The Latest Battle in the Conservative War on the American Mind

Photo: Octavio Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When Ron DeSantis appointed six far-right trustees at the New College of Florida, he did so with destruction with mind. An inquisitive culture and quirky spirit once set the liberal-arts college apart from its peers, but what made it unique made it objectionable to the right. Now the college faces an involuntary transformation, and the latest casualty may be its gender-studies program.

On Thursday, the school’s board voted to begin the process of eliminating the major. Christopher Rufo, a trustee and conservative activist appointed by DeSantis, said that gender studies was “wildly contradictory” to the goal of reviving “a classical liberal-arts agenda,” the Tampa Bay Times reported. Rufo and his allies can’t unilaterally ban the program. According to the Times, the college’s general counsel “advised that the university would need to comply with state regulations and collective bargaining agreements before making a final decision.” If they get their way, however, students will be worse off for it. That inquisitive culture is under siege.

The DeSantis trustees are open about their illiberal motivations. In a piece for City Journal, Rufo bragged that 36 professors have left New College, “clearing the way for a large number of new hires interested in pursuing the great human questions rather than maintaining a stifling, left-wing echo chamber.” But Rufo is motivated not by “the great human questions” or a hostility to echo chambers. There is no evidence that he prizes intellectual inquiry. Instead, he wants an echo chamber of his own. He admitted as much in City Journal. Lawmakers and college trustees “have the right — the duty — to redirect, curtail, or close down academic programs in public universities that do not align with the mandate of the taxpayers who generously support them,” he wrote. That is incompatible with any recognizable definition of academic freedom, which must function independently of any “taxpayer mandate” in order to exist at all.

Rufo then tried to skate around the issue of academic freedom by defining gender studies out of academia altogether. The field is really “ideological activism,” he claimed, and universities thus have the right to eliminate it. “Finally, every university has a mission — and a corresponding obligation to honor it,” he concluded. “The mission of New College of Florida is to restore classical liberal education and to revive the pursuit of transcendent truth,” which is “incompatible with the disciplines of gender studies and queer theory, which are explicitly opposed to the classical conceptions of the true, the good, and the beautiful.” The students of New College may have questions for Rufo. Who gets to decide what is true, and good, and beautiful? Rufo has appointed himself the arbiter of each quality, without debate or challenge. That’s not how higher education works.

At least, not in a public context. The kind of college that Rufo wants already exists. It’s Hillsdale, or the conservative Christian college I once attended. These private institutions can limit academic freedom on their campuses, and they do. Every class I took as an undergraduate had to include a “biblical worldview.” The goal was not to broaden my mind, but to train me to think obediently. Conservative trustees have explained the conquest of New College in more secular terms, but their efforts are just as out of step with the mission of higher education.

What we see at New College, then, is a war on the American mind. We should understand clearly the deeper implications of their work in Florida. Their assault on academic freedom assaults, too, the very notion of a thriving public sphere. DeSantis and his handpicked trustees are remaking a public institution in the image of some private fiefdom. Though Rufo wants us to believe he is merely bringing New College into compliance with taxpayer opinion — that his views are also held by the masses — there’s again no evidence that the public wants a Hillsdale in place of the original New College. Even if that evidence existed, it wouldn’t justify the elimination of gender studies. A public institution should be committed to unfettered intellectual pursuits — for the betterment of all. Nothing could be more distasteful to the right wing. Conservatives have bid for control and domination, and on one college campus they see victory within their grasp. That’s a problem for everyone, not just the faculty and students of New College.

The Conservative War on the American Mind