Gov. Ron DeSantis stirred controversy this month with his selection of six noted conservatives for the board of trustees at New College of Florida.
Most of his picks are not new to Florida education politics — having advised the governor on state policy or curriculum. What is new is the degree of direct influence they will have on the State University System’s smallest school.
Here’s a look at their backgrounds:
Perhaps the most well-known of the six new appointees, Rufo, 37, is a senior fellow at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of the institute’s City Journal publication.
He gained attention in 2020 when he publicized examples of diversity training material used in government and business workshops, popularizing the term “critical rate theory” as a rallying cry for the right.
In Dec. 2021, Rufo appeared on stage with DeSantis during the announcement of the governor’s “Stop WOKE Act,” which prohibits the teaching in schools and workplaces that any one race or sex is inherently privileged or biased.
In a 2022 address at Hillsdale College, Rufo laid out a hypothetical blueprint for conservative capture of a public university, starting with an independent board of directors appointed by a state’s governor.
“We have to get out of this idea that the public university system is a totally independent entity that practices academic freedom,” Rufo said. “These are public universities that should reflect and transmit the values of the public, and the representatives of the public, i.e., state legislators, have ultimate power to shape or reshape those institutions.”
Spalding, the 58-year-old dean of the graduate school of government at Hillsdale College, has spoken positively of DeSantis’ previous education initiatives and appeared next to the governor at the Stop WOKE Act announcement.
“I believe we are on the cusp of a moment of which the idea of education as an issue is re-aligning,” Spalding said in a December 2021 news release. “It is no longer a question of budget or policy; it is about returning it to its rightful place in the formation of good citizens.”
Spalding did not respond to requests for comment.
He co-chaired former President Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission and was coeditor of the ensuing report, which sought to define a conservative understanding of the “history and principles of the founding of the United States” in response to the New York Times’ 1619 Project.
The American Historical Association called the report a “simplistic interpretation that relies on falsehoods, inaccuracies, omissions, and misleading statements.”
The report calls for “authentic education,” founded on principles including solid family structures, limited government, private property and religious faith.
Kesler, 65, is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank not associated with the university.
He serves as the editor of the institute’s flagship publication, The Claremont Review of Books, which has been characterized as the “intellectual home” of Trumpism.
His brand of “American Conservatism” — which he describes as “conservatism rooted in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution” — found a home in Trump’s America-first ideology and landed him on Politico’s 2017 list of the 50 Ideas Blowing Up American Politics.
Kesler served on the 1776 Commission and is listed as a contributor to the report. He did not respond to requests for comment.
An emeritus professor of English at Emory University, Bauerlein served on the National Endowment for the Arts in the Obama administration and advised on the 2020 revision to Florida’s K-12 English language arts curriculum.
He is perhaps best known for his 2008 book “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).” In it, Bauerlein decries the fading interest in classical literature among millennials.
His outlook on the nation’s intellectual scene hasn’t improved since then, Bauerlein said. But despite his pessimism, he remains a devoted academic institutionalist — more concerned, he said, with academic rigor than ideology.
Jason ‘Eddie’ Speir
Speir, 53, is the founder and superintendent of the Inspiration Academy, a private Christian high school in Bradenton.
He acknowledged that the six new trustees at New College may have been selected for ideological reasons: “Of course, there is motivation by politics. You can’t escape it,” Speir wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.
“I believe today’s universities, New College in particular, become pipelines into a tyrannical ideology,” he continued. “When you separate a person from their creator and reduce their identity to a group, sexual preference, or skin color, you often create a victim in search of a villain.”
Despite different viewpoints, Speir anticipates that there will be alignment in purpose when the board meets.
“I’m an ardent believer in freedom of speech, and I can respect people with whom I disagree,” Speir wrote.
Jenks, 64, is a securities mediation lawyer in Palm Beach County. Of the six new trustees, she is the only one who attended New College of Florida, graduating in 1980 with a degree in economics.
“New College was a beacon of light and hope for me,” Jenks wrote in a email. “I hope we can keep New College of Florida from closure or potential merger.”
Ian Hodgson is an education data reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.