Restoring the Mission of the University at Florida's New College | Opinion

"When in the course of human events" our universities became captured by a hostile ideology that distorts and perverts their mission to seek the truth, in an environment where different ideas can be debated without fear of retaliation, when voices opposing this madness within these universities are too few and weak to resist this destructive onslaught, when things have become so bad that more and more institutions of higher learning are imposing illegal, thinly disguised, racial quotas for students and litmus tests for professors, all in in the ironic name of "Diversity Equity, and Inclusion" (DEI), and when public universities violate the trust of the people, it "becomes necessary" for the people's elected representatives to act decisively to restore that trust.

The revolution to reform our universities may have started. In an unprecedented move, Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL) has recently shaken up the board of trustees of New College, a struggling, woke, liberal arts college in his state, by appointing six new member whose vision to restore the truth-seeking mission of the university—based on merit, true equality of treatment for all individuals, and color-blind policies—aligns with his own. Despite vociferous opposition from students and the college's overwhelmingly progressive professoriate, as well as a skeptical reception by various liberal groups, the new board moved fast to hire a new university president, former Florida Education Secretary Richard Corcoran, and is now working with the new administration to abolish DEI at the university.

It is impossible to predict how this will work out in the end, but the simple fact that New College President Corcoran and his administration are dedicated to abolishing DEI is an extraordinarily promising harbinger. Some people who applaud the action in principle are still worried that DeSantis may be inadvertently creating a precedent that can be utilized in the future by a different political administration, to appoint woke trustees instead.

But can things really get much worse than they are right now?

The Woke ideology, dominant in almost all our universities today, holds two contradictory notions of reality: One, postmodernist in nature, according to which truth is a social construct determined solely by contests of power, and another one according to which it alone is in the possession of the ultimate Truth. The Woke ideology's belief system divides people based on the perceived position of power of the group, or groups, to which the people belong, according to a crude scheme of "intersectionality." The proposed remedy to this is a reparation strategy that calls for affirmative action and reverse discrimination. The ideology underlies many things we now associate with campus culture such as critical race theory, queer theory, and, most importantly, the administrative monster that is DEI. Like all totalitarian ideologies that claim to be in sole possession of the Truth, the Woke ideology rejects free inquiry and robust debate, which are denounced as tools of oppression. In the name of higher morality, fanatics "cancel" those who challenge it, and seek to compel all others to pledge fealty to it.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives a victory
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives a victory speech after defeating Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rep. Charlie Crist during his election night watch party at the Tampa Convention Center on November 8, 2022 in Tampa, Florida. Octavio Jones/Getty Images

The consequences of this ideology are legion and well documented. Speakers who don't fit the Woke dogma are routinely prevented from speaking on campus; professors are fired or forced to resign over unpopular ideas they have held or expressed; and, worst of all, political litmus tests are deployed for faculty hiring. The high-profile cases that the media covers are merely "the tip of the iceberg," with many—particularly those on the Right—self-censoring and not pursuing lines of research that, while potentially important, could offend Woke orthodoxy and thus risk damaging their careers and threatening their livelihoods.

The reasons for this state of affairs are well known. A student body raised on a culture of grievances, sensitive to the slightest "micro-aggressions"; a professoriate that leans overwhelmingly to the Left; out-of-control university administrations both more left-wing than the professors and more interested in running their universities as businesses, rather than preserving their truth-seeking missions; toothless and corrupt boards of trustees; politicians that, on one hand, encumber the universities with ill-conceived mandates while, on the other hand, incentivizing their worst excesses through an out-of-control student loan program.

States invest huge amounts of money in their universities. As a result, and despite the hand-wringing of academics pleading for non-interference in the Woke take-over of our universities, states not only have the right, but a duty, to ensure that public funds are used wisely. The wise use of university funding means, at minimum, ensuring that they fulfill their primary truth-seeking mission. The failure of previous attempts to ensure that universities seek to pursue their highest mission, even in red states such as Texas, suggest that the only way to do so is with robust changes at the top. This is what Governor DeSantis has done at New College of Florida by appointing board members and senior executives steadfast in their goal of making sure that universities are accountable to the people and uphold their highest mission. DeSantis's initiative aligns with the recent model DEI legislation proposal of the Manhattan Institute, and it could inspire other states to do the same.

This is hopefully the beginning of the restoration of universities to their original mission: seeking truth and preserving knowledge. As a professor at Princeton University, ranked a dismal 169 out of 203 on freedom of expression by FIRE, I can only hope for an effective mechanism by which private universities, and not merely public universities, can themselves be pressured to reform.

Sergiu Klainerman is professor of mathematics at Princeton University.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.