Kathryn Joyce: “The Florida of Today is the America of Tomorrow”: Ron DeSantis’s New College Takeover Is Just The Beginning
Kathryn Joyce is a journalist who has covered the folks on the conservative side of the culture panic in the US. In a recent piece for Vanity Fair, she digs into some of the implications of Ron DeSantis’s takeover of Florida’s New College.
The invocation of Hillsdale College, a 1,500-student private Christian school in rural Michigan, might seem a surprising model for overhauling a public Florida institution, but it shouldn’t. The college, sometimes called “the citadel of conservatism,” has long had an outsized political influence in movement conservatism. Right-wing politicians and advocates vie for slots in its speaking program, the speeches of which are then distributed to a claimed audience of 6 million through a monthly Hillsdale publication. Ginni Thomas, a conservative activist who sought to overturn the 2020 election, and who is married to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, facilitated the launch of Hillsdale’s Capitol Hill campus in Washington. This magazine called Hillsdale a “feeder school” for the Trump administration.
Hillsdale has also spent the last 12 years proselytizing its Western civilization-focused model of “classical education” through a nationwide charter school-planting network, a bundle of freely-licensed right-wing K–12 curricula (including its ahistorical post-Trump “1776 Curriculum”), and its extensive connections with conservative state leaders. It’s largely thanks to Hillsdale that the idea of “classical education”—despite its varied forms and perspectives—has become right-wing shorthand for anti-“woke” American exceptionalism and an antidote to critical race theory. Last year, Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee announced plans to open 50 Hillsdale charters across the state; the year before, Hillsdale president Larry Arnn, who is also the former president of the Claremont Institute, claimed that South Dakota governor Kristi Noem offered to build him an entire campus. (Noem’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)
But in Florida, Hillsdale’s footprint is uniquely large. The state boasts the highest number of Hillsdale-affiliated K–12 publicly-funded charter schools, several launched or directed by spouses of prominent state Republicans, including Corcoran and Republican congressman Byron Donalds. Hillsdale was instrumental in helping DeSantis overhaul the state’s K–12 civics standards along more “patriotic” lines. Last year the state hired a Hillsdale duo—one staffer, one undergraduate—to assess whether math textbooks Florida teachers submitted for approval contained prohibited concepts like critical race theory. And a number of prominent Florida officials, including Corcoran and DeSantis himself, have addressed gatherings hosted by the college, where Arnn praised both men as among the most important people in America today.
Rufo has addressed Hillsdale audiences too: once in early 2021, where he laid out what quickly became Republican talking points about critical race theory, and again last spring, in a speech entitled “Laying Siege to the Institutions,” which he recently described as his “theory of action.” In the latter address, delivered while Rufo was teaching a journalism course for the college, he called on state legislators to use their budgetary power to reshape public institutions, including higher education.
“We have to get out of this idea that somehow a public university system is a totally independent entity that practices academic freedom—a total fraud, that’s just a false statement, fundamentally false—and that you can’t touch it or else you’re impinging on the rights of the gender studies department to follow their dreams,” he said. Instead, conservatives must have the guts to say, “‘What the public giveth, the public can taketh away.’ And so we get in there, we defund things we don’t like, we fund things we do like.”