Ron DeSantis Can Save America’s Universities


Published June 13, 2022

National Review

Jason Garcia at the Seeking Rents Substack recently published a piece entitled “Ron DeSantis plotted an all-out assault on public universities.” Garcia’s piece is based on public-records requests for communications between DeSantis’s office and the Florida state legislature. In particular, Garcia’s report refers to lengthy and heretofore unpublished draft legislation, composed, he says, at the request of the governor’s office and designed to reform Florida’s public university system. The bulk of this draft legislation was not introduced during the now-completed 2022 Florida legislative session, and DeSantis’s office declined to comment when Garcia asked whether the governor has plans to introduce it in the future.

Whereas Garcia sees DeSantis’s not-yet-introduced legislation as a plot against university autonomy, I see it as a basis for the restoration of authentic liberal education to America’s over-specialized and heavily politicized public universities. With a few tweaks that I’ll suggest here, DeSantis’s plan could become what we’ve never before had: a blueprint for restoring liberal education.

Linger a moment over that last point. America’s system of higher education is so dominated by a politicized intellectual monopoly that merely adopting a plan of reform is far from the greatest task we face. The real challenge is coming up with a proposal that has a ghost of a chance of changing universities at all, even if certain to be adopted. The campus monoculture is extraordinarily tough to reform because tenure and academic freedom — protections designed to nurture a thriving marketplace of ideas — have had the opposite effect in practice. They have been abused to create and protect an intellectual cartel. With the vast majority of faculty and administrators already part of that monoculture, reformist interventions face an impenetrable brick wall of resistance.

Up to now, it’s been impossible to craft a program of higher-ed reform that weakens the intellectual monopoly currently controlling our universities, without also undermining the principles of intellectual freedom that make the university a worthy institution to begin with. For the first time that I can recall, however, there may be a way to square this circle. With just a few additions, DeSantis’s not-yet-introduced legislation offers a blueprint for opening up the university’s intellectual monoculture while still respecting academic freedom. Let’s have a look at the plan.

The first plank hinges on the role of Florida’s university boards of trustees. DeSantis’s draft legislation says:

Each university board of trustees is responsible for hiring faculty. The president may provide hiring recommendations to the board: However, the president or the board is not bound by recommendations or opinion of faculty or other individuals or groups. The board may delegate its hiring authority to the president; however, the board shall approve or deny any selection by the president.

In assigning the power and responsibility for faculty hiring to a university’s board of trustees, rather than to the university president or existing faculty, this draft legislation appears to be taking a radical step. Garcia certainly treats it that way. Yet the truth is more complex. Ultimately, this provision simply restates what is already the case. All university boards of trustees have final power over, and responsibility for, not only faculty hiring but everything else that a university does. Trustee power is generally delegated to presidents, who in turn delegate their power to provosts and other officers, who in turn delegate their power in practice to faculty, and so on. Every administrator up the chain, however, has the option of revoking their delegated power and making the final decision themselves. This means that boards of trustees already have the ability to hire or fire faculty, as they see fit, should they choose to intervene in any particular case. It also means that trustees are ultimately responsible for what presidents and other representatives of the university do.

On the other hand, while it’s true that public-university trustees already have the power to directly oversee faculty hiring, in practice this rarely happens. Presidents and trustees generally rely on the subject expertise of faculty members for hiring decisions, and they tend to approve whatever the faculty recommends. This sometimes makes sense, of course. Too often, however, university trustees simply rubber-stamp hiring decisions by the faculty. This trustee passivity and neglect help explain how universities came to be dominated by intellectual monopolies in the first place. Trustees are responsible for setting the overall direction of a university’s academic life. Nurturing a robust marketplace of ideas is very much a part of that responsibility. In the current climate, this means trustees must take a more active interest in faculty hiring than they normally do; otherwise, the monopoly will never be broken.

DeSantis’s draft legislation publicly reminds trustees of the power over faculty hiring that they already have, yet seldom use. When the governor who appointed them publicly saddles trustees with responsibility for faculty hiring, it becomes tougher for trustees to entirely delegate their powers away. Trustee positions at public universities are often political plums offered by governors to their most accomplished supporters. Too often, trustees enjoy the prestige and perks of their position while acting as little more than boosters for their university. Aversion to active programs of university reform is, sadly, as typical of trustees appointed by Republicans as those appointed by Democrats. DeSantis’s draft legislation pushes trustees into a more active role, not only by emphasizing and publicizing their ultimate responsibility for faculty hiring, but by provisions for trustee training which, if wisely contracted out, could have a very significant effect.

I want to suggest a way that trustee involvement in faculty hiring can work a major change in Florida’s universities. First, however, let’s look at the second key plank of DeSantis’s draft higher-ed legislation.

Plank No. 2 establishes a general education requirement for Florida’s public universities. That is bolder than it sounds. Many universities claim to have general education requirements. In practice, however, these supposed courses in the fundamentals amount to cafeteria-style menus of hyper-specialized, experimental, or pop-culture-themed courses. Too often, universities slap a “general education” label on courses built around whatever obscure research topics their professors happen to be working on at the moment. The approach outlined in the DeSantis’s draft legislation is different.

Under this plan, in order to graduate from a Florida public university, a student must take at least one course in all of five general categories: communications (i.e., writing and public speaking), humanities, natural science, social science, and mathematics. Each of the five subject areas can offer no more than five courses to fulfill that requirement. That means the big hyper-specialized course menus are out and a few courses covering the fundamentals are in. So far, we’re simply looking at a more than usually robust general-education requirement. At this point, however, DeSantis adds something stronger.

DeSantis’s draft legislation lays out guiding principles for general education programs at Florida’s public universities. General education should create “informed citizens” and “promote democratic values through traditional, historically accurate, and high-quality coursework.” Course curricula based on “unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content,” the draft continues, are inappropriate for general education and should be confined to advanced electives instead.

The draft then adds: “General education courses must promote the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization and include studies of this nation’s historical documents,” mentioning the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers as examples. DeSantis’s draft legislation then adds definitions of the communications, humanities, and social-science subject areas that link them to “the Western literary tradition,” “classical works on logic, rhetoric, and ethics,” and “basic principles of government of the American republic” respectively. In other words, the DeSantis draft establishes a robust general-education requirement grounded in the classic conception of Western civilization and traditional American civics. That may sound commonplace, but in today’s woke university it is revolutionary.

Wisely, DeSantis’s heretofore unpublished plan includes provisions for the regular review and evaluation of general-education courses to ensure that they are consistent with the program as authorized by law. Penalties for noncompliance are significant. Universities stand to lose substantial state funding should they attempt to circumvent these new requirements.

Yet just here is where the plan risks running into that brick wall. Faculty typically don’t want to teach courses on the basics. They’d rather build classes around their specialized research. And faculty nowadays don’t want to convey the foundations of Western civilization or traditional American civic — except perhaps to slam them. Threatening to substantially reduce university funding for direct defiance of the law is an entirely justified response, of course. Certainly, it should stay in the bill. In the end, however, personnel is policy, and recalcitrant faculty will likely find stealthy ways to undermine the intentions of the new general-education program, even under the threat of funding cuts. That’s why I’m going to suggest a way to step around the brick wall rather than attempt to dismantle it. To find that path around faculty resistance, we need to examine plank No. 3.

The third part of a potentially transformative reform plan for Florida’s public universities has already cleared the state legislature. This month, DeSantis signed an education appropriations bill that included $3 million to fund “The Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education” at the University of Florida. The precise function of the new center remains to be detailed, but early indications are that it is meant to help educate both university and K–12 students on “the core texts and great debates of Western civilization” and “the principles, ideals, and institutions of the American political order.” It looks like training for K–12 civics teachers will be part of the center’s remit as well.

Establishing a center to advance studies of Western civilization and American civic ideals is a welcome idea, and a well-established way of trying to expand intellectual diversity at institutions of higher education. The James Madison Program at Princeton is probably the most famous example of such a center. Recently, the Arizona legislature helped to found a similar center at Arizona State. A single institute like this can make a huge positive difference on a campus otherwise dominated by the usual university monoculture. That said, a drawback of such centers is that they reach only a limited number of students.

What I want to suggest is a way of combining the three reform planks I’ve described in a way that will greatly magnify the effect of each one. This whole can be far greater than the sum of its parts if Florida takes the following steps.

First, hire a number of senior faculty to run the Hamilton Center. The Board of Trustees should directly supervise these searches, which fall squarely into the domain of trustee responsibility. A university board of trustees’ core charge is to set the university’s long-term academic strategy, in this case by adding coverage of traditionally neglected subjects such as Western civilization and American civic life. Since the purpose of these job searches is to expand the university’s academic range into new areas, input from existing faculty, while of interest, will be of less importance than is ordinarily the case. Trustees should directly consult with scholars who have national reputations in the Hamilton Center’s designated areas of expertise. Trustees should also consult with groups with strong expertise in the teaching of civics and Western civilization — such as the National Association of Scholars and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni — while conducting their faculty search. Success or failure will hinge on the capacity to solicit, evaluate, and profit from the advice of experts outside the dominant academic monoculture.

Second, put the Hamilton Center in charge of staffing two to three of the five general-education offerings in the areas of communications, humanities, and social science. To fill out a staff large enough to teach these courses to the bulk of undergraduates, create a Hamilton Center postdoctoral lectureship for promising new Ph.D.s (a common way of staffing traditional, university-wide general-education courses). These teaching postdocs would be selected by senior Hamilton Center faculty, under the supervision of the trustees. Trustees should take a direct interest in the development of all general education courses. Post hoc evaluation is not enough. Prospective general-education courses should require prior approval from the trustees to ensure their consistency with the legislatively outlined statement of purpose.

Third, over time, grant the Hamilton Center departmental status, allowing it to sponsor its own courses and its own major. Over the long term, consider creating a Hamilton Center graduate program with the ability to grant doctorates.

The effect of these changes would be to substantially rebalance the focus of Florida’s public universities. Every undergraduate would be required to take at least one general-education course in communications, humanities, and social science. A good 40 to 60 percent of the general-education courses on offer in those subject areas would be designed and taught by Hamilton Center staff. If the Center also sponsored an undergraduate major (and eventually a graduate program), a genuine alternative to the usual university monoculture would have been established and institutionalized. More than a contrarian corner of the university, the Hamilton Center would become a major institution-wide force. This plan would constitute a profound and far-reaching reform of Florida’s universities, yet all of it is well within the legitimate limits of legislative and trustee power.

In one respect, however, I would pull back a bit from the program laid out in the unpublished legislative draft. That draft explicitly bars critical race theory and identity politics from the general-education program. While I favor these sorts of limits in K–12, they are not consistent with academic freedom in higher education. Nor are they necessary to ensure that the new general-education program provides a genuine alternative to current academic orthodoxy.

Simply indicating, say, that general-education courses should “teach the principles of Western civilization and the debates that have historically surrounded them” would suffice to establish the proper focus. Given this authorization, it would be improper for a general-education course to foreground critical race theory (CRT) and related ideas. On the other hand, if a teacher wants to reference or discuss CRT in passing, this would not be forbidden. Nor should it be forbidden under a proper understanding of academic freedom. Substantively, politically, and legally, this tweak is well advised. A heavier hand is unnecessary, unwise, and counterproductive. CRT can legitimately be barred by legislation from student orientation, employee training, and other administrative areas of higher education. Constitutionally, however, the university classroom must be walled off.

This plan’s success is far from guaranteed. Arizona, for example, provides a case study in a university’s subversion of well-intentioned legislative requirements. The university’s resistance will begin immediately. In contrast, the Hamilton Center will need time to acquire a new staff and find its feet. The trustees will have to be active and vigilant in the meantime. There are real risks here, yet a path to success exists.

The not-yet-introduced DeSantis legislative plan, along with the additions proposed here, really does have the potential to significantly transform Florida’s public universities and, eventually, every state university system in the country. If Governor DeSantis isn’t already thinking of turbocharging his plan and putting it into effect, I hope he’ll do so at the first opportunity.

Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. On a wide range of issues, from K-12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).

Image: Patriot Nation Press


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