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Gov. DeSantis targets 'trendy ideologies' at Florida universities

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A small, public university in Florida is at the center of a political storm involving students, faculty and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. DeSantis, a likely 2024 presidential candidate, has been working to reshape education in Florida. NPR's Greg Allen reports he now wants to transform a liberal arts university, the New College, into one modeled on conservative principles.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Ron DeSantis has become well known nationally for his pugnacious approach to politics and public policy. One of his main targets has been schools, which he says teach values of diversity, equal treatment and inclusion that he derides as woke. At his inauguration for a second term as governor, he said part of his focus is on state colleges and universities.

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RON DESANTIS: And we must ensure that our institutions of higher learning are focused on academic excellence and the pursuit of truth, not the imposition of trendy ideologies.

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ALLEN: Days after that speech, DeSantis put his words into action, appointing six conservative educational activists to the board of trustees at the New College in Sarasota. It drew immediate protests.

ANNA ESKAMANI: These attacks are politically motivated to suppress freedom of speech, to put into place DeSantis' supporters.

ALLEN: Democratic State Representative Anna Eskamani has been working with students and alumni opposed to what they see as a conservative takeover of the school. DeSantis hasn't talked about the new appointments, which still have to be confirmed by the state Senate, but his staff says they're intended to change the school's direction. In a statement, his press secretary says, New College, quote, "has been completely captured by a political ideology that puts trendy truth-relative concepts above learning." Eskamani believes there are other reasons DeSantis targeted New College for a conservative makeover.

ESKAMANI: Not only does it have a smaller alumni base, thus less students to fight back, but it also is nestled within a fairly conservative part of the state.

ALLEN: Most worrying to advocates of New College are the people he's appointed to the school's board. At the top of the list is Christopher Rufo. He's a conservative activist, who helped make concerns about critical race theory a national issue among Republicans.

CHRISTOPHER RUFO: We know that higher ed has been deeply corrupted by left-wing ideologies, particularly around race and gender.

ALLEN: In an interview, Rufo says he's helped advise Governor DeSantis on educational issues, including on how to reshape colleges and universities to better represent conservative values. That's what he hopes to do at New College.

RUFO: I think it's going to be a kind of oasis or a beacon of hope for conservative families in Florida who want an alternative to the diversity and inclusion of left-wing ideologies that have saturated so much of higher education.

ALLEN: That, of course, is a highly contentious position and one which educators in Florida and elsewhere say simply isn't true. Andrew Gothard, a professor at Florida Atlantic University and head of the state's faculty union, says it's wrong to frame principles governing higher education as left-wing ideologies.

ANDREW GOTHARD: The examples that I've seen of why New College is progressive is because a lot of their language says that they are interested in equality and making sure that students and faculty, no matter their background, their gender orientation, their sexuality, their race, have an equal shot at higher education. That doesn't sound to me like progressive. That sounds to me like the American ideal.

ALLEN: Rufo has never served on a university board before, but says he's excited to put his ideas into action. He hopes to write a new mission statement for the school, create a new core curriculum and hire new faculty dedicated to conservative values. He says he'll work to abolish programs promoting diversity, equity and inclusion and replace them with ones that favor equality, merit and colorblindness. Rufo says he expects opposition, and he's ready for it.

RUFO: There's going to be conflict in the immediate term, but in the medium and long term, I think that we can make this the most dramatic turnaround in higher education and really be model for red state governors all over the country.

ALLEN: Other new board members with more experience in higher education are more circumspect, saying it's doubtful big changes will come quickly. They're predicting a less controversial process that will involve a partnership with students and faculty.

Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.