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A camera-loving Republican in a big, purple, Sunbelt state wins the governorship, crushing his Democratic rival by more than15 percentage points. He is a culture warrior, and his favorite punching bag is higher education, which he deems a far-left, anti-American bastion of miscreants and dangerous ideas.
Ron DeSantis, yes. But also Ronald Reagan.
When Reagan ran for governor of California in 1966, his first electoral campaign, it was already apparent that he had political ambitions on a national scale. Indeed, he ran for president just two years later, winning more primary votes nationwide than Richard Nixon before losing to him on the floor of the Republican National Convention. He needed an issue that would appeal not just to Orange County conservatives but to moderate voters across the country.
He landed on higher education reform. Reagan’s 1966 gubernatorial campaign was officially against the incumbent Pat Brown, but he ran just as much against the University of California. His signature promise was that he would “clean up the mess at Berkeley,” the campus that birthed the Free Speech Movement two years earlier. He demonized the state’s flagship research university as the province of “a minority of malcontents, beatniks and filthy-speech advocates” operating under “the pretense of preserving academic freedom.” He vowed that if elected, he would appoint the former head of the CIA to chair an investigation into the institution.
Immediately after his inauguration, Reagan ousted the UC system president, proposed massive budget cuts, argued for a shift in funding from taxpayer dollars to student tuition and began reshaping the Board of Regents in his conservative image. By spring of 1969, during another round of campus protests, The New York Times reported a state of “open warfare” between the governor and the university, including tear gas dropped on the Berkeley campus by a National Guard helicopter.
DeSantis’s intent to emulate Reagan is well-known, and that extends to his own war on higher education. Since his landslide re-election last year, the Florida governor has heightened his long-standing attacks on the state’s colleges and universities. Late last month, he stood in front of a podium labeled “Higher Education Reform” and slammed colleges for promoting “ideological indoctrination.” He proposed to completely defund diversity initiatives, which he called “hostile to academic freedom”; ban academic topics like critical race theory; mandate instruction in Western civilization; dismantle tenure protections; and allow politically appointed trustees to investigate tenured professors “at any time.” Driving home the point, later in the same day, the DeSantis-curated board of the progressive New College of Florida fired the institution’s president, moving ahead on a plan to turn the college into a center of conservative thought.
These are (or were) smart men. They know that institutions like Berkeley and the University of Florida are huge assets for their states, driving their economies, producing groundbreaking research and educating vast numbers of residents. And they also know that the voters of their states gladly send their children to public colleges and universities, wear the school colors and cheer on their student athletes. So why on earth would they attack them?
Note that Reagan and DeSantis carefully avoid(ed) attacking the institutions themselves, focusing instead on the longhairs, the leftists, the America haters and do-nothing bureaucrats who have purportedly taken them over. A closer examination of these straw men—students, faculty and administrators—shows that they comprise pretty much the whole of the university. But the strategy allows one to still root for the football team while scoffing at the rest of the institution.
Using higher education as a foil also helps privileged men look like populists. Reagan was a wealthy Hollywood star; DeSantis holds degrees from Harvard and Yale Universities. But by slamming the dangerous eggheads in the ivory tower, they can pretend to somehow represent the average citizen (only 31.5 percent of Floridians age 25 or older hold a bachelor’s degree).
The cry of “indoctrination” is especially potent because it plays into parental fears that the offspring who they have so long hoped would go to college will end up brainwashed and radicalized when they get there. It’s a very clever way to turn a public policy question into a specifically personal one, akin to the racial fears that Reagan and other conservatives stoked about “forced busing,” which was a thinly veiled appeal to white panic about preserving privilege.
Most importantly, politicians like Reagan and DeSantis attack higher education because they know that their attacks will go nowhere. Berkeley, despite all of Reagan’s vitriol, remained a center of liberal activism and has also remained in the very top tier of American universities, public or private. And surely DeSantis knows that his assault on ideas and academic freedom will either be struck down in court or ignored by administrators fearful of driving away the world-class scholars they have worked hard to assemble. Furthermore, most voters—especially those who have gone to college themselves—know that huge research universities are extremely difficult to change, which diminishes any threats made against them.
In other words, bashing higher education is politically useful and structurally safe. As DeSantis profits from this page of the Reagan playbook, we can expect other GOP governors to do the same thing. Those of us who love and worry about higher education should breathe a bit easier, knowing that these attacks are largely bluster. But we must also remember that politics goes on beyond the campus gates. Reagan failed to dismantle Berkeley or any of its peers, but by pretending to do so, he rose into a position where he successfully dismantled many other critical functions of government, from housing to health care, that were once taken for granted. DeSantis certainly aims to do the same and if he has to drop tear gas on Gainesville first, so be it.