SARASOTA, FLORIDA — To help build a “Hillsdale of the South” in the Sunshine State, Governor Ron DeSantis tapped a distinguished educational leader from the small, private college in Michigan.
Dr. Matthew Spalding was among the six members the governor appointed to the board of trustees at New College of Florida in January. Spalding serves as the Kirby Professor in Constitutional Government at Hillsdale College and the Dean of the Van Andel Graduate School of Government at Hillsdale College’s Washington, D.C., campus. He is also a best-selling author and a Fellow at the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy.
The Florida Standard spoke to Dr. Spalding about his vision for New College, the board’s decision to remove discriminatory Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies and the governor’s decision to point out Hillsdale as an educational model.
I’m sure you already had a lot on your plate before joining the board at New College. What made you want to take on this new role?
I think it’s a fascinating proposition to be a liberal arts college in a state system. I’m at a private liberal arts college, which is very different, but there’s something about both of them that focuses on this question about the most important things to learn and study. To be able to do that in the context of a public university is very challenging, but also very exciting.
Why was removing DEI such a high priority for the board?
Part of the problem with modern education – including at New College – is that there’s some things that have become entrenched in recent years that actually are barriers to education. They close the mind. They filter out opinions before they even get there. They prevent faculty from teaching by filtering them out of the hiring process. They send signals to students that some opinions are tolerated and others are not. All that needs to be removed, because you can’t have liberal education in an illiberal environment. It’s not merely a matter of housekeeping. It goes to the heart of the matter. There will be some more [actions] along those lines.
Looking beyond the DEI controversy, what should the public get excited about in terms of what’s ahead for New College?
The opportunity here is so great. We’re clearing away all the bad ideological underbrush and reorienting toward what New College is supposed to be. Saving this college means getting it back on track.
You have a board that’s engaged and focused and now you’ve got an interim president who is very engaged in serving this mission. I think we’ll see a lot of great improvements to student life and facilities.
The other thing I would emphasize are the actual teaching and curriculum. You get bad things out of the way and get back to the real work of a college, which is teaching. Focusing on the most important things, building on the elements we have, enlivening the conversations, having additional faculty so you have more diversity of opinion… all those things will be good and exciting for New College.
What are some of the things about Hillsdale that you think made the governor and his team want to model New College reforms around that example?
The comparison, I have to say, is very flattering. We take that as a great sign of respect for what we’ve accomplished at Hillsdale. But I do note very important differences because I think there’s a lot of confusion about this. Hillsdale is a private, Christian college. It’s been around well over 100 years. New College is a public university in a state system, funded by taxpayers. It’s responsible to the Florida Legislature, it’s not been around as long. Those are all important differences. How a liberal arts education is constructed has something to do with the place and time and the ground upon which you build it.
Having said that, this is really more about liberal arts than Hillsdale per se. What does a good liberal arts curriculum look like? What does it emphasize? What ought it to be, and what ought it not be?
How would you answer those questions?
A well-constructed liberal arts curriculum is designed to liberate the mind by studying great classical works, great thinkers who are grappling with the most important questions about human flourishing. It’s not a smorgasbord of relativism. It’s not focused on the most recent fads in educational trends.
It’s meant to bring students to see the most fundamental questions and how to think about them, guided by good faculty. It’s not political ideology or political activism. It doesn’t necessarily mean everybody agrees on everything, but it does mean there’s a sense of a common project and purpose. There’s a permanence behind it that I think is lacking in modern education.
Many college degree programs are hyper-focused on specific career tracks. How does a broad, liberal arts education equip students to be successful in the workforce?
A liberal arts education teaches you how to think, not what to think. And knowing how to think also includes how to write and how to communicate. Turns out these are key ingredients for being successful in life – professionally and personally.
Do you see what’s happening at New College as a watershed moment in higher education in America?
I do. The debate over higher education in general, which is connected to K-12 education, is one of the most important questions facing our country’s future. To do reforms in a public university dedicated to the liberal arts is both important in and of itself and serves a crucial model for the rest of the country.
Education is not the responsibility of the federal government. Education overwhelmingly is the responsibility of states, which means governors and legislatures. We shouldn’t overlook that. Public education is their responsibility on behalf of the people of their state.
What’s going on in New College and Florida in general is exactly what’s supposed to be happening. The state is taking seriously their responsibility and duty to oversee public education. I see nothing that we’re doing as either controversial or improper. We are carrying out what our duty is as trustees with a responsibility to New College.