New College of Florida: What does making it the “Hillsdale of the South” really mean?

Michigan’s Hillsdale College, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ model in his Florida higher ed revamp, promotes political perspective at heart of the modern conservative worldview. 

At left, Hillsdale College (Corey Seeman); at right, New College of Florida (Lawrence G. Miller), both via Flickr (Creative Commons). 

At left, Hillsdale College (Corey Seeman); at right, New College of Florida (Lawrence G. Miller), both via Flickr (Creative Commons). 

The Florida college whose rank dropped the most in U.S. News & World Report’s 2024 Best Colleges ranking is the same one that has been getting national headlines as Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken his presidential campaign across the country.

Eight months have passed since the governor appointed six new people to the New College of Florida board of trustees, giving a conservative majority the ability to reshape the direction of the historically left-leaning liberal arts college. 

The tenure so far has brought many changes, including significantly increasing the freshman class by adding a student athletic program, but also losing a third of its faculty members, and falling 24 positions in the liberal arts school national rankings.

But bringing change was always the point. Current DeSantis campaign manager and then-Chief of Staff James Uthmeier has said the goal of the New College shift was to make the college the “Hillsdale of the South.” The comment was a reference to Hillsdale College, a Christian private institution in Michigan that’s popular among national conservatives. (Though, for the record, interim New College President Richard Corcoran disdains comparisons to other schools.)

How a state college could become like a private institution that has eschewed public funding since the 1970s still is unclear. But, a discussion with the DeSantis-appointed New College trustee who works for Hillsdale, interviews with experts and a review of Hillsdale’s own media content suggest that the goal could be to eventually model the curriculum after the college’s right-leaning political beliefs.

Several members of Hillsdale’s faculty, including the university president and a prominent political science professor, promote the idea that America’s academic institutions and government agencies have been co-opted by progressives. That’s also one of the primary talking points of this Republican presidential election cycle. DeSantis and others have been running on that message, saying conservatives must dismantle or rebuild those institutions to do no less than save the country.

The Hillsdale leader helping to reshape New College

Matthew Spalding, a Hillsdale vice president and dean of its Van Andel Graduate School of Government, is one of the six New College trustees appointed by DeSantis. He spoke with the News Service of Florida, City & State Florida’s sibling publication, about the changes the new board hopes to bring to New College.

Spalding said the goal is to return New College to a traditional view of what a liberal arts college should be: An adherence to Western traditions that began in Europe. “Traditionally, they grew out of … Cicero and Seneca, the Romans,” Spalding said.

He argues that New College, which became part of the state university system in 1975, drifted away from its original purpose of teaching to “the current fads and the current pop ideas in the culture. … I think that the objective of New College is to recapture that sense of purpose that I think many of us associate with an older New College,” he said.

According to other Spalding interviews conducted on Hillsdale-aligned media, he believes that drift has occurred at many more institutions than just New College.

During the March 31 episode of the Hillsdale Dialogues, a podcast hosted by Hillsdale President Larry Arnn and conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt, Spalding said “almost all” universities in America are headed down “a road of progressive liberalism and certain smorgasbord of relativism.” He claimed that “the Left” holds control of academic institutions and is influencing a shift in teaching with the implementation of diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

One of the ways the Left is taking over, he says, is through DEI, also one of the first things the new trustees removed from the college. In the Hillsdale podcast, he compared DEI programs to cancer. 

“You see the areas where the modern university is being eaten away. Where is the cancer that needs to be removed?” he said. “In our case we went in at the very beginning and we removed the diversity, equity and inclusion program and all its aspects because we saw that as an immediate barrier at getting back to the work of teaching.”

Other Hillsdale podcasts, products push a return to traditional values

Spalding was not the only Hillsdale leader to share this view about higher education and other areas of American government on Hillsdale media.

Kevin Slack, a Hillsdale associate professor of politics and author of the book “War on the American Republic: How Liberalism Became Despotism,” said in a March 23 Hillsdale Dialogues episode that modern universities and federal agencies have been taken over by people who believe in 1960’s-style progressive ideology. He said their goal is to destroy the nuclear family, make the culture more secular and attack Christianity. 

“It took a long time for those to enter the mainstream of American life, but they did,” Slack said. “They have the institutions. They have the government.”

Their concern runs through all levels of education. Kathleen O’Toole, Hillsdale assistant provost of K-12 Education – and President Arnn’s daughter – said in an April 28 Dialogues episode that their curriculum for grade schools avoids current “politicized things.”

“School is not a political thing. If a school regards itself as a political thing, in its curriculum or teaching, it is not really a school. These are not places that are teaching kids to have particular political opinions. These are places that are educating kids in deep and serious ways,” O’Toole said.

A review of lesson plans for their high school civics curriculum, however, identified similar ideals to those espoused by Slack and Spalding, namely that the government and academic institutions are controlled by political progressives. It also adds that those people are critical of the founding principles of America and look to undermine the U.S. Constitution because they don’t believe in objective morality, which the curriculum says the founding fathers believed in.

This idea that the left is controlling America’s institutions is also one posited by another DeSantis-appointed New College trustee, conservative commentator and culture warrior Christopher Rufo. A senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, Rufo said during speeches at Hillsdale that the 1960s inspired Marxists to control American institutions, including companies like the Walt Disney Corp., which has a long history in Florida

“The 1960s saw the rise of new and radical ideologies in America that now seem commonplace, ideologies based on ideas like identity politics and cultural revolution,” he wrote in an essay adapted from a speech he gave at Hillsdale. “There is a direct line between those ideas born in the sixties and the public policies being adopted today in leftist-run cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago.”

Taking on ‘the Left’ on the campaign trail

DeSantis agrees with Hillsdale’s diagnosis of America. The “leftists controlling the institutions” talking point has been a key part of his education policy in Florida and presidential campaign stump speeches. 

In an interview on Arnn’s Hillsdale-produced podcast, The Larry Arnn Show, DeSantis said American academics and government institutions are “captive to left ideology, CRT (critical race theory), gender ideology.” He said he decided New College needed to change after a former politician talked to him about how it was “the Left of the Left.”

There’s little debate that New College has long been a haven for progressive and anti-establishment students. As a tour guide once said of the school, “We haven’t completely grown out of the hippie era,” according to a 2019 Sarasota Herald-Tribune story

“Academia has veered so far from its traditions of seeking truth and teaching people how to think for themselves that it is almost rare … you have higher education embracing truth,” DeSantis told Arnn. “So much of that is intellectual empty calories. A lot of that is spirit-of-the-age stuff, and the stuff you are talking about (traditional liberal arts education) has stood the test of time and it gives a foundation for the rest of your lives.”

While running for president, DeSantis has vowed to eliminate several agencies conservatives claim have been taken over by the left, including the IRS, and Departments of Education, Energy and Commerce. But he isn’t the only Republican saying that: Four candidates in total have pledged to dismantle the Department of Education, for instance. 

Of course, some political experts disagree. “This idea that American universities are teaching progressivism? They’re not. There is a lively debate in academics about regulation of federal government agencies. It's not one-sided at all,” said Edward Rubin, professor of political science and law and former law dean at Vanderbilt University.

Also, he said government agencies are required to run a modern society. Similar ideas were pushed by Republicans Rand Paul and Rick Perry in 2012, who ultimately failed electorally. “When you learn about what administrative agencies do and how the government works, this sort of simple anti-government rhetoric begins to seem less and less realistic,” Rubin said. “A democratic government is a government that responds to what people want. And what people want is services. They want education, they want healthcare. They want protection from pollution.”

On the attacks against diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory by Hillsdale and DeSantis, Rubin said they are an effort to “try to ignore the complexities that we really face,” and a focus only on classical education ignores important modern developments.

“This is what education does. Once you've learned something about not only the history, but the sociology of the United States, it becomes apparent how important it is to learn about tolerance and equality while recognizing other people's demands and rights. That's all critical race theory and DEI really is,” he said.

Rubin said the ties conservatives try to find between American academics and Marxist-inspired 1960s movements isn’t due to an actual conspiracy, but because some college academics still teach Karl Marx at all. 

“The rhetoric of the right has taken Marx to be the equivalent of Satan, and that anyone who takes Marx seriously is a Communist. In Europe, every student learns Marx, not because they’re all radicals and socialists, but because his theory of classes, capital and the structure of modern economy is underlying everyone's approach to society, government and economics,” he said.

So what is Hillsdale’s goal?

In his podcast interview, Spalding closed by discussing what he views is one of Hillsdale’s aims: To be the model university for universities across the country looking to shrug progressive trends.

“We want to be the city on the hill. The shining city to everybody. We want to lead this country and point the way towards saving its educational system because that's about forming minds, liberating those minds, making citizens but also making good, beautiful people,” he said.

For more of Matthew Spalding’s interview, click here. The transcript was edited for clarity and brevity. 

By the numbers

New College

Enrollment: 689 total students in Fall 2022 term (undergrad and grad)

Men: 221

Women: 460 

64% white, 3.9% Black or African American, 16.8% Hispanic/latino, 4.6% Asian, 5.5% two or more races, 3.8% ‘nonresidents,’ 1.2% race/ethnicity unknown

Average class size: 11

94 full-time faculty members

Tuition costs: Florida resident $6,916 yearly; nonresident $29,944

110-acre campus nearby to downtown Sarasota

Grading system: www.ncf.edu/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/2021-Provost-Letter-NCF-Grading-System-Explanation.pdf

Hillsdale College

Enrollment: 1,678 total students

50 percent male, 50 percent female

Racial demographics not published/unknown

Average class size: 14

154 full-time faculty

400-acre campus in the heart of small Hillsdale city, Michigan, population 8,030 (July 2022, U.S. Census Bureau)

Grading system: “Hillsdale uses the standard 4.0 grading system”

Tuition cost: $30,780 per year