New board member: New College reforms not about turning school 'into something it is not'

Zac Anderson
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Matthew Spalding is a dean at Hillsdale College. He recently was appointed to the New College of Florida Board of Trustees by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

When Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration talked about turning New College of Florida into the "Hillsdale of the South," the comment received a lot of attention because it implied a drastic transformation of the school into something completely different.

Hillsdale College is private, conservative and Christian. New College is public and progressive. The Sarasota school was founded as a private institution in 1960 with the goal of creating a new approach to higher education, and has retained its progressive roots.

DeSantis even appointed a Hillsdale dean - Matthew Spalding - to the New College board, reinforcing the idea that Hillsdale is the template for New College's reinvention.

A professor of constitutional government at Hillsdale and the dean of the college's graduate school of government in Washington, D.C., Spalding previously was vice president of American studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He also served on The President's Advisory 1776 Commission, which was formed by former President Donald Trump to push back against what he described in an executive order as education programs that "vilified our Founders and our founding."

Spalding recently answered questions by email from the Herald-Tribune. He said the comment about turning New College into a version of Hillsdale is "flattering." However, he also said "this is not about turning New College into something it is not."

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Below are Spalding's responses to the Herald-Tribune's questions.

Q. Why do you want to serve on the New College board?  

I hope to help restore New College to its rightful place of academic excellence and fiscal soundness.  

Q: How did your appointment come about? Do you have a relationship with Gov. DeSantis or his administration? How did they approach you about the position?  

I have known Gov. DeSantis for some time, and worked with his administration, most recently as an expert advisor on Florida’s Civic Literacy Excellence Initiative. The governor and Legislature in each state have responsibility over their state’s public education system, and Gov. DeSantis is to be commended for acting accordingly. I am honored by the appointment.   

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Q: The DeSantis administration is talking about turning New College into Florida's "classical college" in the model of Hillsdale. Do you agree with this approach? If so, what is your definition of a "classical" education and how would you like to see that applied at New College?  

This is not about turning New College into something it is not but strengthening its “distinctive mission” as the “residential liberal arts honors college” of the state of Florida. While the comparison to Hillsdale College is very flattering, the point is less about Hillsdale per se and more about what the liberal arts are supposed to be. The liberal arts is the study of the great works of great thinkers who ask timeless questions about the most important things — what is truth? How should we live our lives? Is there a higher meaning and purpose outside of ourselves? — in pursuit of the highest truths of human existence. This is the approach to education at Hillsdale or any college that pursues the liberal arts as properly understood.   

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A liberal arts education teaches one how to think, not what to think. This must be contrasted with modern education, which is more often than not a smorgasbord of dogmatic relativism that nevertheless insists on whatever is academically in vogue. That is not just closed-minded but downright illiberal. A true liberal arts education liberates the mind from popular ideologies and current fads. Students are hungering for this approach — enrollment and applications are surging at Hillsdale and institutions like it.  

Q: What is your general impression of New College? Do you have concerns about New College's approach to education or other aspects of the school? If so, what are they?  

I look forward to learning about New College and its unique history and circumstances.  Beyond my focus on making sure that they are teaching the liberal arts in an academically serious way as the center of its course of study, New College seems to have shown an inability to meet ever-decreasing enrollment goals or to maintain good fiscal standing despite previous reform efforts and ongoing taxpayer support. These problems must not be allowed to undermine the college’s larger mission.   

Supporters of New College of Florida hold up signs outside the Sarasota County Administration Building Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023, before the start of the regular meeting of the Sarasota legislative delegation.

Q: One of the new board members, Christopher Rufo, is pushing for significant changes at New College in a short time period. In a recent interview, Mr. Rufo said the school's academic offerings “are going to look very different in the next 120 days.” Mr. Rufo is calling for "a top-down restructuring" and wants to “design a new core curriculum from scratch.” Do you think a top-down restructuring is needed and, if so, do you think it should happen quickly?  

It is premature to speak of board action because the board, including its newly appointed members, has not yet met. I believe that we should not overly focus on moving as quickly or as sensationally as possible, but on making the serious and sustainable changes that will restore New College to its proper place as Florida's premier liberal arts honors college on a foundation of sound governance, fiscal accountability, and academic excellence.   

It is my expectation that despite any rancor, the newly constituted board will work effectively and amicably with the faculty, administration, and staff of New College, and that academic differences will be settled collegially. At Hillsdale College, we tell our students and faculty that ‘You may assert and defend any argument you conceive, as long as you do so in a way that is civil, academic, and conducive to thought and deliberation.’ This principle should apply to this situation, too.  

Q: You served as executive director of The President's Advisory 1776 Commission. The Commission report criticizes how history and civics education are being taught in many schools and calls for major changes. Do you think this criticism applies to New College? If so, do you think the school needs to make the type of reforms highlighted in the Commission report?  

I served on the 1776 Commission in my private capacity, and it is in that same private capacity that I will serve on the board of New College. That said, I bring to each of these roles my expertise and experience as an academic dean and professor at Hillsdale College. Throughout my career, I have emphasized the proper understanding of the liberal arts, and that will be my focus while serving on the board of New College.