DeSantis's New College Coup Will FailRoundup
tags: Florida, higher education, critical race theory, Ron DeSantis, Christopher Rufo
Adam Laats is a professor of education and history at Binghamton University, State University of New York. He is the author Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education (Oxford, 2018), and tweets @AdamLaats.
The history is clear: Conservative colleges can have huge successes, as long as they don’t do what Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, is doing right now.
DeSantis has stacked the Board of Trustees at Sarasota’s New College of Florida with conservative celebrities. As Christopher Rufo put it, he plans — as the most famous and disputatious new board member — to form a hostile “landing team” to overthrow the existing progressive campus culture, top to bottom.
There’s plenty of precedent for this kind of thing. In the 1920s, conservatives grew alarmed by what they saw as the wild anti-Americanism sweeping modern campuses. They tried to thwart the changes at both public and private institutions, but the task was not as easy as they imagined. Though they scored some big successes when they observed two fundamental principles, those lessons came at the cost of repeated humiliating failures.
In the public colleges of North Carolina, for instance, conservatives tried to fire progressive faculty members. Albert S. Keister was one of the first. In 1925, Keister was attacked for telling a group of students that the Bible was a form of mythology, and for having “infidel ideas” that questioned white supremacy.
Conservatives thought they could simply fire him because they dominated the state legislature, but Harry W. Chase, the president of the flagship University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, stymied their efforts. Chase went public, warning the people of North Carolina that such attacks threatened the very existence of high-quality public education in their state. Any “real university,” Chase wrote, needed to guarantee the academic and intellectual freedom of its faculty. In the end, Chase won and Keister kept his job.
Even private colleges were much harder to transform than conservative pundits had promised. In 1927 a well-known conservative Baptist preacher, T.T. Shields, took over a financially struggling Baptist school, Des Moines University. He swept onto campus promising a top-to-bottom overhaul, a radical transformation that would create a “great Christian school of higher learning.” His first move was to fire all faculty members, forcing them to endure probing one-on-one interviews to get their jobs back. He also attempted to drastically alter campus culture, forbidding female students to engage in public athletics and banning the teaching of evolutionary theory.
It was a disaster. The entire faculties of the science and math departments refused to return. Fans of opposing football teams humiliated the Des Moines squad by chanting “Darwin! Darwin!” Eventually, students rioted against the new administrators, pelting their offices with rotten fruit and driving Shields back out of town.
Those abject conservative failures, however, were not the whole story. Bob Jones University, in South Carolina, and Hillsdale College, in Michigan, are very different from one another, but they both managed to become very successful, very conservative institutions of higher education — in part by learning the lessons of Des Moines and Chapel Hill.
The first challenge for conservative institutions is to prominently promote themselves as something different, something unique — a kind of university experience that mainstream universities could not provide. Bob Jones, for example, was founded in 1926 explicitly as a renunciation of open, mainstream higher education.