Republicans’ Hostile Takeover of Higher Education

Richard Corcoran, a Ron DeSantis ally and interim New College president, once told a conservative audience, “Education is our sword, that’s our weapon.”
Florida Governor and GOP presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis.

Florida’s House Bill 999 offers a terrifying preview of conservatives’ agenda for higher education. The bill, which was introduced in February, would grant Florida’s Board of Governors sweeping control over the state’s public universities and transform the state’s public education system into an incubator for far-right politics.

The law joins a wave of legislation across the country targeting so-called “critical race theory” or CRT, “diversity, equity, and inclusion” initiatives known collectively as DEI and academic tenure. Where I live in Texas, for example, the University of Texas system just suspended all new policies that promote diversity, equity and inclusion.

These measures will compromise students’ education, prevent schools from attracting and retaining faculty and funding and increase bias in higher education. In Florida, professors have already begun censoring important course content, searching for other jobs and discouraging other faculty from coming to their state.

The Florida law, among its wide-ranging components, authorizes the Board of Governors to remove degree programs related to “Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor.” It also prohibits the use of state funds for DEI programs, setting an example that many states seem prepared to follow. 

This weaponization of education is a core component of conservatives’ political strategy. That’s not an opinion; it’s a quote. At the New College of Florida, the state’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis filled the board of trustees—which governs the school—with conservative activists who ousted the college president. They replaced him with Richard Corcoran, a Republican politician who once told a conservative audience, “Education is our sword, that’s our weapon.”

When DeSantis appointed right-wing strategist Christopher Rufo as a New College trustee, Rufo described the “takeover of New College” as a means of “reconquering public institutions.” Addressing his 500,000 Twitter followers, Rufo announced his plan to “recruit new students who are mission-aligned” with “an uncompromising new conservatism.” 

Conservatives’ aggressive takeover of higher education requires dismantling DEI and so-called CRT programs because access to diverse materials and social contexts fosters critical thinking. Overwhelming evidence shows that research teams with varying backgrounds, areas of expertise, thinking styles and skill sets are not only more innovative, but come up with more accurate predictions and better solutions.

By teaching students to engage with pressing social problems, inclusive learning environments equip students to protect themselves from political indoctrination. For most people, these are laudable goals of higher education; for extreme conservatives like Rufo, they prevent students from becoming “mission-aligned.”

Dismantling DEI programs will hinder far more than classroom content. DEI represents a wide range of initiatives that ensure people can participate more fully in their roles as students, faculty and staff. DEI is central to resources like food pantries; support for veterans, first-generation, rural and disabled students; mental and physical health care; and offices that address harassment or violence.

Eliminating DEI programs and censoring course content could also make universities ineligible for major private educational or research grants. Many require recipients to address matters of diversity and inclusion or to tackle structural inequities along the lines of race, gender and disability.

Without offices and programs to facilitate equitable working and learning conditions, public universities will be exposed to expensive lawsuits. Legal experts are already debating whether anti-DEI measures will make it harder for institutions to defend against discrimination claims. 

People of color, women, LGBTQ+ people and disabled people will be most heavily impacted by this hostile legislation, but these bills will also devastate universities’ abilities to attract and retain talented faculty and to actually educate the students they’re meant to serve. 

To be clear, DEI programs are only as effective as those involved with their implementation. Without the appropriate resources and wisdom, they’re capable of replicating existing bias. But banning efforts to make universities more equitable and removing entire disciplines that study histories of racial and gender discrimination will guarantee that universities are hostile to difference and new knowledge.

The United States is moving toward a more diverse future, regardless of conservatives’ regressive campaigns. A majority of K-12 students are now people of color. The number of people identifying as LGBTQ+ increases with each generation. And 26 percent of U.S. adults identify as having a disability. 

We need university resources and governance that will help grow these spaces alongside new generations of thinkers and leaders. Without a staunch defense of diversity, equity and inclusion, conservatives will not only “conquer” but destroy public higher education.

This column was produced for the Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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V. Jo Hsu

V. Jo Hsu is an assistant professor of rhetoric & writing at the University of Texas at Austin, a Public Voices Fellow of the Op-Ed Project, and the author of Constellating Home: Trans and Queer Asian American Rhetorics.

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