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Many pearls have been clutched since Governor Ron DeSantis began reforming Florida’s state university system last spring. They were clutched hardest, perhaps, when DeSantis removed six members of the New College of Florida’s board of trustees, replacing them with conservatives—including Christopher Rufo and First Things’s own Mark Bauerlein. The left is predictably outraged by DeSantis’s gutting of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and his prohibition of indoctrination via curricula laden with identity politics. The center-right is spooked by the idea of a governor interfering with universities’ autonomy and violating principles of academic freedom. But the populist right is enthusiastic: When our universities seem irretrievably lost, even imperfect solutions are cause for hope, so long as they’re substantive and pursued aggressively.

Florida higher education is quickly becoming a proving ground for the New Right’s vision of government as a countervailing force against leftist hegemony. The DeSantis model is already being exported to other states. Success in Florida could mean similar successes throughout the country.

First Things asked several experts in higher education to reflect on the Florida experiment and offer suggestions for maximizing the impact of the reforms. Their responses are below.

David Azerrad

What do you do after you’ve shuttered the DEI initiatives, fired the worst professors, cracked the whip with the rest, abolished the most useless administrative positions, instituted rigorous grading, and hired a few big names? Make New College the premier liberal arts college in Florida by establishing a solid core curriculum, obviously.

The curriculum should be anchored in the Great Books. A college focused on education rather than mere credentialing must require its students to read the likes of Shakespeare, Homer, and the Bible. A woke professor may offer a trans interpretation of The Merchant of Venice, but the students are at least reading Shakespeare.

The Great Books, however, are not enough to produce informed citizens in the 21st century. They must be supplemented with rigorous classes in statistics and economics. Studies and numbers remain the highest authority in the public square (so long as they do not contradict diversity) and a college graduate should be able to sniff out crappy studies and understand the limitations of polls.

The Great Books must also be supplemented with what my former professor Waller Newell calls “the Next Best Books”: great histories, biographies, and memoirs of statesmen. This will hone studentspractical judgment and guard against what Strauss called “the twin dangers of visionary expectations from politics and unmanly contempt for politics.”

David Azerrad is an assistant professor and research fellow at Hillsdale Colleges Van Andel Graduate School of Government in Washington, D.C.

Joshua Katz

An especially attractive feature of Governor DeSantis’s overhaul of higher education in Florida is the attention he pays to trustees, who generally do little other than rubber-stamp decisions by increasingly pusillanimous presidents. What the governor—and his trustees—must also do, however, is encourage sane faculty governance. I do not mean that faculty should actually be in charge, and of course I recognize that sanity these days is thin on the ground. But trustees should encourage thoughtful and concerned professors to accept senior administrative positions at their institutions—positions they will occupy for only a limited period before returning to the faculty rather than flying up to some still-higher bureaucratic perch. Such an approach will undermine the ever-more-powerful gangs of administrators, especially those who are fundamentally (mis)managers rather than academics, and remind professors that their main job in both teaching and research is to pursue the traditional goal of colleges and universities: truth. A partnership between trustees and faculty that bypasses an uncaring, unintellectual, and often immoral administration will be good for everyone who matters, not least the students, who are, after all, the people we should care about the most.

Joshua T. Katz is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

James Piereson

Governor DeSantiss initiatives in higher education show great promise in changing public universities from citadels of left-wing ideology into institutions devoted to pursuing the truth through different avenues, with wide latitude for debate and disagreement. It will not be easy, and will not happen overnight—but one must start somewhere.

His program has many valuable features. It recognizes that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” and Critical Race Theory” are designed to justify the hiring and promotion of left-wing faculty and administrators and to impose ideological litmus tests on students and recalcitrant faculty. There is no reason why Florida voters should pay for it. The governors proposals will ban funding for those programs. He will also ban the use of DEI loyalty oaths as requirements for hiring and promotion in Florida universities. Those steps are badly needed and should be adopted in other states.  

His program gives greater authority to boards of trustees to review and approve curricula and hiring requirements to make certain that they conform to common-sense academic standards—as opposed to ideological litmus tests.

There is a further step the governor might take. Universities in Florida and around the country have hired two or three times as many administrators as faculty members over the past few decades, many of them in ideological fields like DEI. Administrators, once in place, hire more of their own kind, with snowball effects, creating administrative “bloat.” The trend can be reversed by requiring university leaders to trim the ratio of administrators to faculty back to the level of a few decades ago. This can be done through annual budget oversight, and should not cause hardship for faculty or academic programs.  

Bottom line: The universities have been captured by left-wing activists and ideologues. This is unfair to taxpayers who must pay the bill, students who deserve a genuine education, and fair-minded teachers who should be allowed to do their jobs without fear of being punished for transgressing left-wing shibboleths. Gov. DeSantis is trying to turn this around. Let's hope he succeeds. 

James Piereson is a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and president and trustee of the William E. Simon Foundation.

Arthur Milikh

Since God and Man at Yale (1951), the right has been relentless in its half-measures to make American universities either intellectually serious or institutions that support American civilization. After spending billions of dollars and millions of man-hours, nearly all efforts have failed. Admit it. The academy has only gone further down its destructive trajectory, while still increasing in size, funding, and power. It has been astonishing to behold. Experience should by now prove that the left will not yield, not through pleas, sensible” arguments, or by begging for fairness. It will even destroy the sciences in the name of diversity. We are not one new center, or another free speech pledge, or the removal of one administrative office, away from restoring higher ed. A new strategy is needed if anything is to be saved. That strategy requires using legitimate, elected political power to take over public institutions, defund, cleanse, and then rebuild them. Governor DeSantis is the first to earnestly try this with the New College of Florida. This strategy should expand in Florida, and into other red states. Public universities must serve the country, not harm it. They must create citizens fit for protecting rather than destroying it. This is a non-negotiable view for any civilization that wants to survive. 

Arthur Milikh is the executive director of the Claremont Institutes Center for the American Way of Life.

Peter Wood

Visitors to the swampy parts of Florida know that alligators are very fond of marshmallows, which they apparently mistake for chewy eggs. Wildlife experts, however, frown on feeding the sugary treats to gators, and say they should be left to catch their own food, which sometimes includes unwary folks who come on their, um, campus.

There is a lesson in there for higher education. Far too many students are being fed on the marshmallows of DEI, critical race theory, and the other confections of the woke left. Game warden Ron DeSantis thinks this a bad idea. College students should learn to hunt for the meat and gristle of truth.

This metaphor no doubt will not please everyone. Many Americans now fear presenting students with the hard facts of life. One of the educational fads of our time is called “social and emotional learning,” which is essentially preparation for weakness and neurosis as a preliminary to leftist indoctrination. Maybe DeSantis will get around to attacking that folly after he finishes his current clean-up of miseducation in New College, political litmus tests for academic appointments, and other leftist efforts to substitute indoctrination for education.

DeSantis is on the mark that the first step to create high-quality higher education in the state is house-cleaning. The radical left has far too often intimidated the rest of the faculty into allowing so-called equity” to displace academic standards and undermine intellectual freedom. New College now has some new trustees, and one of their first jobs will to be perform an intellectual audit of the curriculum. Are first-year seminars” such as Thinking Green: Nature, Environment, and Sustainability in Germany” the best way to launch the undergraduate? Maybe, but the course doesn’t sound like the student is going to wrestle with any facts that complicate the Green narrative.

DeSantis has also introduced legislation that would foster debates on campus and bring a rich new variety of ideas to campuses across the state. Such intellectual diversity is the real key to bringing higher education back to life, not just in Florida but across the country.

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars. 

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Image by Ian Scott licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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