American institutions are in the midst of a hostage crisis. But the new hostage-takers don’t use tape, wire, or cuffs. Instead, they wield the even more powerful restraints of guilt, shame, and identity, which have allowed a small minority of left-wing activists to establish their ideology—notably, critical race theory—at the highest levels of institutional life.
For the past two years, I have explored the dynamics of ideological capture in a series of articles for City Journal that document the rise of critical race theory and coercive “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) programs in America’s schools, corporations, and government agencies. Now, I’m observing the same phenomenon from the inside, as a participant in Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s recently announced initiative to recapture the Sunshine State’s smallest public university: New College of Florida.
Since signing my oath as one of the newly appointed trustees, I have spent many hours in communication with administrators, faculty, students, and alumni. Many of these people have whispered to me about the “culture problem” at New College. They have described something resembling a hostage situation on campus, in which left-wing activist students have mobilized a grievance narrative and exploited the DEI-style bureaucracy in order to isolate, shame, intimidate, and expel anyone who dissents from the politics of social justice.
As an institution, New College has long known about the problem. A consulting firm hired by the previous university president pointed out that the campus had become an “echo chamber,” with left-wing students creating a hostile political atmosphere and using the college’s online forum to launch polemics against conservative and religious students.
And yet, little has been done. The adults have effectively ceded authority to the most aggressive, intolerant, and ideological members of the community, who wield the language of “trauma” and “diversity” in pursuit of a suffocating left-wing orthodoxy, which they use to justify a perpetual campaign to silence and exclude anyone on the wrong political end of the intersectional hierarchy.
The hostage dynamic is notable, and perhaps even more powerful, because it is unspoken. All of the New College employees with whom I have spoken acknowledge the “culture problem” in private—but none has been willing to raise the issue in public. They are afraid.
To be fair, this is by no means unique to New College. In recent months, as I have been working on university reform policies, I have spoken with many academics at prestigious universities who tell me that they must conceal their beliefs or publish their opinions pseudonymously in order to protect themselves from vengeful left-wing activists in the faculty, administration, and study body. Being identified as a conservative, even of the mildest variety, can mean social, reputational, and career death.
The irony is that many of these professors are not overtly political. They love their disciplines and want to engage in cutting-edge scholarship in the humanities, arts, and sciences. But the culture of the modern university has become so closed, so suffocating, so bureaucratic, that even science and mathematics departments have been submerged into the empty ideologies of racial and sexual revolution.
For many in academia, the conservative counterrevolution at New College offers hope. Despite years of lament, from the publication of Allen Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind to the condemnation of the mobs targeting Jordan Peterson at University of Toronto, Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State, Nicholas Christakis at Yale, Charles Murray at Middlebury, and Heather Mac Donald at Claremont McKenna, little has been done.
But now, with his “hostile takeover” of the New College board, Governor DeSantis has initiated the first-ever attempt to recapture a public university from the intersectional bullies and to restore the necessary preconditions for a classical liberal education: respect for the institution, a commitment to civil discourse, and the pursuit of truth, rather than ideology.
There is no guarantee that this gambit will work. I will be holding a town hall at New College later this week, and administrators have warned me that they have had to set up additional security measures. Some supporters have even quietly suggested that I should cancel the appearance because my physical safety could be at risk. “They are going to go ballistic,” said one confidant connected to the college.
But I will not cancel. American institutions, from the Ivy League to the Fortune 100, have been taken hostage precisely because their leaders have consoled themselves with titles and prestige, while delegating their moral authority to those who pursue power under the false pretense of compassion. If this dynamic is to be disrupted, it must begin with defiance of such intimidation: a willingness to speak the truth, to address the problem, and to articulate a vision that can transcend the ugly politics of the present.
I remain optimistic. The ambition for New College, seen in another way, is quite modest. The institution was founded in 1960 with a commitment to the classical liberal arts curriculum, the pursuit of academic brilliance, and the promise of colorblind equality. Though the college’s mission has drifted since that time, the spirit is still there; it can still be resurrected.
And so, we will plunge into a period of inevitable conflict and controversy, with determination to advance the interests of the people of Florida, to honor the founding principles of New College, to restore the possibility of civil discourse, and to demonstrate that there is a way out of the institutional hostage crisis—which all can see, but few, so far, have been willing to confront.
Originally published in City Journal.