So what, really, is DeSantis establishing as “his brand”?
His big new move is the hostile takeover of the New College of Florida, a small liberal arts college known for being the most liberal public higher education institution in the state. DeSantis installed six new members of the board of trustees, including Christopher Rufo, the right-wing think-tanker whose attacks on public education have included being the architect of the campaign against “critical race theory” (teaching about race) in schools and a leader in using “grooming” to describe any acknowledgement that LGBTQ people exist and have rights. In a speech last year on “Laying Siege to the Institutions,” Rufo argued, “To get to universal school choice, you really need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust.” In other words, his explicit mission is to undermine public faith in public education—and he’s now on the board of a public college.
DeSantis also added the superintendent of a religious charter school to the New College board of trustees, along with a dean from Hillsdale College, a private Christian school. If the intention to transform a public higher education institution into a religious college isn’t clear enough, DeSantis’ chief of staff made it explicit in a statement, saying, “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.”
DeSantis claims that currently, Florida’s colleges and universities “impose ideological conformity to try to provoke political activism” and are “hostile to academic freedom,” which he’s trying to change. By putting in slates of right-wing activists and Christian school administrators and making it easier for those people to fire teachers who disagree with them. The words “impose ideological conformity” are apt, but only because that is exactly what DeSantis is trying to do.
The new DeSantis-appointed board moved quickly to remove Patricia Okker as the college president.
“It seems many of the students that come here have determined that they don’t necessarily fit into other schools,” the parent of a transgender student at New College told the Times. “They embrace their differences and exhibit incredible bravery in staking a path forward. They thrive, they blossom, they go out into the world for the betterment of society. This is well documented. Why would you take this away from us?”
Another of the new DeSantis trustees suggests an answer. “DeSantis’s most recent appointee, Ryan Anderson, is the president of a conservative think-tank and author of a book that was so transphobic that Amazon pulled it from its inventory,” Jen Cousins and Jordan Zakarin report. “That’s no problem for DeSantis, though, because Anderson’s work fits his objective worldview.”
This is real harm that DeSantis is doing, and he’s nakedly doing it for political advantage. This is not taking on an establishment. It’s attempting to impose Christianity and white supremacy on public schools. And yes, DeSantis is doing it for political advantage, but that doesn’t mean that the real story here is whether it’s going to work on that front. The damage he’s doing is the story. The harm to students—not just the trans kids or the Black kids, either, but also the white kids whose education is being stunted and who are being taught that they deserve protection from even the most passing discomfort—is devastating. In addition to those students, there are teachers and professors whose jobs are being threatened because they don’t fit the demands for ideological conformity from a governor opposed to academic freedom.
These are the things the media should be talking about. It’s not enough to acknowledge that they, like most of DeSantis’ high-profile recent actions, are intended to position him for 2024. And if it works to position him for 2024, the harm involved is still the important thing to cover, along with serious coverage of what it means that this kind of bigotry and opposition to freedom is appealing to one party’s base voters. Not five
Trump DeSantis voters in a diner somewhere offering up shallow quotes while their deeper motivations go unchallenged. Actual interrogation of what’s going on here and the permission structures politicians like DeSantis are setting up to not just normalize but valorize racism and homophobia. If this is the “brand” a politician builds to succeed in a Republican primary, what does that tell us about his party? That’s not a question The New York Times is interested in even admitting could be asked.
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