Bill Cotterell: New trustees bode big changes for quirky New College

This fits with what DeSantis did in K-12 education during his first term, battling over everything from mask mandates to gender fluidity.

The Jane Bancroft Cook Library at the New College of Florida.

The Jane Bancroft Cook Library at the New College of Florida. Enunnally55, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

If Gov. Ron DeSantis was known for his humor, his latest foray into governance of higher education would have Floridians saying, “Yeah, right. Good one.” Our governor, however, is a most serious influencer of contemporary culture. 

DeSantis stood outside Florida’s Historic Capitol last week and said, among other zingers in his inaugural address, “we must ensure that our institutions of higher learning are focused on academic excellence and the pursuit of truth – not the imposition of trendy ideology.” 

This fits with what he did in K-12 education during his first term, battling school boards and teacher unions over everything from mask mandates to gender fluidity, from free speech to history that makes Republicans uncomfortable.

Judging just by popular image, kids could major in “trendy ideology” at New College. The Sarasota school probably offers a PhD in Woker-Than-Thou Studies. Kim Jong Un might get dis-invited as commencement speaker: Too conservative.

“Join our community of free thinkers, risk takers and trailblazers,” the college proclaims, atop its home page. “Your education. Your way. Discover a public arts and science education driven by your curiosity, career aspirations and individual learning style.”

From Harvard to Berkeley, American campuses have a reputation for free speech and intellectual inquiry that runs the gamut from A to B. Student surveys regularly show strong support for shouting down speakers or blocking entry to events featuring people or ideas activists find distasteful. The “heckler’s veto” always seems to belong to the political Left.

Selection of former U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska as president of the University of Florida sparked loud, pointless protests late last year. When the Legislature called for a voluntary survey of the free-speech climate on campuses, you’d have thought they’d brought back the Charley Johns Committee for another red-baiting witch hunt. 

On the first full day of his new term, DeSantis’ administration demanded data from state universities on what they spend promoting diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory.

So it’s quite in character that his six appointees to the New College Board of Trustees would include Christopher Rufo, a nationally known scourge of CRT. Rufo tweeted that “Gov. DeSantis is going to lay siege to university ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ programs.”

Siege, indeed.

New trustees come from conservative institutions

Another new trustee is Matthew Spalding, a dean and government professor at Hillsdale College. Hillsdale boasts of helping students “acquire a mature love of America,” and has been warmly praised by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The Washington Post reported that Ginni Thomas was hired by the college to represent its interests in the capital.

Government professor Charles Kesler of Claremont McKenna College is among the new appointees, along with Mark Bauerlein, a Donald Trump ally who teaches English at Emory University. Eddie Speir, superintendent of Inspiration Academy, a private Christian school in Florida, and Debra Jenks, a New College graduate and mediation lawyer, also were appointed. All are subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate, which – given its GOP supermajority – shouldn’t be a problem.

It will be entertaining to see what the new trustees change, and how fast they do it – and how many administrators, faculty members and students flee the campus. “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,” Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. said of the new board.

That’s like hoping Marlboro will sell well at the Centers for Disease Control, but you never know. 

The 1962 New York Mets lost a record 120 games and were beloved for their ineptitude, much like New College is regarded for its weirdness. Seven years later, the Miracle Mets were world champs.

If the DeSantis appointees could bring a turnaround like that, a new New College would be a miracle indeed.

Bill Cotterell is a retired Florida Capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He writes a weekly column for City and State. He can be reached at bcotterell@cityandstatefl.com

NEXT STORY: Bill Cotterell: Florida has never had a governor like Ron DeSantis