Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken a bold step to make Florida’s public liberal arts college, the New College of Florida, an effective, academically rigorous institution.
This month, he appointed six new members to the board of New College. They include, among others, Mark Bauerlein, Professor Emeritus of English at Emory University, Charles R. Kesler, Dengler-Dykema Distinguished Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College, Christopher Rufo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and Matthew Spalding, Kirby Professor in Constitutional Government at Hillsdale College.
The reaction in the media has been largely negative, with charges that the governor’s choices represent political maneuvering rather than academic vision. “Ron DeSantis’s New College Coup Is Doomed to Fail,” reads one headline. Another essay claims, “the governor plots to topple Sarasota’s New College.” Some headlines are simply absurd: “Why Ron DeSantis wants to trample the dreams of about 700 college kids on his White House path,” states one piece.
Fairness requires us to note the distinguished scholarship of some of the nominees. Dr. Bauerlein’s book on the 1906 Atlanta race riot was praised by the late John Lewis for telling “a story that is part of our past and needs to be told” and taking “us to a place where we must go before we can build a community at peace with itself.” Dr. Kesler’s edition of The Federalist Papers is widely used in classrooms around the country. Dr. Spalding’s We Still Hold These Truths was a bestseller.
These men have impressive resumes as scholars and teachers. They will bring much-needed experience and vision to New College, whose failures are self-evident.
The school spends more than double its peers on instructional services, student services, and administrative overhead. In fact, it spends $0.53 on administration for every dollar it spends on instruction, even though research has found that spending on instruction has stronger effects on graduation rates than spending on administration.
It has earned an “F” in the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s What Will They Learn? report every year since 2010 because it fails to ensure that its students receive college-level instruction in important subjects like composition, science, and economics. It also has a yellow speech code rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, indicating that the school’s policies do not include adequate protections for free speech.
If the new appointees introduce something like the vision outlined by Mr. Rufo, it will be a major improvement. This vision includes promoting a “classical liberal arts model,” advancing an ethic of “equality, merit, and colorblindness,” and hiring “new faculty with expertise in constitutionalism, free enterprise, civic virtue, family life, religious freedom, and American principles.” This is a smart direction at a time when interest in classical education is booming and employers are increasingly skeptical of the academic standards of American colleges and universities.
The new appointees have an opportunity to turn the New College of Florida into an institution that delivers a cost-effective, rigorous education in an intellectually diverse environment that supports free expression.
The administrators and faculty at New College appear to be more interested in advancing their ideological agenda. For example, the school’s 2019 Florida Equity Report includes a plan to “provide faculty, staff training, and student leader training on unconscious bias, microaggressions, privilege, and cross-cultural communication and mentoring.” Gov. DeSantis is right to be concerned, since these trainings often amount to ideological indoctrination.
The school’s 2021 Florida Equity Report details efforts to recruit diverse faculty by requesting that candidates submit “a statement regarding the candidate’s contribution to, or approach to, achieving diversity.” Of course, everyone should be welcome and respected on campus, but these requirements serve as a political litmus test and communicate to potential applicants that only those with specific political commitments need apply. Current postings for positions in computer science, U.S. history, and plant biology all require applicants to demonstrate their fealty to New College’s ideological regime.
While New College of Florida is struggling, its faculty and administrators are devoting time and resources to activities and policies that advance their ideological agenda rather than the school’s pedagogical mission. Gov. DeSantis’s new appointments offer hope that the school can become an institution that all Floridians can be proud to support.
This article originally appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat on 01/23/2023.