Inside Higher Ed
February 1, 2023
The Ron DeSantis takeover of Florida higher education was on full display Tuesday. First the Republican governor announced plans to defund diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at state colleges and universities. Then, later that day, his handpicked trustees at New College of Florida convened for their first board meeting, where they ousted the president and began the process of reshaping the institution into a facsimile of Hillsdale College, a private Christian institution in Michigan.
DeSantis, now in his second term, launched the opening act on Tuesday when he announced promised higher education reforms. He proposed defunding DEI efforts and restricting the use of DEI statements in hiring practices, giving boards and presidents the power to review tenure at any time, and requiring that state research universities spend $50 million annually on research related to STEM and business initiatives. Lawmakers are likely to take up the reforms when the state Legislature convenes in March.
The legislation DeSantis championed mandates that “any general education course be based on providing a strong educational foundation, and not promote ideological indoctrination.” DeSantis also announced plans to develop civics institutes at the University of Florida, Florida International University and Florida State University.
But it was the new NCF trustees who provided the main event on Tuesday, pushing President Patricia Okker out and moving to hire Republican former state politician Richard Corcoran as interim president, with an NCF staffer holding the role in the meantime. (The board is comprised of six members appointed by DeSantis, five appointed by the Republican-led Florida Board of Governors and one representative each from the student body and the faculty.)
While the authority of the new trustees is limited to one small college of about 700 students, their appointment—and provocative agenda—represent the broader aim of DeSantis’s push into higher education, serving as a laboratory for a conservative experiment to reshape academe in the Sunshine State. And with DeSantis’s eye on a potential White House run in 2024, this week’s events in Florida offered a glimpse of how the battle over higher education could play out on the national stage during the next presidential race.