Ron DeSantis: the anti-Biden on woke Academia?

AP Photo/Marta Lavandier

Does a quietly unfolding fight in Florida over university accreditation teach us anything about the choices for 2024? Earlier this week, Stanley Kurtz shined a light on an under-the-surface battle between Ron DeSantis and Joe Biden that might have transformative value in higher education. DeSantis intervened when an accrediting agency tried to block a conservative from being appointed president of Florida State University:

The DeSantis accreditation battle began in the spring of last year, when DeSantis’s education commissioner and former speaker of Florida’s house, Richard Corcoran, was being considered for the presidency of Florida State University (FSU). Since Corcoran is a conservative and committed to reforming higher education’s culture of intellectual conformity, the prospect of his appointment horrified FSU’s faculty and Florida’s left-leaning press. Nevertheless, Corcoran’s prospects looked good until Belle Wheelan, the head of FSU’s accrediting agency, stepped in to effectively scuttle his bid. …

When Corcoran was up for the presidency of FSU, Wheelan wrote a letter to the chairperson of the Florida State University System Board of Governors suggesting that a conflict of interest and a potential lack of appropriate experience and qualifications on the part of an unnamed candidate might put FSU’s accreditation into question. The letter was widely understood to be referring to Corcoran. As a member of the University System Board of Governors, Corcoran had a potential conflict of interest in voting on his own job application. And even though Corcoran was Florida’s commissioner of education, a member of the University System Board of Governors, a former speaker of the house, and former chief of staff to Senator Marco Rubio, Wheelan was apparently arguing that he lacked qualifications for the academic position of university president.

DeSantis tried responding to this through legislative action. A bill got introduced that would require state-funding colleges and universities to rotate accreditors, a move that would limit the power of any one accrediting agency to wield this kind of power. This started an intrastate fight that may not have generated much notice, except that Biden’s administration decided to jump in the middle of it. They issued a guidance which would have made Wheelan nearly invincible:

Had matters ended there, a rare state-level experiment in accreditation would have begun to play out. The Biden education department, however, was not going to allow that to happen. It recently issued new guidance, accompanied by an explanatory blog post, all of which amount to an effort to neutralize the Florida law by effectively keeping the state’s universities chained to their current accreditors.

Andrew Gillen of the Texas Public Policy Foundation persuasively makes the case that Biden’s new accreditation guidance uses absurdly “twisted logic” to try to kill off Florida’s reform. NAS concurs.

It apparently worked in this instance, as Corcoran’s nomination was withdrawn. The legislature plowed ahead nonetheless, in defiance of the Biden administration. The Department of Education then threatened to withhold funding if Florida implemented the new law. Paul Mirengoff notes what happened next:

Undaunted, DeSantis signed the legislation into law and has not backed down since.

I agree with Stanley that this dispute has significance beyond its particular merits. The dispute shows that (1) Ron DeSantis understands how to attack wokeism in creative ways and (2) that he has the courage to stick to his guns. As Stanley puts it:

Pushing back in unprecedented ways against the faceless bureaucracy that regularly frustrates conservative governance is what DeSantis does.

Paul and I discuss this in my podcast today, which will be up later this afternoon, as well as the Mar-a-Lago raid and the Merrick Garland press avail. Paul makes the point, along with Kurtz, that both DeSantis and Donald Trump offer Republicans hope of dismantling the woke structures in Academia, at least those funded and protected by the Department of Education. However, DeSantis has a longer track record on specific and detailed fights, and he’s been winning, too:

Moreover, DeSantis has been on the front lines fighting state-imposed wokeism. He knows what pressure points to squeeze. Trump paints with a broader brush and without the same attention to detail.

What’s been interesting is how little attention this fight has received, even in the media, which would normally scream over DeSantis’ “authoritarianism” for imposing accountability on Academia. DeSantis got plenty of attention for suspending a State Attorney who bragged about how he would ignore the law, but this is almost as important. In this case, he’s fighting actual authoritarianism by petty bureaucrats in accrediting agencies who are abusing their power to silence any kind of heterodoxy on campuses. How many more of these battles is DeSantis fighting below the radar? And how many more of them is he winning?