‘Zombie Studies’: DeSantis Declares All-Out War on University DEI, CRT in Education Manifesto
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) last Tuesday rolled out a new education agenda designed to comprehensively recapture the state’s higher education system from woke ideologues. Instead, he set forth a conservative vision for a higher education system: “to focus on promoting academic excellence, the pursuit of truth, and to give students the foundation so they can think for themselves.” The proposals affect curriculum, faculty, funding, and more.
DeSantis proposed reforms to Florida curriculum so that “everybody who goes through a Florida university has to take certain core course requirements that’s really focused on giving them the foundation so that they can think for themselves.” There is that phrase again — “think for themselves.” This is the essence of DeSantis’ proposals, and leftists work hard to smear it because they understand how popular that objective is.
DeSantis offered specifics. “The core curriculum must be grounded in the actual history, the actual philosophy that has shaped Western civilization. Our institutions are going to be graduating students with degrees that are going to be meaningful. We don’t want students to go through, at taxpayer expense, and graduate with a degree in Zombie Studies.” Florida is already practicing this at the high school level. Earlier this year, Florida rejected a proposed high school curriculum for AP African-American studies because it was riddled with CRT-related concepts. Days later, The College Board (which produces the curriculum) released “a serious rewrite,” in the words of The Wall Street Journal editorial board.
DeSantis also proposed reforms to hiring and firing of higher education faculty. He identified two problems with the hiring process: a political process and a lack of control by those supposedly in charge. A lot of hiring decisions are “done by faculty committees,” he explained. “And if they have a certain worldview that they want to promote, those are the kinds of candidates they’re going to bring in. And, if you don’t toe that line, you’re not going to get hired.”
That’s not just a “blue state” problem. A WSJ op-ed from this week began, “At Texas Tech University, a candidate for a faculty job in the department of biological sciences was flagged by the department’s search committee for not knowing the difference between ‘equality’ and ‘equity.’ Another was flagged for his repeated use of the pronoun ‘he’ when referring to professors.”
Under DeSantis’ proposed changes, university presidents may “go out and recruit directly. Boards of Trustees will be able to do a lot of this approving directly. And that’s going to make a huge difference in terms of making sure, not only do we have high quality faculty, but we’re not applying some type of ideological litmus test to be able to be hired in the first place.”
Another problem DeSantis identified is the irresponsible behavior encouraged by life tenure. He said “the most deadweight cost” to universities comes from “unproductive tenured faculty.” Under his new proposals, tenured faculty must undergo a performance review every five years, and they would be liable to an impromptu performance review at any time.
DeSantis also announced his intention to defund all DEI and CRT programs at Florida universities, particularly DEI bureaucracies. “We are also going to eliminate all DEI and CRT bureaucracies in the state of Florida. No funding, and that will wither on the vine,” he said.
In a December 28 memo, the governor’s office required public universities to itemize all woke programs and expenditures and report them by January 13.
“They reported that, and it’s a lot of money. And it’s not the best use of your money,” said DeSantis. “Those bureaucracies are not representative of what the people of this state and the taxpayers of this state want.” DEI “bureaucracies are hostile to academic freedom,” he continued. “And really, they constitute a drain on resources and end up — certainly around the country — contributing to higher costs as these bureaucracies metastasize.”
DeSantis justified scrubbing DEI bureaucracies for two closely intertwined reasons, one ideological and one pragmatic. First, their purpose runs counter to the academic freedom most Americans expect from public universities; they are, essentially, wrong. Second, they’re just too expensive. They capture resources that can be better spent elsewhere — and more so as they continue to grow. Pairing these reasons is both accurate and politically astute. Together, they outflank any counterargument (such as suggesting DEI bureaucracies might possibly provide a marginal benefit) except the most radically left endorsement of critical theory — which voters rightly see as crazy.
By purifying the hiring process and distilling out DEI bureaucracies, DeSantis hopes to transform public higher education into a potable experience. Under Florida’s proposed system, FRC senior fellow for Education Studies Meg Kilgannon told The Washington Stand, “Professors and students will be able to learn in an environment freed from politically correct groupthink.”
DeSantis rounded out his policy proposals with targeted initiatives aimed at certain professions and institutions. He proposed that Florida research universities increase their research grants for STEM programs up to $50 million annually (thus draining resources that might be used for less serious, woke “research”). He endorsed his administration’s efforts to expand the training of Floridians to serve in critical, under-staffed occupations, such as nurses, truck drivers, and mechanics. He promoted the establishment of two constitution-focused centers at Florida State University in Tallahassee and Florida International University in Miami.
DeSantis also expressed concern over the plight of New College of Florida, an autonomous public institution since 2001. “In Florida statute, it’s supposed to be our premier liberal arts college,” he lamented. “Its mission has been more into the DEI, CRT ideology, rather than what a liberal arts education should be.” DeSantis chief of staff James Uthmeier said last month, “It is our hope that New College of Florida will become Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the South.”
In early January, DeSantis appointed six new members to the New College of Florida Board of Trustees, creating a conservative majority. Some of the appointees are widely known, such as Manhattan Institute fellow and CRT-exposer extraordinaire Christopher Rufo, Hillsdale College Professor Dr. Matthew Spalding, and former 1776 Commission member Charles Kesler.
It turns out that appointing conservatives to higher education boards — thus puncturing academia’s typical, boring, progressive sameness — excites potential applicants. “When we announced the trustees,” DeSantis said, “you had people asking, ‘How do I apply?’ You had professors asking, ‘How do I join?’” The national media may scoff, but introducing real diversity — intellectual diversity — to university systems generates widespread enthusiasm.
DeSantis’s new round of education policy proposals builds on his popular but unfairly criticized efforts undertaken during his first term as governor. For instance, the national media widely lampooned the Parental Rights in Education Act as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill for prohibiting teachers from discussing inappropriate sexual content in K-3 classrooms.
But what the national media sees as a problem, the average Floridian — and average American, for that matter — views as popular. Governor DeSantis and other Florida Republicans cruised to huge victories throughout the former swing state in November, even as Republicans generally underperformed expectations in most of the country. After winning reelection by 20 points, Governor DeSantis announced, “Florida is where woke goes to die.”
Conservative Education Manifesto
DeSantis’ proposals for higher education reform were no haphazard assortment of disjointed, incoherent positions working at cross-purposes. Rather, each is a well-thought-out piece of a comprehensive vision for a higher education system free of woke nonsense. And DeSantis accompanied his proposals with a 20-minute speech which is probably best described as a conservative education manifesto.
“There’s really a debate going on about, what is the purpose of higher education, particularly publicly-funded higher education systems?” said DeSantis, “The dominant view is, the use of higher education under this view is to impose ideological conformity, to try to provoke political activism, and that’s what a university should be. That’s not what we believe is appropriate in the state of Florida.” Instead, he proposed “centering higher education on the academics, excellence, pursuit of truth, teaching kids to think for themselves, [and] not try[ing] to impose an orthodoxy.”
Not only will slicing up the woke monster restore academic freedom, but it will also free up resources to promote real education. “And so, you’re not spending the money on DEI bureaucracies,” said DeSantis. “You’re spending the money on bringing really good people in. … That makes much more sense from a financial perspective, and it’s much more mission-oriented.”
DeSantis suggested his vision for higher education is actually quite popular. The more we implement this vision, he said, the more “you are going to see people flooding into these institutions because there’s a desire for it.” He underlined the basic motivation for this desire, “people want to be in a situation where they can send their kids to a university or college and not have to worry about, ‘what is going on?’”
He used New College of Florida as a prime example. Its DEI bureaucracy “really serves as an ideological filter, a political filter,” he said. “New College has really embraced that, and I think that’s part of the reason it hasn’t been successful and the enrollment’s down so much. Because I think people want to see true academics, and they want to get rid of some of the political window dressing that seems to accompany all this.”
Higher education reform benefits not only college-bound students and their parents, but every taxpaying Floridian as well, added DeSantis. “It’s important that your tax dollars are funding institutions that you can be proud of, with a mission you can be confident in.”
More Than Just Slogans
With slogans like “education not indoctrination” and “bring more accountability to the higher education system,” the new round of changes to higher education in Florida may seem like all talk and no action — a politician specialty. After all, things that sound too good to be true usually are. But when you pierce the surface, Florida’s new education plan brings the substance, too.
“This move by Governor DeSantis to really direct and guide higher education officials in his state is a great development,” said Kilgannon. “For too long, conservative leaders have not prioritized reforming higher education in ways that impact the moral and cultural life of students and faculty.” But the DeSantis plan emphasizes what others have neglected.
Nor are DeSantis proposals pie-in-the-sky fairy tales. “By reining in diversity, equity, and inclusion infrastructures that often act as Marxist politburos on college campuses, Governor DeSantis is offering not just an ideological critique but an actionable path toward reform,” said Kilgannon.
This path to reform already has the buy-in of every Florida college president. All 28 of them signed a letter pledging to “ensure that all initiatives, instruction, and activities do not promote any ideology that suppresses intellectual and academic freedom, freedom of expression, viewpoint diversity, and the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning. As such, our institutions will not fund or support any institutional practice, policy, or academic requirement that compels belief in critical race theory or related concepts such as intersectionality, or the idea that systems of oppression should be the primary lens through which teaching and learning are analyzed and/or improved upon.”
Here is a conservative education solution that doesn’t content itself with condemning leftist dominance in higher education; it actually proposes a workable alternative. DeSantis’ team has clearly thought long and hard, at every level, about what is required to take back the wheel of a public education system and redirect it to serve all the citizens and taxpayers of Florida.
Two qualities are rare among politicians: a brain and a spine. With these comprehensive education proposals, DeSantis demonstrates both.
Florida’s education plan is making news because it hasn’t been attempted before. No other conservative state has set forth a plan this comprehensive or this pragmatic to recapture higher education. “I don’t think there’s any state in the country that’s been leading on the issue like Florida,” said DeSantis. “We’ll be the first state that’s actually leading by example.”
“This is a great example for others on how to tackle the problem of taxpayer funded Marxist education at the higher-ed level,” said Kilgannon. “And since this is where teachers are formed for service in K-12, it’s a reform that will benefit younger children too.”
“We have more work to do,” said DeSantis. But he added, “I think you’re going to see some positive results really quickly.”
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.