The Republican war on higher education
It's not just Florida.
By Lisa Needham
While Florida has been leading the way in destroying its public universities, other red states aren’t far behind. It’s a dangerous, depressing trend.
Florida, unsurprisingly, is the epicenter of this problem right now. Gov. Ron DeSantis, as part of his project to position himself to the right of literally everyone ahead of a possible presidential run, has made it a pet project to crusade against “wokeness” in higher education by sabotaging well-regarded public schools in the state.
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Nowhere is this crusade more evident than the New College, a small public liberal arts school in Sarasota that had been best known for its progressive values. Previously, the school was a place where LGBTQ students could flourish. It was also where Derek Black, the son of neo-Nazi and Stormfront founder Don Black, began to unlearn his white nationalism. So it was likely inevitable that it would draw the ire of people like Christopher Rufo, a hard-right zealot deeply opposed to students learning about race or LGBTQ people.
Rufo is now one of six conservative DeSantis appointees who have taken over the New College’s Board of Trustees. Their goal is to turn the New College into something like Hillsdale College, a private Christian school led by the former head of Trump’s “1776 Commission,” a flimsy bit of nonsense designed to undermine the New York Times’ 1619 Project. At the beginning of this year, after he was appointed to the board, Rufo did a Twitter thread explaining that public universities are “corrupted by woke nihilism” and vowing he would help “shift the university to a “classical liberal arts model.” Rufo linked to a video of his speech the previous year at Hillsdale, “Laying Siege to the Institutions.”
Hillsdale also once employed Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who called the school “a shining city on a hill.” The school has its own shooting sports center, run by a local cop who shot both a man and his dog in 2021. Mike Pence delivered the commencement address in 2018, touting the Trump administration’s job record and complaining that “traditional values and religious convictions are increasingly marginalized by a secular popular culture.” They offer free online classes like “The American Left: From Liberalism to Despotism,” which covers subjects such as “the reasons America’s political and business elite embraced the woke ideology of the Left during Barack Obama’s second term.” In short, it’s every right-wing grievance rolled up into one school.
Florida hasn’t stopped with the New College, though. Last year the legislature passed the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, which restricts what can be taught in all public schools in the state. For colleges and universities, the law functionally bars any teachings about racism. Of course, DeSantis framed this explicit restriction on speech as an increase in freedom and said it would “encourage tolerance of diversity.” When professors and students sued to block the law, the state filed a brief arguing that professors at public schools do not have a right to freedom of speech when teaching. Right now, the law is on hold as it applies to higher education, as a federal court in Florida has blocked the state from enforcing it.
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Then, at the beginning of this year, DeSantis issued an executive order barring public universities and colleges in the state from using any funding whatsoever to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. DeSantis is also set to sign a bill that will make his executive order barring DEI funding a law. The bill originally sought to eliminate specific majors and minors, including feminist theory and social justice, and undermine tenure for professors, but the state had to back away from some of it because of concerns that some programs would lose their accreditation.
Of course, destroying public education doesn’t come cheap. Florida is now paying wholly unqualified former GOP Sen. Ben Sasse a base salary of $1 million to run the University of Florida. To be fair, Sasse did previously oversee a college — Midland University, a small Christian college in Nebraska with a total enrollment of about 1,600 students. By contrast, the University of Florida has more than 60,000 students. And Richard Corcoran, the New College’s interim head, has a base salary of $699,000, or more than double the salary of the previous president forced out by the conservative trustees. Corcoran doesn’t necessarily have a great handle on curriculum, but his conservative bona fides are impeccable. He helped draft Marco Rubio’s “100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future,” became the Speaker of the Florida House in 2017, and served as DeSantis’s education commissioner.
Red states are trying to destroy tenure
While Florida’s efforts to gut its public universities are arguably the most high-profile and wide-ranging, other states have equally bad ideas.
In 2021, Idaho passed the No Public Funds for Abortion Act, a law which bans public universities and other government entities from using taxpayer funds to “promote abortion; counsel in favor of abortion; refer for abortion.” After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, public universities in the state warned their faculty and staff that even telling a student how to get birth control could violate the law and that classroom discussions regarding abortion could only be conducted in a “neutral” way — whatever that means.
More recently, the Texas state senate just passed a bill that would eliminate tenure at all public colleges and universities in the state. This has been a pet project of Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who wants to ensure professors can’t teach about critical race theory. Patrick believes that professors who want to teach about racial justice and related issues are “indoctrinating” their students with left-wing ideas. Patrick also contends that since the state legislature distributes taxpayer salaries, they should “have a say in what the curriculum is.” It’s an absurd way of thinking about higher education — discarding the expertise of professors and administrators in favor of the whims of conservative elected officials.
In North Carolina, Republican legislators are pushing for an end to tenure, seeking to replace it with contracts for a maximum of four years. They’re also seeking to require each public college and university to prepare reports on all research performed, all funding sources for the research, and the costs and benefits of it.
The obsession with ending tenure isn’t new. Republicans in Missouri floated this idea back in 2017, but it didn’t go far. Iowa’s conservative legislators have tried twice — and failed both times — to ban tenure because they think that professors who have tenure suppress the free speech of conservative students.
There are significant drawbacks to getting rid of tenure, as professors in these beleaguered states keep pointing out. It isn’t just that there would be less job security. It’s that the protections of tenure allow professors the academic freedom to speak and research without fear of retribution. Professors aren’t going to flock to a place where they could be fired based on the whims of conservatives and their regressive views of American history. There’s also the very real prospect of a talent drain that could undermine an entire state university system as professors gravitate toward states less hostile to them. Unfortunately, it isn’t clear that conservatives see that as a downside, as they could presumably just replace those professors with ideologues like Rufo and his ilk.
What each of these bad ideas has in common is that they undercut public education and in the view of modern conservatives, that’s a feature, not a bug. In Florida, Rufo has made clear he wants to defund public education at both the K-12 and post-secondary levels. And DeSantis wants to give out $4 billion in K-12 vouchers so parents can flee “woke” public schools. Hillsdale College, besides being a fan favorite in the Clarence Thomas household, runs a network of right-wing K-12 charter schools. This is all part of a larger goal of shifting public tax dollars from institutions that welcome a diversity of thought and viewpoints to institutions that teach only what conservatives want taught. That’s bad for professors, students, and democracy as a whole.
Correction: A previous version of this piece had the name of the Florida’s New College wrong.
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