Recapturing Higher Education
On the plan to transform New College of Florida into a classical liberal arts institution.
The most significant political story of the past half-century is the activist Left’s “long march through the institutions.” Beginning in the 1960s, left-wing activists and intellectuals, inspired by theorists such as Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci and New Left philosopher Herbert Marcuse, made a concerted effort to embed their ideas in education, government, philanthropy, media, and other important sectors.
This process came to spectacular fruition following the 2020 death of George Floyd, when it seemed that every prestige institution in the United States got busy advancing the same ideological line on race, gender, and culture—which, whether they knew it or not, mimicked the precise themes that the old radicals had originally proposed.
The long march through the institutions, in other words, was complete.
But conservatives, too, have updated their playbook. They have read their Gramsci and have begun to understand that ideological capture poses a grave threat to the American system. President Donald Trump shook conservatives out of their complacency with instinctual, if sometimes crude, cultural countermeasures. Florida governor Ron DeSantis has built on this approach, offering a sophisticated policy agenda for protecting families against captured bureaucracies.
Last week, DeSantis raised the stakes and proposed, for the first time, a strategy for reversing the long march through the institutions, beginning with what Marcuse believed was the initial revolutionary institution: the university. The governor appointed a slate of new trustees to the board of the New College of Florida, a notoriously left-wing campus, similar to that of Evergreen State in Olympia, Washington. DeSantis tasked the new board with transforming it into, to quote the governor’s chief of staff, the “Hillsdale of the South”—in other words, a classical liberal arts college that provides a distinctly traditional brand of education and scholarship.
The Florida state legislature has long been frustrated with New College, the state’s smallest public university, for repeatedly failing to meet recruitment targets, achieve financial stability, or improve its dismal dropout and graduation rates. The college accepts almost anyone, with a 74 percent admissions rate, but few choose to attend: the “yield,” or matriculation rate, is a grim 13 percent.
In recent years, legislators have contemplated shutting down the college altogether and transferring its assets elsewhere in the public university system. But, in a dramatic move, DeSantis proposed a last-ditch alternative: bring in a new board of reformers and turn the school around.
I was honored to be appointed to this board, along with friends and colleagues from the conservative movement, including Claremont Institute scholar Charles Kesler, Hillsdale College vice president Matthew Spalding, former Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein, and others. Governor DeSantis has tasked us with something that has never been done: institutional recapture. If we are successful, the effort can serve as a model for other states.
The premise of this reform is simple. Voters in Florida, who charter and fund the public-university system through their legislative representatives, deserve to have their values reflected and transmitted in their public institutions. Left-wing hegemony over public universities, in academic departments and administrations, is antithetical to free inquiry and civil debate. By transforming New College of Florida into a classical institution, voters will have access to a wider range of voices, scholars, and opportunities for their children. At a moment when universities are merging into a homogenous, “diversity, equity, and inclusion”-style morass, it is essential that the people’s elected representatives create meaningful alternatives.
This task won’t be easy. The legacy media has already sought to portray this effort as one of “barbarians at the gates of the university.” But the truth points in the other direction. As esteemed historian Daniel Boorstin observed in 1968, the activists of the New Left—that is, the progenitors of the “woke” ideologies that have now seized America’s institutions—were “the new barbarians” who rejected the ideals of the American Founding and sought to tear down society. “We must not be deceived by our own hypersensitive liberal consciences, nor by the familiar, respected labels under which the New Barbarians like to travel,” Boorstin wrote. “If American civilization is to survive, if we are to resist and defeat the New Barbarism, we must see it for what it is.”
Conservatives and old-line liberals, however, did not heed Boorstin’s warning. Decade after decade, they ceded institutional territory to the radical Left until, a half-century later, the basic narratives of the Weather Underground and the Black Panther Party, translated into the language of critical race theory and “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” had prevailed almost everywhere.
We hope to reverse this process, beginning on the Sarasota campus of New College. The board of trustees will assemble in the coming months, but in the interim, I have proposed various policy changes that will help the college to begin the reinvention. My proposals include redesigning the curriculum to align with the classical model; abolishing DEI programs and replacing them with “equality, merit, and colorblindness” principles; adopting the Kalven statement on institutional neutrality; restructuring the administration and academic departments; recruiting new faculty with expertise in the classical liberal arts tradition; and establishing a graduate school for training teachers in classical education.
Ours is a project of recapture and reinvention. Conservatives have the opportunity finally to demonstrate an effective countermeasure against the long march through the institutions. The Left’s permanent bureaucracy will be dead-set against this gambit, but if it succeeds, a new era for higher education—and for the country—is possible.
Originally published in City Journal.