Florida’s attacks on academic freedom just got even worse | Moira Donegan

Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign is flailing: the Florida governor, once considered a formidable contestant for the Republican nomination, is polling at a pathetic 14.8% among the Republican contenders. His camp is struggling to raise money, and the candidate’s public appearances have revealed him to be interpersonally unpleasant – coming off stiff, judgmental and creepy.

At the Iowa state fair last week, DeSantis was caught on video telling a little girl, who was clutching a fairground treat, “that’s probably a lot of sugar”. The governor, a man so joyless that he scolded a child for eating candy, was later the subject of a taunting banner flown over one of his events: “Be Likable, Ron!”

But just because DeSantis will not become president doesn’t mean that his constituents in Florida will be relieved of the policies he put in place there while trying to draw national attention to himself. In a years-long campaign that now seems destined to end with a third-place finish in Iowa, DeSantis reshaped Florida in his image, pursuing culture-war fights that he hoped would grab media attention and convince Republican primary voters that he was hurting their most hated enemies.

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Among these was the seizure and restructuring of New College of Florida, a public liberal arts college in Sarasota that was long known in the state for its curious students, eclectic faculty and countercultural bent. DeSantis overhauled the college’s board of trustees, appointing his own loyalists. The man newly in charge of New College is Christopher Rufo, a rightwing influencer known for whipping up moral panics. He’s been given a mandate to make the school conservative, bringing the curriculum in line with the governor’s ideological preferences, and reshaping it in the image of Hillsdale College, a private conservative Christian school in Michigan.

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Now Rufo has escalated his attacks on New College, transforming a board of trustees meeting into an ideologically driven attack on academic freedom – and eliminating the school’s gender studies department.

Last Thursday’s trustees meeting was supposed to be mostly about the college’s quest to hire a new president: three far-right candidates were interviewed earlier that day. The meetings were already tense. New College’s students and faculty, along with staff, alumni and many ordinary Floridians, are appalled at what is being done to the school. The candidate interviews were livestreamed, but they had to be conducted in a secure separate building, cordoned off by police tape. When the board met in public in front of an audience, the proceedings became so contentious that four different onlookers were removed by police.

For his part, Rufo seems to be courting this controversy. Like DeSantis, his is a politics of contempt, made up largely of sneering attempts to elicit an outraged reaction from his victims. At the board meeting, he brought up the proposal to eliminate gender studies abruptly, without advance notice to the full board, and without allowing any time for public comment. When student and faculty trustees – including Grace Keenan, the student body president, and Amy Reid, the director of the gender studies program – pointed out that the proposal violated procedures required by Florida state law, Rufo, who appeared at the meeting on Zoom, bulldozed through anyway. When Reid spoke movingly in defense of her program and its importance to students, Rufo could be seen in mute on the projector screen above her, laughing.

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Rufo’s own plans for the school are vague. Earlier in the meeting, he and his fellow DeSantis appointees had voted to overhaul the college’s course load, so as to require students to take courses in fields he designated using the Greek words “logos” and “technos”. It’s unclear what these terms are supposed to signify, or how exactly Rufo is translating them: “logos” is often interpreted as “word” but “technos” can mean either “technology”, “art” or “skill”. But perhaps the old-timeyness of the ancient Greek is all that Rufo is really going for: like much of the modern right, and indeed like DeSantis himself, he is solemn only in his style, and merely peevishly cruel in his substance.

More to the point might be the fact that the end of New College’s gender studies department mirrors the broader project of Rufo’s boss, the terminally unlikable Ron. DeSantis has long been modeling his governorship of Florida on the rule of the autocratic Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, a darling of the American right who hosted 2023’s Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. DeSantis’s “don’t say gay” ban on LGBTQ+ content in instruction for K-12 students was an imitation of an Orban-backed law banning “gay propaganda” anywhere minors might see it; the destruction of the gender studies program at New College follows Orban’s ban on gender studies programs in 2018.

But DeSantis’s attacks on education go beyond the strictly defined gender studies field. Florida’s 2023 high school social studies curriculum advances the insultingly reductive lie that “slaves developed skills” that could be used “for personal benefit”. The attempt is to twist historical fact to legitimize a brutal and unjust racial hierarchy, and the same could be said of DeSantis’s attack on gender studies: to render natural and right what is in fact unnatural, constructed and violent.

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For his part, Rufo framed the attack on gender studies at New College in flippant, even blase terms: “The best universities, when they have programs that do not fit in with the mission … make hard calls to discontinue those programs.”

Thanks to Rufo, New College is no longer among Florida’s best universities. And the “mission” Rufo was assigned to pursue there had less to do with scholarly integrity than with DeSantis’s culture-war fight-picking and presidential aspirations. It is a mission that is doomed to fail. Students and faculty at New College, however, are the ones who will suffer the consequences.

  • Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist
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