New College of Florida, the small liberal arts college historically ranked among U.S. News and World Report’s top 75 institutions, has fallen 24 places. Now it risks dropping out of the top-100 category entirely.
This double-digit tumble is due in part to Governor Ron DeSantis’ overhaul of the school to transform it into a decidedly right-wing institution—a “Hillsdale of the South,” in reference to the conservative college in Michigan. DeSantis appointed right-wing activists to the board of trustees, replaced the college’s president and other administrators with political allies who have no experience in higher education, and gutted one-third of the faculty along with the diversity and equity department. The board has even relocated students to hotels to accommodate incoming athletes’ use of campus living spaces.
This type of college takeover is a new, more sinister development in a longstanding conservative practice. The right has spent decades creating parallel and competing structures in areas including political news, social media, and even consumer goods. This time, instead of offering students a conservative alternative in higher education, DeSantis and his allies are gutting an existing institution from the inside.
And they hope this is just the beginning. The right-wing activists behind New College’s transformation are encouraging other governors and administrators to replicate their example, stressing that all public colleges can be “captured, restructured, and reformed” if conservative leaders embrace their model. This push will imperil students’ access to a comprehensive college education, especially in the liberal arts and social sciences where the right’s attacks are targeted.
Conservatives have had a complicated relationship with American higher education over the last century. On one hand, the academy has always been an institution designed to reproduce the middle and upper echelons of Christian society in the United States—something classical liberals from Thomas Jefferson to today’s postliberal academics on the right like Patrick Deneen have historically appreciated and felt worth conserving.
But during the 1920s, one faction of evangelical conservatives became deeply suspicious of the inner workings of the ivory tower. Graduates, it seemed, carried with their diplomas an open-mindedness and, relatedly, questions about the very tenants of Christian learning. In 1927, Bob Jones Sr., an evangelical preacher and son of a Confederate veteran, took a pioneering step to counter this: he opened the doors to Bob Jones College (now university) with the explicit goal of creating what he dubbed a “training center for Christians.”
By the time of the Great Depression, two other camps of conservatives were beginning to share Jones’ anxieties over American colleges. One of these groups, wealthy industrialists opposed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, were suspicious of the new Keynesian school of research spilling out of economics departments and directly into Roosevelt’s fiscal policies. They were joined by a bloc of traditionalists who were alarmed at the steady pipeline of German philosophers seeking refuge in the United States from the Nazi regime. These German social theorists—many of whom were Jewish—were welcomed at the nation’s most elite institutions such as Columbia University, when a mere decade before many of the Ivy League schools maintained strict quotas limiting Jewish enrollment.
Traditionalists found the ideas of these German critical theorists abhorrent because they challenged capitalism, Christianity, and other Western institutions that conservatives viewed as foundational to America’s very existence. Over the next three decades, as “foreign” ideas from Jewish thinkers permeated the academy, conservatives became resolute that universities place a renewed focus on what they believed to be bedrock American ideals.
Their growing frustrations compelled conservative leaders to create parallel academic programs in the name of ideologically balancing the curricular offerings in American universities. Unlike Jones’s Christian separatist college, these programs were designed to be part of existing institutions—an analogous corrective to countermand the supposed dogmatism of liberal professors.
This effort began with New Deal opponents launching a bevy of educational non-profits to promote their economic objectives among the next generation of students. These organizations included the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). Their donations supplied students with scholarships, stipends, conference and travel fees, books, and other resources aimed at supporting the right’s vision that capitalism be firmly entrenched in American higher education.
Over the next decades, conservatives created additional educational nonprofits, including the Liberty Fund and the Institute for Humane Studies. The goal was to promote classical liberal ideas of ancient Greek and Enlightenment thinkers, such as Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and John Locke, which traditionalists felt were under attack by Jewish intellectuals, French existentialists, scholars of the Black diaspora, and others whose research was critical of American exceptionalism.
By the 1960s, the various factions of conservatives began looking beyond the curricula that they found so slanted and sought to tackle something more tangible: college access. With only a few exceptions, post-secondary schools had fallen outside of the Civil Rights era Supreme Court mandates to desegregate public education. In 1969, undergraduate enrollment in the United States in non-HBCU institutions remained 95% white. In response, Black student activists were applying growing pressure on college administrators to expand Black enrollment, hire Black faculty, and create Africana Studies programs.
These efforts bore fruit, and, throughout the 1970s, Black scholars slowly but steadily joined the ranks of students and faculty at traditionally white institutions. Though campuses became only slightly less white, faculty and students were becoming decidedly critical of white domination in politics and United States’ power in the world. The right began fighting back against these challenges to the traditional power structure. Conservatives looked to a higher authority than campus administrators to block diversity initiatives that seemed to pave the way for scholars of color to mount such challenges from the podium and the quad.
Affirmative action programs were a key target from the beginning. The right mounted court challenges with mixed results for decades, until this June when the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority ruled in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard that affirmative action practices in college admissions violated the 14th Amendment.
Why are conservatives moving more boldly to capture colleges and universities instead of continuing their traditional efforts to combat liberalism on campus? Unlike in the past, the political opportunity exists to achieve their vision of what universities ought to be. Right-wing activists have capitalized on a combination of conservative social grievances since 2020—frustration over pandemic restrictions, backlash to anti-racism initiatives following the police murder of George Floyd, and their constituents’ refusal to accept Donald Trump’s presidential defeat—to inspire GOP lawmakers to execute their most extreme political goals while they have power.
Now, GOP governors and partisan administrators are pursuing the far right’s vision of radically unmaking the university to safeguard their preferred worldview. Yet, when students lose access to a true, inquiry-based education, a great deal is at stake. After all, a “liberal” education is focused on an approach to learning—one that, by definition, is not “leftist” or “conservative.” It is a type of education designed to teach students to think critically, explore evidence, consider unfamiliar ideas, investigate questions across multiple fields (including the arts as much as the hard sciences), and make reasoned arguments. Most importantly, a liberal education helps students develop the tools for civic engagement and democratic participation. At a time when we are increasingly divided in our convictions and when democracy faces major threats from the right, these are skills the next generation cannot afford to lose.
Lauren Lassabe Shepherd is an instructor at the University of New Orleans and a community scholar affiliate of IUPUI and the Society for US Intellectual History. Her recent book is Resistance from the Right: Conservatives and the Campus Wars in Modern America (University of North Carolina Press, 2023). Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here.