially funded by conservative donors.

The programs emphasize the study of Western civilization and economics, as well as the thinking of Western philosophers, frequently focusing on the Greeks and Romans. Critics of the programs say they sometimes gloss over the pitfalls of Western thinking and ignore the philosophies of non-Western civilizations.

“The core curriculum must be grounded in actual history, the actual philosophy that has shaped Western civilization,” DeSantis said. “We don’t want students to go through, at taxpayer expense, and graduate with a degree in zombie studies.”

The shake-up of New College, which also included the election of a new board chair, may be ongoing and dramatic, given the six new board members appointed by DeSantis.

They include Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at Manhattan Institute who is known for his vigorous attacks on “critical race theory,” an academic concept that historical patterns of racism are ingrained in law and other modern institutions.

At the time of his appointment, Rufo, who lives and works in Washington state, tweeted that he was “recapturing” higher education.

Another new board member is Eddie Speir, who runs a Christian private school in Florida. He had recommended in a Substack posting before the meeting that the contracts of all the school’s faculty and staff be canceled.

The other new appointees include Matthew Spalding, dean of the Washington, D.C., campus of Hillsdale College, a private college in Michigan known for its conservative and Christian orientations. An aide to the governor has said that Hillsdale, which says it offers a classical education, is widely regarded as the governor’s model for remaking New College.

In addition to the governor’s six new appointees, the university system’s board of governors recently named a seventh member, Ryan T. Anderson, the head of a conservative think tank, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which applies the Judeo-Christian tradition to contemporary questions of law, culture and politics. His selection was viewed as giving DeSantis a majority vote on the 13-member board.

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