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Janie B. Cheaney: Redirecting university politics


WORLD Radio - Janie B. Cheaney: Redirecting university politics

Over 60 years after the Port Huron Statement laid out goals for changing society through higher education, Florida takes steps to reverse the leftward course of universities

Students cross a bridge linking different sections of the campus, at New College of Florida, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, in Sarasota, Fla. AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, April 19th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: And I’m Paul Butler. This time of year, many colleges and universities are in the home stretch, winding down their spring semesters. For students and professors, summer jobs and beach vacations seem just around the corner.

But for one unique college in Florida, the hard work to reverse cultural trends is just getting started. Here’s Commentator Janie B. Cheaney.

JANIE B. CHEANEY, COMMENTATOR: In the heady days of June 1962, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) met for their first convention outside Port Huron, Michigan. They produced a manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, that would have wide-ranging effects.

The document begins, “When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world,” but these wised-up kids now recognized the corporate soullessness, the Jim-Crow injustice, and the greed of the military-industrial complex in this supposed “golden age.” Apocalyptic urgency spurred them to ask urgent questions. Such as, “if we wanted to change society, how would we do it?” Answer: The University.

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” to plant its ideas and distribute them throughout the nation?

The Statement makes no mention whatsoever of the value of family, neighborhood, or church. All solutions are political. All remedies should come from the state, guided by enlightened university grads.

We can see how that worked out. Critics across the political spectrum are increasingly alarmed about the hard-left academic tilt that stifles free thought and expression. Correcting the tilt through special endowments has had little effect. Conservative exceptions like Hillsdale College are few. Brave start-ups like the University of Austin are encouraging but daunting. Now Florida offers another approach.

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 Governor 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 board rooms 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.

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. True, New College is a public institution that should serve the public, not the boutique fads of intellectual elites. But even organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) caution that any makeover “must be careful not to trade one orthodoxy for another,” adding ominously, “we await further details on the proposal.”

Rufo claims 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 political.

I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

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