The New College experiment
University capture, and recapture
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In the heady days of June 1962, the Students for a Democratic Society met for its first convention outside Port Huron, Mich. The occasion produced a founding document, the Port Huron Statement, drafted by student activist Tom Hayden.
The statement clanged with disillusion. “When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world,” but these wised-up kids now recognized the emptiness, the isolation, the corporate soullessness, the Jim-Crow injustice, and the greed of the military-industrial complex in this supposed “golden age.” Their fellow Americans plowed along in their apathetic rut, while these visionary youth stared into “the decline of an era.” Apocalyptic urgency spurred them to ask such questions as, “If we wanted to change society, how would we do it?” Answer: the university.
As it appeared to them, institutions of higher learning were bastions of conformity, where apathetic students pursued utilitarian goals under complacent professors. But the potential was enormous. What other institution possessed the social influence, the openness, the adaptability, and the resources, all in one place? What better incubator for the “new left” (as they called themselves) to plant its ideas and distribute them throughout the nation?
The Port Huron Statement provided the rationale for the so-called long march that began in universities and eventually transformed K-12 education. Despite its eloquent declarations of love for mankind and sympathy for their isolation, the statement makes no mention whatsoever of family, neighborhood, or church. All solutions were political. All remedies would come from the state, guided by enlightened university grads.
We know now how that worked out. Critics across the political spectrum have been increasingly alarmed about the hard-left academic tilt that stifles free thought and expression. Correcting the tilt through special endowments has had little effect. Exceptions like Hillsdale and Grove City College are few. Brave start-ups like the University of Austin are encouraging but daunting. From Florida comes a new approach: the sudden takeover of an established institution.
New College of Florida began as a small, private, unconventional institution that became part of the university system in the 1970s when the state assumed its debts. It’s still small and unconventional, but earlier this year Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis replaced six members of its board of trustees with conservative academics and activists—including Christopher Rufo, who has made a name for himself exposing woke trends in corporate boardrooms and university campuses. The trustees replaced the college president with a former (Republican) speaker of the Florida House and abolished the college’s diversity, equity, and inclusion office. Not a takeover, insists board member Matthew Spalding of Hillsdale, but a renewal.
Bold, decisive, brazen, chilling, chaotic—the adjectives rolled in. Is New College standing athwart the long leftward march shouting “Stop!” or is it a fascist fist slamming down on free thought?
More than anything, it’s an experiment. Specifically, a political experiment, and that’s where it gets dicey. Proponents make a strong case that New College is a public institution that should serve the public, not the boutique fads of intellectual elites. Also, that universities, in general, have become indoctrination centers rather than havens for free thought and discussion. But even right-leaning organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression caution that any makeover “must be careful not to trade one orthodoxy for another.”
Rufo denies the orthodoxy charge, saying he only wants New College to be open to all views. Without some orthodoxy, though, any institution will drift, almost always in a leftward direction. A clear, consistent vision that avoids the messianic language and political focus of Port Huron would signal a promising start. But only a start. Real renewal is spiritual—not the goal of politics, but the inspiration.
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