DeSantis' new assault on public education: Breaking New College of Florida

Frank Cerabino
Palm Beach Post
New College of Florida in Sarasota

Gov. Ron DeSantis is in the process of remaking (destroying) a great state college.

The governor announced last week that he’s appointing six new trustees to “fix” New College of Florida, the smallest school in the state’s public university system — and one that’s constantly lauded as one of the best bargains in higher education.

New College doesn’t need fixing. And yet … 

“It is our hope that New College of Florida will become Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the South,” Florida’s Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. said.

(Translation: When you see the word “classical,” it means white European-centric. Sorry, Maya Angelou.) 

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Making public college in the image of Christian private school

Hillsdale College is a small Christian private school in Michigan. One of the new trustees to New College will be Christopher Rufo, a Hillsdale dean who has claimed that public universities are “corrupted by woke nihilism.” 

“Gov. DeSantis is going to lay siege to university diversity, equity and inclusion programs,” Rufo wrote on Twitter.

I’ve had some close encounters with both New College of Florida and Hillsdale College. And I would be hard-pressed to find a bigger crime against higher education in Florida than to turn the jewel that is New College into the portal of white Christian nationalism that is Hillsdale.

Let me explain.

Hillsdale College, which these days promotes God-and-country pablum that masquerades as conservative intellectual thought, has strayed very far from its own history.

The Michigan college was founded by anti-slavery Baptists in 1844, and has a statue of the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass on campus. Douglass spoke at Hillsdale in 1888 in a speech that urged Americans to face with honesty the country’s history of racism.

Saying he was proud of being reproached by white people for waving “the bloody shirt,” Douglass said at Hillsdale: “I am not ashamed of that reproach. The reproach is rather to those who made it bloody, not those who hold it up to view.”

Hillsdale takes right-wing plunge

Hillsdale’s sharp turn to the political right was crystalized by the appointment in 1971 of university president George Roche III, who led the college for the next 28 years. 

Rather than acknowledge the need for safeguarding civil rights in America, Roche used college publications to give a voice to South Africa’s apartheid prime minister complaining about giving power to “backward races.” And Hillsdale’s newsletter warned about allowing Blacks in Zimbabwe to have a voice in their future.

“The answer to the cry for majority rule is No, No, Never.”

Domestically, Hillsdale railed against Hollywood, the media, and the moral decay caused by the erosion of “family values.” The college became the darling of the Republican Party when it refused federal funds rather than supply admission statistics for Black students.

In 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan appointed Roche as chairman of the National Council on Educational Research. 

I got to witness Roche’s shtick at The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach in 1993. The college was hosting a one-day seminar that was, in a way, a precursor to an evening of watching Fox News.

“We’re here to talk about culture wars,” said Roche, who referred to then-President Clinton as “Slick Willie.”

Hillsdale's day at The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach

There was nothing even remotely academic or scholarly about the day. It featured a speech by Watergate crook Chuck Colson entitled, “Can We Be Good Without God?” Former actor Cliff Robertson, who was pitching for AT&T in those days, recited a poem about the American flag he wrote on Breakers’ stationery.

“Hold on, Old Glory. Hold on, Old Girl.” 

(There wasn’t a wet eye in the house.)

The big draw was the actor Henry Winkler, who was in his post-Fonz period. Winkler earned his lunch of snapper with macadamia-nut crust by saying that he wouldn’t let his daughter go trick-or-treating as Madonna.

Yes, we were saving America from Madonna in those days. Hold on, Old Glory! 

I wrote about this sinkhole of academic profundity, which prompted Roche to respond by saying I was the embodiment of the moral decay in the media. 

In the interest of being fair and balanced, Roche’s tenure at Hillsdale ended abruptly six years later when his daughter-in-law, a school employee and the mother of his grandson, committed suicide in a campus gazebo after claiming that she and Roche had been having a 19-year affair while she was married to his son.

Hillsdale gave Roche a $1.2 million sendoff, making him the highest-paid private college administrator in the country that year. How’s that for some good old-fashioned Christian family values? 

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Frank Cerabino

The school continues on the path pioneered by Roche. It’s making itself the darling of today’s Republicans by championing a fraudulent version of America’s racial history and decrying diversity while making a bogeyman of public education. All while it pushes its own affiliated charter schools in politically friendly states.

Its current president, Larry Arnn, was secretly recorded a few months ago voicing his disdain for public school teachers and colleges of education.

“Teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country,” Arnn said. “The heart of modern education is enslavement.”

Former President Donald Trump had made Arnn the chairman of the 1776 Commission, an advisory board tasked with coming up with “patriotic education” that would be used in the nation’s schools. The commission was designed as a refutation of The 1619 Project by the New York Times, a detailed analysis of the history and legacy of the country’s racial past. 

In the final week of the Trump administration, the 1776 Commission issued its own report on American history, which was widely decried by historians as propaganda.

“The 1776 report is a puerile, politically reactionary document,” tweeted David Blight, the author of a Frederick Douglass biography. “It doesn’t really use evidence except to employ founding documents and too many quotations out of context.”

For example, it defends the Founding Fathers for keeping slaves while espousing that all men are created equal. That doesn’t make them hypocrites, the report said. 

“This charge is untrue, and has done enormous damage, especially in recent years, with a devastating effect on our civic unity and social fabric,” the report said. 

Hillsdale to aid DeSantis in "anti-woke" posturing

For DeSantis, partnering with Hillsdale College dovetails nicely with his own promotion of dumbed-down history while sowing mistrust of public institutions he can't fully stifle.    

And targeting New College of Florida is an easy mark.  The college is LGBTQ-friendly. It’s got 36 percent minority enrollment. And it’s a truly unorthodox school with a history of clothing-optional graduation ceremonies. 

The small school on the old Ringling estate in Sarasota has an enrollment of fewer than 700 students. It’s not for everyone. You’ve got to be a self-motivated learner. There’s no Greek life, football team, or multiple-choice tests. There are reading, discussions, and one-on-one tutorials with professors for courses designed by the students themselves.

“If you are interested in learning for the sake of learning in an honors college that has no required courses, an evaluation-based grading system, and that produces winners wholesale, try New College of Florida in Sarasota,” is how the Florida school is described in the book, Colleges That Change Lives

Turning New College of Florida into another Hillsdale College would be education vandalism.

Consider this. One of the graduates of New College of Florida is Derek Black. Black is the godchild of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, and the son of Don Black, the West Palm Beach white supremacist who runs the website Stormfront. 

120308 met kkk Staff photo by Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post 0059252A - WEST PALM BEACH - Derek Black, son of a former KKK grand wizard, talks to Sid Dinerstein about his seat as a republican executive committee member, at the Palm Beach County Governmental Center in downtown West Palm Beach Wednesday. Black won an election in August, but failed to sign a loyalty oath before a June 20th deadline.

Derek Black was slated to be the future leader of the white supremacist movement. But then he enrolled at New College of Florida, hoping to remain anonymous among the people he had been taught to hate. 

His plan backfired. He was outed while there. But instead of being shunned, fellow students engaged him in discussions, and by the time he graduated, Black had come to terms with his own racism.

"Through many talks with devoted and diverse people there — people who chose to invite me into their dorms and conversations rather than ostracize me I began to realize the damage I had done," Black wrote in an op-ed piece in The New York Times. "Ever since, I have been trying to make up for it."

Black went on to study history at the University of Chicago. And he was one of the many New College of Florida alumni decrying last week’s move to meddle with the college.

“With the news today of the Florida administration announcing an anti-LGBT and anti-social justice board for my old college, this conversation feels important,” Black tweeted. “They are trying to undo the small progress making New College a better home for its community. It feels very personal.”

I can’t help but think that if New College of Florida was more in the image of Hillsdale College, a budding white supremacist enrolled there would be less likely to have a moral epiphany, and more likely to feel smugly comforted in his own bigotry. 

Frank Cerabino is a columnist at The Palm Beach Post, part of the USA TODAY Florida Network. You can reach him at fcerabino@gannett.comHelp support our journalism. Subscribe today.