But that sort of lament has largely left the new trustees unmoved. When a current LGBTQ+ student told reporters about her grief, Rufo quoted her comments on Twitter, adding a laughing-crying emoji.
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.”
In terms of the former, he elaborated, states should defund diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and find creative ways to undermine university departments perceived as too liberal, like changing state teacher accreditation laws as a means of rendering teachers colleges irrelevant. Both suggestions have become common conservative talking points over the last year. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported this week, South Carolina legislators have requested information from its state’s 33 public colleges and universities regarding training around race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, following similar moves in Florida and Oklahoma.
In terms of what the right does like, Rufo advised state legislators to fund the creation of new, independently-governed “conservative centers” within flagship public universities to attract conservative professors, create new academic tracks, and serve as a “separate patronage system” for the right.
“Some people don’t like thinking about it that way,” Rufo said. “But guess what? The public universities, the DEI departments, the public school bureaucracies are, at the end of the day, patronage systems for left-wing activists. And as long as there’s going to be a patronage system, wouldn’t it be good to have some people who are representing the public within them?”
In many ways, that’s an old idea. Big-money donors on the right like the Olin and Koch foundations have been establishing “beachhead” academic centers in universities across the country since the 1970s, as a means of shoring up academic arguments for right-wing policies, creating a pipeline of conservative talent, and endowing professorships for right-wing scholars—some of whom, more moderate academics suggest, are unemployable on their own merits. (Of possible note here: Corcoran’s appointment to New College follows his failed bid to become Florida State University’s president in 2021, when he was passed over, apparently, in part for lack of qualifications.)
But these days, the model has been adapted, so that funds for such programs and institutes are increasingly coming from state legislatures directly, as numerous red states have passed bills establishing new “classical” and “civics” institutes with barely-disguised agendas. In Arizona, the legislature effectively replaced private donations from the Koch foundations with taxpayer funds in order to create a new School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State, to address a claimed lack of ideological diversity. In Texas, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has sought to establish a free-market think tank at University of Texas Austin, partly as a response to critical race theory. In Tennessee, Governor Lee paired his proposal to create dozens of Hillsdale charters with a call to build a $6 million, Hillsdale-inspired civics institute at University of Tennessee Knoxville to combat “anti-American thought.”
Florida already has several, including a politics institute at Florida State; the Adam Smith Center for the Study of Economic Freedom at Florida International University; and the University of Florida’s freshly-approved Hamilton Center for Classical and Civics Education, dedicated to “the ideas, traditions, and texts that form the foundations of western and American civilization,” and tasked with helping create anti-communist content for Florida’s new K–12 civics curricula.
Last spring, this track record prompted another Florida school, St. Augustine’s private Flagler College, to worry that it was being, well, groomed to become “the Hillsdale of the South.” The legislature was considering a multimillion dollar grant for the school to establish its own “Institute for Classical Education”—money that was certainly needed and might also be used to shore up existing programs, but which faculty feared would come with intolerable strings. Professors there brought a resolution to the faculty council, declaring that, if the funding came through, faculty would retain control over how it was used for hiring and curriculum creation. In Flagler’s case, the administration readily agreed.
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