Opinion | At a College Targeted by DeSantis, Gender Studies Is Out, Jocks Are In

By Michelle Goldberg

Opinion Columnist

In two weeks, the new school year will begin at Florida’s New College, the progressive public liberal arts school singled out by Gov. Ron DeSantis for cultural transformation. Returning students will find an institution that is increasingly unrecognizable.

Over a third of the faculty members have left. Many of last year’s students are continuing their education elsewhere. Hampshire College, a small private liberal arts school in New England, has offered financial aid to New College students so they can transfer without tuition increases. Thirty-five plan to attend Hampshire this fall, and 30 more have inquired about doing so in the spring, a large number, given that last year New College had fewer than 700 students. Last week, New College’s leadership announced that it was moving to abolish the gender studies department. Chris Rufo, the culture warrior whom DeSantis put on New College’s board of trustees, boasted that it would be “the first public university in America to begin rolling back the encroachment of gender ideology and queer theory on its academic offerings.”

The dismantling of gender studies is striking because of how closely it follows a playbook for the ideological transformation of higher education pioneered by Hungary, which banned gender studies in 2018. Given that Rufo frames the New College takeover as a demonstration project to be repeated by red states nationwide, I’d expect attempts to scrap gender studies to spread. (Already, some Republicans in the Wyoming Legislature have tried, unsuccessfully, to defund such programs.) But having followed the right-wing remaking of New College all year, I think it’s worth paying attention not just to what is being destroyed but also to what is being put in its place.

Rufo speaks a lot about academic excellence and the virtues of a classical liberal education. But as Steven Walker of The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported in a damning July story, the incoming class recruited by the new administration has lower average grades, SAT scores and ACT scores than last year’s class. “Much of the drop in average scores can be attributed to incoming student-athletes who, despite scoring worse on average, have earned a disproportionate number of the school’s $10,000-per-year merit-based scholarships,” wrote Walker.

As of July, New College had 328 incoming students, a record for the school. Of the group, 115 are athletes, and 70 were recruited to play baseball, even though, as Walker reported, New College has no real sports facilities and has yet to be accepted into the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. By comparison, the University of Florida’s far more established baseball team has 37 student-athletes.

The accommodations offered to New College’s new student-athletes will be better than those provided to many existing students. Walker reported that the incoming class will be housed in newer, apartment-style dorms that in the past were reserved for upperclass students. Returning students are being moved to older, more decrepit buildings, two of which recently were declared uninhabitable because of a mold problem. (New College has said it won’t put students in mold-affected rooms.)

Some new students may well end up immersing themselves in the great works of the Western canon. But last week, New College’s interim president, Richard Corcoran, a longtime Republican politician who served as DeSantis’s education commissioner, sent a memo to faculty members, proposing new majors in finance, communications and sports psychology, “which will appeal to many of our newly admitted athletes.” As Amy Reid, a New College professor of French who directs the gender studies department, said when I spoke to her last weekend, “Tell me how sports psychology, finance and communications fits with a classical liberal arts model.”

Rather than reviving some traditional model of academic excellence, then, it looks as though New College leaders are simply trying to replace a culture they find politically hostile with one meant to be more congenial. The end of gender studies and the special treatment given to incoming athletes are part of the same project, masculinizing a place that had been heavily feminist, artsy and queer. When I spoke to Rufo last weekend, he offered several explanations for New College’s new emphasis on sports, including the classical idea that a healthy body sustains a healthy mind. But an important part of the investment in athletics, he said, is that it is a way to make New College more male and, by extension, less left wing.

In the past, about two-thirds of New College’s students were women. “This is a wildly out-of-balance student population, and it caused all sorts of cultural problems,” said Rufo. Having so many more women than men, he said, turned New College into “what many have called a social justice ghetto.” The new leadership, he said, is “rebalancing the ratio of students” in the hopes of ultimately achieving gender parity.

But gender parity is not necessarily compatible with a pure academic meritocracy, which Rufo claims to prize. Women are outpacing men in education in many parts of the world, including Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Hungary, nearly 55 percent of university students are women, leading the government to warn about the “feminization” of higher education. Selective American colleges tend to have more female than male applicants; to maintain something approaching a gender balance, some have adopted lower standards for men. In other words, it often takes deliberate intervention — one might call it affirmative action — to create a student body in which women don’t predominate. New College isn’t jettisoning gender ideology. It’s just adopting a different one.

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Michelle Goldberg has been an Opinion columnist since 2017. She is the author of several books about politics, religion and women’s rights, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment. @michelleinbklyn

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