We Should be Worried About Ron DeSantis’ Attack on the Liberal Arts

Ron DeSantis, the demagogic Governor of Florida, seems to constantly be in national news headlines these days. He pushed for the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, recently rejected the newly-created AP African American Studies course from being taught in his state and has gained massive popularity among conservatives for his perceived toughness on ‘culture war’ issues.

Some of DeSantis’ most controversial actions have come in the domain of education. His state’s Department of Education announced last week that it would not allow AP African American Studies to be taught, citing the course’s “political agenda.” He has faced significant blowback from teachers, teachers’ unions and many national figures on the left. 

One of DeSantis’ more under-the-radar moves on education, however, has been his plan to completely transform the New College of Florida, his state’s public liberal arts college, which, along with Dickinson, is a member of the Eco-League, the consortium of six institutions that offers exchange opportunities for sustainability education. 

At the beginning of January, DeSantis announced his appointments to the New College’s board of trustees, which included prominent conservative activist Christopher Rufo, the architect of the conservative firestorm around Critical Race Theory, and Matthew Spalding, dean of Hillsdale College’s Graduate School of Government. 

It is DeSantis’s stated purpose to remodel New College, currently a bastion of the liberal arts, with a tight-knit student community that champions LGBTQ+ rights and a progressive approach to education — students receive written evaluations of their performance, not grades — as the “Hillsdale of the South.” 

Hillsdale, an iconoclastic liberal arts school in Michigan, is well-known for its deeply conservative approach to higher education, championing a curriculum based on the Greco-Roman tradition. In recent years, Hillsdale has focused on expanding this educational philosophy beyond its campus, most notably in an agreement to train staff and set curricula for charter schools across the nation.

The fact that DeSantis sees the destruction of a place like the New College of Florida as a priority in his plan for education should raise serious alarm bells for anyone who cares about the liberal arts. The New College represents a bold approach to the liberal arts that centers inclusion and liberal democracy, producing leaders in academia, law, the arts and even educated Dickinson’s previous college president, Margee Ensign.

If DeSantis succeeds in his quest to dismantle New College and, as “Philadelphia Inquirer” columnist Will Bunch put it, “purge the diversity and equity focus that students celebrate, and curb classroom discussions about race, gender, or sexuality,” it will be a warning sign of things to come in the national debate on higher education.

It is not just outrage at the treatment of our fellow liberal arts students that we should feel reading about this effort, but a legitimate fear that DeSantis and his compatriots may attempt to bring this campaign against the educational experience that we hold dear to the rest of the country.

See, DeSantis cannot be dismissed as just the wacky governor of some Southern state; he is one of the early frontrunners for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. He has been performing better than former President Donald Trump in head-to-head polls, and there is a very serious possibility that we see a DeSantis presidential run two years from now. 

Should Ron DeSantis ascend to the presidency, or another Republican who shares even an iota of his attitude towards the educational philosophy that made the New College of Florida the target of his ire, Dickinson and other similar institutions must be prepared to fight for what we believe a liberal arts education should be. 

Though we attend a private college, Dickinson receives federal funding and students receive federal financial aid. A DeSantis administration could hold federal funds hostage for a ransom of our compliance with any number of paradigm shifts at the Department of Education. 

The rhetoric from DeSantis appointees to the New College board should send shivers down all our spines. Rufo, the CRT critic, told the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg, “We want to provide an alternative for conservative families in the state of Florida to say there is a public university that reflects your values.” It is imperative that we recognize the significance of these moves in Florida to the landscape of higher education across the country.

Bottom line: what Ron DeSantis is doing to the New College of Florida is beyond disturbing — it threatens to upend the very notion of higher education that we believe in at Dickinson.