Ron DeSantis’s Fascist Overhaul of Florida’s Institutions Isn’t New but It Is Terrifying

Feature image by Rana Faure via Getty Images

If you didn’t grow up in Florida or know anyone who did, chances are you’re not familiar with New College. Located on a relatively small piece of property that once belonged to the Ringling family, overlooking the Sarasota Bay on the west coast of Florida, New College is a public, progressive liberal arts institution that has, since its inception, been a haven for marginalized people, outcasts, and just general weirdos seeking an alternative to traditional academia. Founded in the 1960s, it was conceived as a place where students could practice total academic freedom. During a time in Florida history when most institutions were slow to desegregate, New College opened its doors to everyone regardless of race, gender, or religion.

New College was started in response to the post-McCarthy-era purging of civil rights activists, supposed communists, LGBTQ people, and allies to all those groups from Florida’s state institutions in the late 1950s. The school’s first president was directly related to Alger Hiss and sought to create an academic environment that promoted “free inquiry” and had no “church control” and/or “canned patriotism.” There is a lot more than just that that sets New College apart from all of the other public universities in the state — not least of which is its reputation for being a safe haven for LGBTQ students and its radical approaches to teaching and learning. Its ability to not only survive but grow to become one of the top public universities in the country is proof that its student-centered approach is and has been working for a long time. Many of New College’s more well-known alumni are experts in their fields and are often working across multiple disciplines at a time. This week, well-known poet, scholar, and abolitionist organizer Jackie Wang tweeted that their education at New College was “more rigorous than Harvard.” In addition to its other accomplishments, New College rose to some national prominence a few years ago when it was credited as being the place that helped prominent white-nationalist, R. Derek Black, renounce white-nationalism and begin his journey attempting to atone for the damage his work has caused.

I guess, then, it should be no surprise that New College is the latest victim in the newest incarnation of the far-right’s cyclical fascistic quest to turn Florida into the worst possible place for anyone other than rich white-nationalist dudes with golf clubs and big guns (and their white-nationalist wives) to live. On Friday, our piece of shit governor, known by his public name Ron Desantis, announced via press release that he was appointing six new members to New College’s 13-member Board of Trustees. Three of these appointments might sound a little familiar to people who have paid close attention to the far-right’s attack on schools in recent years: Matthew Spalding, a “professor” of government at Hillsdale College, an ultra-conservative Christian college that Desantis wants to model the new New College after; Charles Kesler, a senior fellow at far-right think tank, the Claremont Institute; and perhaps the biggest trashbag of them all, Christopher Rufo, who is both an outright bigot and one of the most vocal public proponents in the “fight” “against” “critical race theory” in public schools.

These appointments are still subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate, but given that the Senate is now controlled by a far-right and Republican majority, I think it’s safe to say these appointments aren’t just possibilities. Unfortunately, according to New College’s Board of Trustees Regulations Manual, the Board has a lot of power to control student life and alter the school’s degree and course offerings, which means these changes to the board could truly change the future of New College. On Twitter, Rufo claimed that he and Desantis are “recapturing higher education” with this move and shared a fascistic set of goals he intends to pursue with the other board members. The list includes things like “shift the university to a classic liberal arts model” (this doesn’t mean what it normally means, this is fascist-speak for “stop teaching things we deem as at odds with our worldview”); “abolish ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ and replace it with ‘equity, merit, and colorblindness’”; and worst of all, “hire new faculty with expertise in constitutionalism, free enterprise, civic virtue, family life, religious freedom, and American principles.” As with everything else, this is yet another attempt by Desantis and Rufo to make Florida the place where “woke goes to die.” (Yes, typing that physically pained me.)

The thing about culture war is that if you don’t fight against it with a set of tactics that actually impact people’s material realities, it becomes a substantive war that dares to threaten not only the direct target of the attacks but everyone else around it. I know it’s easy for those of us who consider ourselves radical leftists to see this and think about how most collegiate institutions in the U.S. are already fairly conservative just based on the fact that academia is generally not a place where revolutions happen. But this move is particularly unique in that Desantis and his cronies are taking a place that has generally been considered a bastion of both progressive and rigorous student-directed education and community-driven social justice activism and essentially demolishing the structures that are in place that make it so important to not only the state of Florida but the entire country. New College’s model and the sense of community that has been cultivated there as it is right now should be the models for academic institutions everywhere, not lambasted for not being “classical enough.”

If Desantis and his people are successful in accomplishing their goals, then this will mean further repercussions for the other public institutions in the state. Already, since the passage of the absurdly named “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” many of Florida’s public institutions have struggled to figure out just what the hell they’re supposed to do about their curricula despite the Florida courts’ attempts at blocking the legislation altogether. At the University of Central Florida, our largest public university, for instance, they’ve had to cancel a significant chunk of their core sociology curriculum in fears that offering the courses would mean reduced funding from the state. In my own experiences as an educator at a private institution linked to a private university that receives some state funding, I’ve seen how the confusion about what the bill actually entails has led to attempted policy changes in everything from how we treat trans students to what our diversity officers can and cannot do. A complete takeover of a publicly-funded university would not only have horrendous effects on the faculty, staff, and student body at New College, but it would also riptide, not ripple, through the rest of the institutions in the state.

What’s more disturbing, however, is that because this is happening in Florida — a place whose populace y’all typically blame for the political decisions of the rich and ruling classes here — people are not likely to pay close attention to what this means more broadly. Since Desantis originally ran for governor in 2018, many of us have been sounding alarm bells from down here about the power he has and the divisiveness his leadership has caused. In response to much of what is happening, I’ve seen people outside of Florida — and some transplants here who similarly deride the state in ways that lack critical thinking — say that it’s our fault he was elected and then re-elected, but that is an increasingly irresponsible response for two reasons. First, Florida has historically been gerrymandered to hell and is among the worst in the nation for it — a fact that has only been made worse since Desantis’s election — which means much of the state’s marginalized population has never had equal access to voting. And second, since the start of the pandemic in 2020, Florida has seen an average of 1,000 people a day moving to the state mostly as a response to northern states’ much stricter Covid-19 policies and while that is innocuous-enough fact on its own, I can’t help but notice how it coincides with another disturbing demographic development. Last year was an historic year for the Republican party in the state as they outpaced Democrats for the first time in decades in terms of new state voter registrations. Although some of us have been talking for many years about the inevitability of Desantis running for president, it looks like that day is coming up even faster than we could’ve projected and given his popularity amongst not only other fascists but also liberals somehow. The deconstruction of New College could sooner rather than later serve as a model that GOP leadership will use to change the face of higher education around the country.

I’m not an alumnus of New College (though I did spend a nice chunk of my early 20s wishing I was) but I’ve seen the school’s transformative impact on friends who attended and, now, my former students who choose to attend. I can see how the sense of inclusivity, the intellectual freedom to pursue multiple passions at once, and the sense of responsibility it takes to lead their own education that New College provides helped and is helping turn them into passionate and compassionate community leaders who might help turn our society into the kind of place GOP leadership rails so hard against. But that isn’t the only reason to be concerned about this overhaul. The deconstruction of New College could, sooner rather than later, serve as a model that they will use to change the face of higher education around the country. I hate to be the kind of person that says shit like “If it could happen to us, it could happen to you” but that’s looking more and more likely to be the truth.


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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 31 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. DeSatan (apologies to Satan), is out of control. His wife wants Handmaid’s Tale a reality and he’s just cosplaying along with her (since she undoubtedly knows all his dirty little secrets, which I’m sure are very gay and very drag). I don’t judge. My brother-in-law likes to wear women’s clothes. Wouldn’t surprise me if Ron slipped on a stiletto or two.

    Casey would know. She’s the one in control. Not him. He’s evil, yes but he’s a moron. She is crafty, intelligent one that is calling all the shots. She is telling him exactly how to be an authoritarian. I get vibes from people and she is pure evil. There’s something about her I don’t trust at all and if I had to wager a bet, it’s because Ron isn’t 100% on the level for her…standards. So, she’s punishing all.

    Just like the guy that heads CPAC and every other Republican that puts forward a bill or signs something into law. Eventually the truth comes out and they are all one of the following: pedophile, sexual assaulter, closeted LGBTQ+. Never fails. Never. I’ve always said, those that scream the loudest about something are the most ashamed of themselves for the same thing.

  2. “an average of 1,000 people a day moving to the state mostly as a response to northern states’ much stricter Covid-19 policies and while that is innocuous-enough fact on its own”

    WHAT?! Hardly.

    If people are in fact moving to Florida for lax (non-existant) COVID regulations, that’s not innocuous. It’s accelerating Florida as a petri dish for new COVID variants, and—maybe even worse—it’s giving Florida even MORE of a electoral voice for people who don’t give AF about other people!

  3. As a proud alumnus of the Empty Set (yes that is our mascot) I think it’s appropriate to be worried but it’ll take more than some shitty board members to break the school. And from my research they have power but way less than they claim to on Twitter. I’m more concerned it’ll become a self-fulfilling prophecy where the admission applications suddenly shift.

    It’s a really special place. It was where I came out, had my first relationship with a woman, figured out who I wanted to be. Students arranged to have Andrea Gibson and it remains one of the best nights of my life 10 years later.

    It’s also not for everyone, I saw a lot of incredibly smart friends drop out because they couldn’t stay focused without someone hounding them. But if you can get through it you’ll have the tools you need to achieve your goals.

    The students are passionate, intense, highly intelligent rabble rousers. Other shit has been thrown at us before. I hope and believe they can overcome this new challenge too!

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