Ron DeSantis unleashes famed bigot to ruin beloved college in Florida
Students and alumni respond to the attack
Welcome to a Friday evening edition of Progress Report.
Tonight I’ve got a long piece on a breaking scandal that would shock and outrage millions of Americans if any national nonpartisan media outlet decided to cover it. Unfortunately, they just do not seem interested in questioning the GOP’s new golden boy, lest they get called “woke” or ruin an emerging 2024 narrative.
On Tuesday, Ron DeSantis delivered his second inaugural address surrounded by massive banners that declared him the governor of the “Free State of Florida.”
Somewhere in the inauguration crowd was Chaya Raichik, the proprietor of the hate-fueled social media aggregator account LibsofTikTok. Long an anonymous troll, Raichik confirmed her identity in a series of recent interviews with Tucker Carlson and other right-wing TV hosts, during which she hurled lies about “anti-white racism” and “LGBT activists indoctrinating kids.”
The inauguration was Raichik’s first public appearance after being outed, though a review of footage has since placed her amid the violent mob that attacked the Capitol on January 6th. But she was not at the inauguration to protest and did not have to break a window with a flagpole push her way into the event. Instead, she attended as a DeSantis’s guest, having been previously offered shelter at the governor’s mansion. No doubt that Jair Bolsonaro was watching the ceremony from afar in Orlando, where DeSantis has been allowing the toppled reactionary Brazilian president to wander aimlessly in order to avoid corruption charges back home.
Raichik’s presence was hardly an isolated provocation. If his hyper-partisan first term in office left it at all ambiguous, DeSantis spent the rest of the week making clear that in his Florida, freedom is a privilege reserved for a very narrow band of likeminded extremists.
On Friday, DeSantis announced that he’d named six new hard-right members to the Board of Trustees at Sarasota’s New College of Florida, a public liberal arts college famous for its open environment and diverse student body. The first name on that list of nominees was Christopher Rufo, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the ideological terrorist behind the right-wing moral panics that have galvanized Republicans and turned public schools into war zones.
He made it clear on Friday that he intends on doing the same at New College.
“Under the leadership of Gov. DeSantis, our all-star board will demonstrate that the public universities, which have been corrupted by woke nihilism, can be recaptured, restructured, and reformed,” Rufo tweeted soon after the announcement.
He also laid out a sparse, multi-part plan that couched his intent to create a white nationalist education center in the language of academia:
Rufo has dedicated his career to attacking vulnerable communities, public institutions, and anything that he perceives as a threat to white hegemony. After provoking backlash against homeless people and public policy intended to help them, Rufo gained prominence by introducing the right to the “danger” of Critical Race Theory, which he used as a blanket term to cover any attempt to reckon with the legacy of racism. Rufo railed with contempt against diversity and equity programs, both in schools and workplaces, and openly discussed his plans to infiltrate public education and broader institutions with the moral panic he’d created.
Bolstered by incessant attention from Fox News and other right-wing outlets, the “CRT” backlash has become a staple of Republican politics, with red states across the country passing bans on any education that presents history in a way that is less than flattering to white racists or acknowledges the systemic racism and segregation that still exists today. Rufo literally founded a center for Critical Race Theory at the Manhattan Institute, a right-wing thing tank that is now at the forefront of the education wars that have led to such tumult at once-sleepy school board meetings nationwide.
Inspired by his brash bigotry, DeSantis worked closely with Rufo on the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” an omnibus attack on decency and diversity in society that the governor has made a centerpiece of the unending fascist drive that he hopes will lift him to the Republican presidential nomination. Rufo helped introduce the legislation to the Florida legislature, and then pivoted to honing in on attacks on the LGBTQ+ community.
Rufo’s targeted hate speech and fountain of bigoted misinformation has led to the far-right fixation on accusing gay teachers of being “groomers” and delirious book bans in schools and libraries nationwide. He’s been transparent with his strategy, which has nonetheless worked countless numbskull parents into a froth against gay teachers, drag queens, and Disney alike. Republicans have followed his playbook to devastating effect, and none more so than DeSantis.
Rufo’s placement on the board of trustees at New College of Florida is a deliberate provocation by DeSantis, who has been galvanized by a 19-point victory over a remarkably hapless Florida Democratic Party. His chief of staff underscored the malicious intent by saying that the administration could turn NCF into the “Hillsdale of the South,” a reference to the far-right Christian school that has helped shape Florida’s “anti-woke” K-12 curriculum makeover.
“Unfortunately, like so many colleges and universities in America, this institution has been completely captured by a political ideology that puts trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning," another DeSantis administration said.
Students and Alumni Speak Out
In speaking to NCF students and alumni, the responses to the new appointments have been a mix of anger, fear, and uncertainty.
“This is an attack on academic freedom, and New College will be made an example of what happens when you teach the truth,” says Sofia Lombardi, who just finished a term as the NCF student body president. “The classes they want to attack — history and the social sciences — are not subjective in the way they make them out to be. These are people feeding into the idea that curriculum is ‘woke,’ when I think they’d be surprised by the civility and openness of NCF’s courses. New College’s student body is the most driven, welcoming, and brilliant group of people I have the pleasure of knowing.”
Students and alumni alike praise the school’s culture of openness and challenging the status quo. In a state that has become overwhelmed by right-wing activists and neo-Nazis that spend every weekend attacking drag shows and gay clubs, the environment has proven increasingly welcoming and important over the past half-decade.
“NCF changed my life. I went into it somewhat knowing what the culture was like, but was not prepared for the profound effect it would have on me,” a recent alum, who requested anonymity, tells Progress Report. “I thrived in the open-minded, passionate, transparent learning environment cultivated by students and faculty alike. New taught me how to think critically, interrogate the world we live in, and — in my opinion, crucially — made me optimistic for the future we could build together. And as a trans/nonbinary person, it was absolutely a safe haven for my self-discovery.”
Mackenzie, a recent alum, grew up in Sarasota, and found that the campus provided a doorway into new worlds not available in the town itself.
“Growing up here means I was really, really limited in exposure to other cultures,” she says. “The tuition for in-state students is very reasonable for the value of education received. NCF is an affordable and attractive option for locals looking for an honors education that will open their mind to the world outside of rural Florida.”
The concerns are manifold, from fears of classes being axed and professors being dismissed to funding cuts and attacks on extra-curricular activities. Classes on gender studies and race relations, history courses, and student activities will all be on the chopping block. A student named Haley said she’d just taken a class called "Resisting, recreating, and reclaiming: LGBTQ+ people and religion,” which she fears would be a prime candidate for elimination.
Almost to a person, people we spoke to rejected the characterization of NCF as a citadel of far-left politics and culture. They instead described it as a place where discussion and discovery thrive, with no single ideology dominant.
“If this guy remakes the school in his image, it will lose all of the openness that makes it special,” a recent alumni named Justin says. “The whole point of NCF is that you find your own way with support of some really brilliant and intellectually honest faculty and staff. It's not about indoctrination — it's about support, so that you can discover things for yourself.”
“The way the classes are set up there, promote critical thought and are very discussion oriented,” adds Hannah, another recent alumni. “You get to hear everyone’s perspectives and it makes you think about things from various points of view. I can only imagine that a lot of this will be cut out and the curriculum will be heavily monitored.”
“NCF was a place where anyone could be whoever they wanted as long as they were tolerant and accepting of everyone else doing the same,” adds Tali Zacks, a recent alumni who interned at NASA while enrolled and is now pursuing a PhD at the University of Illinois. “I am a queer, disabled, non-binary Jewish person in science AND art and there is no place for someone like me in the school that Governor DeSantis is proposing New College become.”
The flexibility and individualization of studies comes up again and again during these conversations. Some areas of concentration have few if any prerequisite classes, allowing students more time to pursue their interests. Regular independent studies foster closer relationships with professors, many of whom, students fear, will have their classes or even jobs eliminated.
“Not only did I gain masters level education on subjects that were integral to my career but I also got a wide breadth of perspective that helped shaped me into becoming closer to a truly objective scientist,” Mackenzie, who concentrated in biopsychology, says. “The curriculum allowed me the freedom to maintain independence in my choices — I didn’t ever have to sit through a course and be fed information I didn’t want to learn.”
Now that freedom is under siege, a sick twist to DeSantis’s own proclamations.
Political Media Fails Again
NCF students have protested on several occasions over the past few years. In 2019, when an investigation found that the school discriminated against applicants with mental health issues, they mobilized to force the dean of admissions to step down. A year later, when the Florida legislature to fold NCF and Florida Polytechnic University into the University of Florida, they again mobilized and were able to stop the proposal from advancing.
Talks of protests over the new board are already in progress (and a Twitter account has been launched), but this time they’ll be facing a unfathomably cruel and power-hungry governor who will do anything to win over the far-right flank of the GOP ahead of the next presidential primary.
If they’re going to have any chance of winning this battle, they’ll need significant national media attention and pressure from the outside. But as one student pointed out to me, the only national outlets to cover DeSantis’s decision to put a white nationalist on the board of a public college have been right-wing newspapers and blogs, which is par for the course when it comes to Ron DeSantis’s most contemptuous attacks. I suppose that live-tweeting the dysfunctional House Speaker vote was just too valuable.
Time and again, DeSantis gets the benefit of the doubt, with major coverage that reduces his cruel attacks on children, teachers, queer people, people of color, poor people, and immigrants into mere political tactics justified by his ambition. DeSantis is called “Trump with a brain,” as if being a bigoted bully is a sign of intelligence, and hailed for his judgment, which is again justified by political outcomes, even when it involves kidnapping migrants and dropping them off in the freezing darkness of a state a thousand miles away.
Rufo, too, has benefited from bizarrely gracious coverage from a media that has proven time and again that its tradition of strict “objectivity” has left it ill-equipped to handle the rise of unabashed racists and fascists. Instead, it offers people like Rufo “balanced” stories in search of better “understanding” the most simplistic extremists, complete with glossy magazine-like photo shoots. In doing so, they whitewash monsters, legitimizing them enough to be given plum appointments by presidential candidates.
Responses from students and alumni are pouring into my inbox, so we’ll post more of them later this weekend in a dedicated issue to make sure someone is featuring their voices.
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1. The inauguration was Raichik’s first public appearance after being outed,
Are you suggesting Raichik only revealed her identity because.she had already been doxxed/outed? Any evidence of that?
2. "Instead, she attended [Jan 6] as a DeSantis’s guest, having been previously offered shelter at the governor’s mansion."
Again, your timeline seems to be deliberately reversed. She was offered shelter at the governor's mansion after Taylor Lorenz had tracked down her family. Do you have any evidence that she was in DC on Jan 6th at the behest of Ron Desantis or did you just make that up?
I get that you hate Desantis but you appear to just be making stuff up. Unless you have evidence of these claims, what you are doing is yellow journalism.
Great piece. I am a retired professor from Ohio and this is very concerning. I agree this needs immediate national attention.