DeSantis wants to give Florida college students an anti-woke option. What's the big deal?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken up the mantle as the most hated Republican in the country, and he sports it proudly.

That’s no easy distinction, coming after the likes of former President Donald Trump, who drove Democrats wild. The left’s ire, however, has shifted to the Sunshine State governor as he continues to rise in stature nationally and cement his legacy as a conservative culture warrior.

DeSantis has not hidden his agenda. He ran for reelection last year on an anti-woke platform, aimed largely at the state’s public schools and universities – places that help shape the hearts and minds of the next generation, which is why they are such a flashpoint.

The fact he won in a landslide – by nearly 20 percentage points – is indicative that many Floridians support the governor and want to see him follow through on his campaign promises to eradicate "wokeness."

A remaking of New College of Florida

While I’ve had concerns with how DeSantis has tried to limit speech at universities via law, his latest approach seems perfectly constitutional.

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The new dustup is over DeSantis’ makeover of one of the dozen four-year institutions in the state college network. The governor recently gave the trustee board of the Sarasota-based New College of Florida a major shakeup, appointing six members.

The new board meets for the first time Tuesday, and I’m guessing there will be more interest in this meeting than normal.

New College of Florida
New College of Florida

As governor, DeSantis has considerable control over the governing boards of both K-12 schools and higher education, and he tapped into that authority earlier this month in appointing the new members of New College’s 13-member Board of Trustees to fill vacancies and expired terms. The new board members at the small liberal arts public college are associated with conservative institutions and scholars.

Some of the individuals he appointed have garnered a large measure of national attention and outrage. A headline in The New York Times made it sound quite ominous: “DeSantis Allies Plot the Hostile Takeover of a Liberal College.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the crowd before publicly signing the Stop Woke bill in April 2022.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the crowd before publicly signing the Stop Woke bill in April 2022.

In higher ed, progressivism is fine, but conservatism is not

What’s amusing is that much of the criticism over what DeSantis is doing acknowledges that New College has a track record as a progressive, politically liberal institution, which is fine, apparently.

But efforts to transform New College – by far the smallest in the state university system at fewer than 700 students – into a more conservative, classical liberal arts institution?

That’s a terrible conspiracy!

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I think the reality will be less scary, and even good for many students and taxpayers, who might appreciate supporting an institution more reflective of their values.

Higher education, from administrators to faculty, has become notoriously liberal – and as DeSantis would say, woke – so this overhaul of New College is an experiment in bringing much-needed ideological balance.

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Of course, DeSantis specifically chose a few trustees he knew would rile the left. Chief among them is Christopher Rufo, a Manhattan Institute scholar who has almost single-handedly driven a revolution against critical race theory in schools and has now turned to targeting the “diversity, equity and inclusion” trend in the academic world.

Recently appointed trustees of New College of Florida, Jason "Eddie" Speir, left, and Christopher Rufo, listen to a question from a faculty member on Jan. 25, 2023.
Recently appointed trustees of New College of Florida, Jason "Eddie" Speir, left, and Christopher Rufo, listen to a question from a faculty member on Jan. 25, 2023.

Similarly, DeSantis appointed Matthew Spalding, a vice president and dean of Michigan’s Hillsdale College to the board. The small private liberal arts college – and my alma mater – frequently gets national attention for its independent stance and conservative marketing.

The college refuses to accept federal or state funding and is thus free from the rules and regulations attached to those dollars. Even more important, however, is the college’s deep liberal arts tradition and its commitment to a classical curriculum.

A clone of Hillsdale College?

That seems to be what DeSantis wants to emulate at New College of Florida. One of his staffers admitted as much when he said the goal was to create something along the lines of a "Hillsdale of the South."

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I have no doubt that some people hear that and assume DeSantis’ goal is to create a bunch of conservative clones. But that’s the opposite of what a liberal arts education does. This kind of education is about giving young adults the tools and the background to think critically and pursue the truth – not indoctrination from either side.

“I don't see this as a question having to do with the left or right at all,” Spalding told me. “The problem in the current environment is that education has become politicized not by Republicans and Democrats or left and right, but really postmodernism and a complete rejection of the very grounding of education.”

Spalding said the goal is not to turn New College into a copy of Hillsdale. New College has its own mission and history, and he said the trustees should honor that.

USA TODAY columnist Ingrid Jacques
USA TODAY columnist Ingrid Jacques

What Hillsdale can model, Spalding said, is what a traditional liberal arts education looks like, “which is about studying and reading and having a course of studies about some of the best minds and some of the best books, thinking about some of the hardest questions about the human condition in the pursuit of truth.”

The reality is much of the fuss is unwarranted. No institution can be transformed overnight, and that will be the case with New College. Yet, DeSantis had undertaken an interesting experiment, and one other conservative governors will watch closely.

Ingrid Jacques is a columnist at USA TODAY. Contact her at or on Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: DeSantis' Hillsdale approach to New College shouldn't raise alarms