SARASOTA, Fla. — In early January, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed a group of six conservative academics and activists to the board of trustees of the New College of Florida in Sarasota. Some of the individuals nominated to the small liberal art school’s board include Chris Rufo, who has led the charge against the proliferation of critical race theory (CRT) and gender ideology in America’s classrooms and boardrooms; renowned constitutional scholar Charles Kesler; and Matthew Spalding, the current dean of Hillsdale College’s Van Andel Graduate School of Government.
Shortly after the announcement was made, DeSantis’ chief of staff, James Uthmeier, indicated that a priority of the new trustees would be establishing a curriculum specifically dedicated to “classical” education, giving New College further distinction from the rest of the institutions of higher learning that are currently a part of Florida’s state university system.
Speaking with The Federalist, Rufo suggested that by embracing classical education, New College could stave off the bureaucratic materialist bloat that has come to characterize and bog down much of higher education. Colleges have “adopted this kind of empty materialist enterprise that has squashed the more significant spiritual and intellectual enterprise of learning,” he said. “And I think classical schools are really at the forefront of saying, ‘we’ve lost our way, let’s look to the past to try and make a more meaningful present.’ Maybe then we’ll actually have something that matters to people.”
New College’s approach to learning would become similar to that of classical schools like Hillsdale College in Michigan. As Uthmeier said earlier this month, “It is our hope that New College of Florida will become Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the South.”
Rufo emphasized to The Federalist that institutions like New College have been struggling to keep their doors open, whereas classical schools like Hillsdale are flourishing. “The proof, of course, is that a lot of the small liberal arts colleges are closing down, but the classical schools are getting record enrollment,” he said.
For years, New College has been, to put it benevolently, faltering even by liberal arts standards; consultants hired by the school indicated that it operates as an echo chamber where “druggies” and “weirdos” thrive on the “politically correct” while conservative and religious students are ostracized. Despite having an acceptance rate of 74 percent, more than 20 percent of students typically drop out after their first year, and only 53 percent of graduates found employment — earning a median wage of $32,000 — or continued their education one year after graduation, according to a fact sheet shared by Rufo’s team.
The school’s dismal performance, inconsistent enrollment, and inability to grow an incredibly small student body, plus the mishandling of millions of dollars a year — resources that are “just lit on fire” — while refusing to troubleshoot any of the school’s issues had even prompted the state government to try and close it down so as to better reallocate its resources into other parts of the state university system.
Nevertheless, DeSantis’ move proves the fight to reclaim American education is not a lost cause and — institutionally, at least — it may even be less of a conceptual uphill battle to reclaim the academy and rechart the trajectory of our nation’s youth than many may think. After all, it really shouldn’t be that difficult of a task for conservative leaders to appoint conservatives like Rufo to the boards of public schools in red states with Republican majority legislatures.
But even so, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a battle, and engaging in conflict — especially in the current political climate — comes with risk. With the understanding that their appointment to the board would likely ruffle the feathers of those in the predominantly leftist New College community, Rufo and Eddie Speir, another trustee, scheduled two town hall events in which they could address the concerns of students, parents, faculty, alumni, and the general public, which the Sarasota Democratic Party encouraged people to protest.
The night before the events took place, death threats were made against Speir, leading to college faculty, notably Provost Suzanne Sherman, confronting Rufo and Speir and insisting the event be shut down while encouraging students and faculty to “refrain from attending.” Catherine Helean, a public relations officer of the college, stated that the threats “were perceived to be credible.”
Despite the provost’s insistence that the event be canceled for safety, Speir — whose life was explicitly threatened — and Rufo pushed forward and were able to engage students, faculty, and community members in conversations about their concerns for New College in the months and years to come.
For years, the American right has paid lip service to “education reform,” promising to provide better outcomes and subsequently better opportunities for the masses. But these initiatives often miss the mark; the No Child Left Behind Act’s greatest legacy was the drastic expansion of the federal government’s presence in state and local education and recalibrating curricula almost entirely around the attainment of higher standardized test scores.
And it is undeniable that the left’s “long march through the institutions,” which gave them effectively total control of education, enabled them to radicalize young adults into despising the entirety of Western civilization and program generations of American children into hating their shared and personal heritages as well as themselves for their immutable characteristics. For decades, the right has been at a structural and ideological disadvantage.
During the Covid-era lockdowns, when it became apparent that the priorities of the American education system were the circulation of leftist ideology, leveraging political capital, and generating revenue for special interest groups, people finally had enough. And it just so happens that Florida’s governor was one of these people.
But what distinguishes DeSantis as a pugilist when the rest of his gubernatorial peers appear more pusillanimous is that he isn’t afraid to wield political power and is emboldened to govern by the mandate given to him by those who elected him. Since announcing the new New College trustees, the governor blocked the College Board from introducing an Advanced Placement African American Studies course in the state of Florida that was in violation of state law preventing the government from teaching CRT. The class’s curriculum included topics like “intersectionality and activism” and “black queer studies.”
DeSantis’ stand against CRT in public schools led to the presidents of every school in the Florida College System co-signing a letter stating that they would commit to scaling back their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) departments and ensuring CRT would only be mentioned in “an objective manner.”
Meanwhile, in other Republican states, it seems impossible for conservatives to make institutional gains of this sort.
While speaking with The Federalist, Rufo mused: “You have a deep red state, like Idaho, where there is a Republican supermajority and a Republican governor. Why do you have left-wing DEI departments at all of your public universities? You have a super majority, the public wants you to do stuff, and then they just can’t do anything.”
“I think what DeSantis ultimately has is courage,” Rufo continued. “Voters in Florida saw and said, ‘Oh, wow, we liked this guy. This guy’s getting it done,’ and they rewarded him with a huge margin of victory, which, I think, validates his model. … I think that’s what really, ultimately establishes the legitimacy of this takeover of New College. We’re a reflection of the democratic will of the people of Florida.”
For so long, Republicans have droned on about the need for education reform, but the only substantive options presented by conservatives were to pursue school choice and alternatives to public education (which, to be fair, is a very worthwhile cause), roll over and accept indoctrination from a corrupt system, or continue complaining. Democrats and leftists constantly leverage their ideology in education, but until very recently, mainstream Republicans hadn’t seriously considered, let alone attempted, actually using political power to elicit a political outcome from a political body.
Furthermore, several events over the past couple of years show that education isn’t solely something of concern to leftist interest groups; every American has skin in the game. Public school scandals and conservative victories in school board races across the nation became major political events that could reshape the trajectory of the nation for years to come.
What’s happening at New College under the guidance of men like Rufo and Speir is just the beginning, but conservative activists like them — men of courage who aren’t afraid to show up when their safety isn’t guaranteed — can be found throughout the country and they are eager to get to work. Conservatives can reclaim education. Yes, it will take a considerable amount of time and effort to do so in totality, but it has to start sometime, and it has to start somewhere. It appears that time is now, and that place is Florida.