Lecturing the Lecturers
As his preparations for the presidential campaign accelerated this year, so did Mr. DeSantis’s crusade against the ruling class. In February, the governor and his wife, Casey, invited Mr. Williams, along with several other Claremont fellows and affiliates, to a private meeting at the Capitol in Tallahassee. The occasion was the opening of Claremont’s new Florida outpost, under the aegis of Scott Yenor, a professor at Boise State University and a Claremont fellow, now the institute’s new “senior director of state coalitions.” “Protecting Americans from infringing woke ideology is important work,” tweeted Ms. DeSantis, “and we are grateful Scott and the Claremont Institute picked Florida to continue their mission.” Later that day, the Claremont crowd joined the governor and his top aides for cocktails and dinner. Over a glass of Macallan at the Governor’s Mansion, he regaled them with the story of his takeover of New College the previous month and exchanged ideas about battling campus liberals.
The red-carpet welcome underscored Claremont’s increasingly prominent role in Mr. DeSantis’s policy apparatus. Earlier that month, Mr. DeSantis had invited another Claremont fellow to join his “round table” on the need to pass new laws against “legacy media defamation.” (The setting was a mock television studio, with Mr. DeSantis playing the role of host.) A few weeks later, in advance of his expected presidential bid, Mr. DeSantis treated his top donors and fund-raisers to a Claremont-only panel at the Four Seasons in Palm Beach. (The purpose of the panel, according to planning emails obtained by The Times, was to “define the ‘Regime’ which illegitimately rules us” and lay out a strategy to “make states more autonomous from the woke regime by ridding themselves of leftist interests.”) In March, Dr. Yenor joined Mr. DeSantis for yet another round table, this one focused on the evils of diversity, equity and inclusion programs in higher education.
Dr. Yenor was already a controversial figure. In a 2021 speech in Orlando, Fla., describing “the political and personal evils that flow from feminism,” he had claimed that feminist “careerism” made women “more medicated, meddlesome and quarrelsome than women need to be.” Calling modern universities “citadels of our gynecocracy,” he argued that they should stop recruiting women to medical, law and trade schools and instead focus on recruiting more men. Boise State officials resisted calls to fire Dr. Yenor for his remarks, citing the principles of academic freedom and his First Amendment rights; though some students filed Title IX complaints, he was ultimately cleared.
On the same day he appeared with the governor in March, Dr. Yenor unveiled a report, “Florida Universities: From Woke to Professionalism,” asserting that public colleges were “gripped by D.E.I. ideology” that threatened to “tear Florida apart.” Though released by Claremont, the report was first edited by a top DeSantis aide, according to emails obtained by The Times. And though it drew little notice outside Florida, the report echoed Dr. Yenor’s viral speech. The state should not only defund “D.E.I.-infused” programs and classes, he recommended, but ban the collection of “race-based data” entirely, in order to hobble federal investigations into discrimination at Florida institutions. The real victims of higher-education discrimination, Dr. Yenor wrote, were men: Florida should “order civil rights investigations of all university units in which women vastly outnumber men among the student body and/or faculty — especially colleges of nursing and education — for disparate impact” and root out “any anti-male elements of curriculum.” (At New College, The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported in August, DeSantis allies have boosted male enrollment in part by doling out a disproportionate share of the school’s merit scholarships to a new crop of student-athlete applicants, though that group had lower-than-average grades and test scores.) Rather than defend academic free speech, Dr. Yenor advised, Mr. DeSantis and his appointees should adopt “a more ideological bent” to rein in administrators and teachers and cultivate love of country.
Two months later, the governor signed a law banning the state’s public colleges and universities from spending money on diversity programs, setting off a now-familiar cycle of negative headlines and DeSantis counterattacks. Despite the coverage, however, only portions of the bill actually addressed D.E.I. administrators. Perhaps more consequentially, the legislation imposed a vague but expansive speech code on Florida public university campuses — prohibiting required courses “based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political and economic inequities.” (In an interview, Manny Diaz Jr., the state’s current education commissioner, said that “conversations about theories and the debates about these theories” should take place only in higher-level elective courses. “Why am I talking about that in a math class? In a literature class?”) In legal battles to defend Mr. DeSantis’s higher-education agenda, lawyers for his administration, far from defending academic freedom, have argued that the concept does not even apply to public university professors: College curriculums and in-class instruction are merely “government speech,” controllable by duly elected officials. The American Association of University Professors likened the state’s position to “authoritarian control of education similar to what exists in North Korea, Iran, or Russia.”