Board member: Turning Sarasota's New College into conservative 'Hillsdale of the south' unlikely

Zac Anderson
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
New College of Florida Board of Trustees member Mark Bauerlein

In shaking up New College of Florida’s board with six new appointees, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration talked about transforming the Sarasota school into something resembling Hillsdale College – a conservative Christian school that touts a “classical” education model.

Some new board members are pushing for a rapid transformation to this conservative approach, with activist Christopher Rufo telling the New York Times that the school’s academic offerings “are going to look very different in the next 120 days.”

“We’re going to be conducting a top-down restructuring,” Rufo said, adding he wants to “design a new core curriculum from scratch.”

Yet, at least one new board member isn’t sure that creating a “Hillsdale of the South”− as a DeSantis administration official put it – is possible or even desirable, and he doesn’t believe any big changes will happen quickly.

“I do believe what we see will be a lot less controversial than we’re hearing now,” said Mark Bauerlein, a former professor at Emory University in Atlanta, recently appointed by DeSantis to the New College board, adding that he expects “few fireworks in the next six months.”

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Bauerlein outlined his thoughts on New College in a recent interview with the Herald-Tribune and predicted less dramatic changes at the college, an assertion that seems at odds with what other board members and officials in the DeSantis administration are saying. His comments indicate there isn’t universal agreement on what will come next for Florida’s liberal arts honors college, and the changes may not be as monumental as some envision.

“The press is treating us as a group, but we’re all coming into this from different places and angles and we have different profiles as well,” Bauerlein said of the new board members.

Bauerlein spent 30 years teaching English at Emory and now edits First Things, a conservative Catholic magazine. He has strong views that align with DeSantis about where higher education has gone wrong, particularly when it comes to concerns about diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

“I think the fixation on identity is generally damaging to humanities,” he said. “Identity politics are such a joyless enterprise.”

Bauerlein talks passionately about education programs that emphasize universal themes such as “love, honor, beauty, courage” instead of race, sexual orientation or gender.

“It’s not that those things aren’t relevant, but it’s become an obsession, a fixation,” he said of diversity initiatives. "And when that happens it turns anti-intellectual and anti-academic."

Bauerlein advocates for a “classical” approach to education. The classical model has become associated with conservative Christian education, but Bauerlein said that teaching a “great books” curriculum of classic works in various disciplines also is a classical approach and he regards that as a "pluralistic" model that should appeal to both conservatives and liberals.

But even as he advocates for the classical approach, Bauerlein is skeptical that New College can, or should, be completely transformed into a classical school in the model of Hillsdale.

“Making it a classical education school, I don’t know how workable that idea is,” he said, adding that it might be more feasible to create “a track of classical education” that would expand the college’s academic offerings.

Bauerlein noted that standing in the way of a complete overhaul are the “existing personnel there.”

“You have a student body, you have professors with tenure… you can’t just clear people out and bring new people in; that won’t happen,” he said.

And even if a complete overhaul were possible, Bauerlein isn’t sure it’s a good idea to turn New College into a completely conservative institution, as Rufo has suggested.

Rufo told the New York Times that: “We want to provide an alternative for conservative families in the state of Florida to say there is a public university that reflects your values.” 

Bauerlein questions the idea of creating a public school that only reflects one political ideology.

“It’s a public university and I think a public university demands a certain measure of pluralism,” he said, adding: “I don’t think a public university should have any narrow orientation. This is the problem with many universities right now: they are one-party campuses. That’s not intellectually healthy. It breeds complacency.”

Bauerlein has worked with the DeSantis administration in the past. He helped craft new state standards for English Language Arts classes in the K-12 school system.

He also has “written a lot about higher ed, and especially the deterioration of the humanities in higher ed over the years,” he noted.

An archway leads to the Dort Promenade on the New College of Florida Bayfront Campus. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis overhauled the board of Sarasota's New College on Friday, bringing in six new members in a move his administration described as an effort to shift the school in a conservative direction.

DeSantis officials didn't give marching orders

Bauerlein’s public positions and previous work for the DeSantis administration may have led to his invitation to join the New College board. He said he received a call “out of the blue” from a member of the governor’s staff asking if he was interested in the position.

The job didn’t come with any instructions, he said.

“No telling me what to do, telling me how to vote, telling me what the plan is − no not at all,” he said, adding: “It’s been total silence on policymaking from the governor since the invitation. Look, a guy like me, I’m not taking orders and… I think they want independent minds, they really do.”

Bauerlein’s more measured statements about New College stand in contrast to comments from other new board members, such as Rufo and Bradenton Christian school founder Eddie Speir, who said New College is pushing a “tyrannical ideology.”

“It is not right to demand that taxpayers pay for this indoctrination of Florida’s youth into an ideology that is patently anti-western civilization, anti-American, and anti-Florida,” Speir said in an email to the Herald-Tribune.

Bauerlein said he wants to learn more about New College before deciding what changes are needed.

“I approach these things always with a wary eye,” he said, adding: “I don’t know exactly what the situation is at New College and, in a way, I don’t want to start reading a bunch about it before getting down there and talking to people.”

And while New College is now ground zero for DeSantis’ culture war battles on “woke” education issues, Bauerlein tried to play down the idea that the school will be engulfed in a polarized political debate.

“The media has framed a lot of this as a political thing, a bunch of conservative flamethrowers coming into a good progressive campus and ruining everything,” he said.

The reality is that “those strong positions they tend to be softened − not eliminated, but they run through a process,” he said.

“You say something and then you gotta listen to other people,” he added. “You have to recognize that there are university college regulations about how things are done.”

Any changes that do occur likely won’t be quick, he added.

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As someone who spent his career in the university system, Bauerlein also knows that they have “a bureaucracy that slows things done.”

“And that can be a good thing,” he said. “The nuts and bolts work of college change run very slowly. Procedures have to be followed. Time has to be given for decision-making.”

Asked whether board members will look for a new president to carry out a new vision for the school, Bauerlein said: “I don’t see that happening unless some real tensions arise between us and the new president, and I don’t anticipate that happening. I like her.”

While Bauerlein’s comments aren’t as strident as some of those by the other new board members, he made it clear he is closely aligned with DeSantis. He was pleased with the governor’s approach to the English Language Arts standards, saying it “earned him my allegiance.”

Many of the New College board members appointed by DeSantis are from out of state, including Rufo and Bauerlein, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. They don’t have a connection to New College, generating concerns that they might not appreciate what the school does well.

“The governor can do anything he wants because he’s so doggone popular,” Bauerlein said.