Friday, August 11, 2023

The Arc of Reform

By Christopher F. Rufo

New College of Florida votes to abolish its gender studies program.

The New College of Florida board of trustees voted to direct the administration to abolish the university’s gender studies program, becoming the first public university in America to begin rolling back the encroachment of gender ideology and queer theory on its academic offerings.

The decision, sure to elicit a fierce response from left-wing critics, is part of a broader transformation. In January, Florida governor Ron DeSantis appointed me and a number of other reformers to the New College board of trustees. He tasked us with a challenging mission: to revive classical liberal education and restore the founding mission of the college, which had been established with an appeal to New College at the University of Oxford.

From the beginning, we knew that this assignment would involve more than a “rebranding” campaign; it would require an overhaul of the structure of the college and its programs. In our first months as a board, we initiated significant changes to the central administration, firing the president, replacing the provost, abolishing the DEI department, and hiring political veteran Richard Corcoran as our interim president. We got pushback—student protests, media condemnation, a disapproving visit from California governor Gavin Newsom—but we patiently continued the work, deliberating over questions of governance and making hard choices about the college’s future.

These changes have already borne fruit. Interim President Corcoran has secured millions in new funding from the state legislature, launched an ambitious campus-renovation plan, and recruited the largest incoming class in the college’s history, putting the school on its strongest financial footing in decades. Simultaneously, Corcoran has recruited a new team that is busy rebuilding the institutional capacity of the college, which had atrophied significantly under previous administrations, and designing a new core curriculum, which will begin with an immersive first-year study of Homer’s Odyssey and continue to provide a foundation based in logos (the cultivation of human reason) and techne (the cultivation of the applied arts).

The faculty has changed, too. Through a combination of cultural incentives and good fortune, many of the most ideological, left-wing faculty members, who presided over the old orthodoxy and expressed strong opposition to the classical liberal arts, have left the university. Aaron Hillegass, a professor who said that he would “burn the college’s buildings to the ground” if he were “more patriotic,” resigned. Nicolas Delon, a professor who justified a violent protest against the new administration, left the college. Liz Leininger, a professor who spread baseless accusations of “McCarthyism” at New College, departed on her own accord.

In total, 36 professors have exited, clearing the way for a large number of new hires interested in pursuing the great human questions rather than maintaining a stifling, left-wing echo chamber. The college’s new cohort of scholars boasts Ph.D.s from institutions such as Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, and Northwestern. More importantly, all these professors share a commitment to classical liberal education, which prioritizes the pursuit of “the true, the good, and the beautiful” over the deadening bureaucratic trinity of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Which brought us to the current question: Given its new mission to restore the classical liberal arts, what should New College do about its gender studies program, which, under the old regime, had affiliations with more than one-third of all faculty and served as the centerpiece of academic life? The resounding answer from the trustees: abolish it immediately. While this decision may seem obvious to many conservatives, who have long criticized gender studies as a pseudo-scientific, non-scholarly vessel for partisan activism, it is worth explaining the reasons for eliminating the department in greater depth.

The argument in favor of abolition has three parts. First, despite recent shibboleths about “academic freedom,” state legislators and boards of trustees have the right—the duty—to redirect, curtail, or close down academic programs in public universities that do not align with the mandate of the taxpayers who generously support them. When public universities violate their part of this social contract, the people, through their elected legislators and appointed representatives, have every right to insist on reforms. Yes, public university professors, such as those at New College, have a First Amendment right to promote gender pseudoscience—but they are not entitled to an unlimited state subsidy for that speech.

Second, a strong precedent exists for abolishing academic departments that stray from their scholarly mission in favor of ideological activism. As I have detailed previously, the University of California, Berkeley, shut down its criminology school after it was hijacked by left-wing radicals and used to promote highly controversial “prison action.” Likewise, the University of Chicago shuttered its education school after it had adopted a program of low-quality, left-wing activism in place of rigorous scholarship. In both cases, administrators made the prudent decision to terminate these programs.

Finally, every university has a mission—and a corresponding obligation to honor it. The mission of New College of Florida is to restore classical liberal education and to revive the pursuit of transcendent truth—a mission ultimately incompatible with the disciplines of gender studies and queer theory, which are explicitly opposed to the classical conceptions of the true, the good, and the beautiful. These postmodern, anti-normative lines of thought may be welcome at other universities, but they are not a requirement for a university as such.

The decision of the New College board of trustees to initiate the termination of the university’s gender studies program sets a new historical precedent. Academia’s continued decline is not inevitable. Civic-minded leaders, deriving their power from the people, can use legislation, appointments, and board governance to reorient public universities away from left-wing nihilism and, once again, toward higher principles.