Oct 25, 2023 - Education

Gov. DeSantis appoints campus DEI critics to oversee Florida university

A white sign that reads "Florida Polytechnic University."

Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland. Photo: John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

Gov. Ron DeSantis' appointments Tuesday to Florida Polytechnic University's leadership board include two outspoken critics of campus diversity programs, one of whom is a fellow at the same right-leaning think tank as New College of Florida trustee Christopher Rufo.

Why it matters: The appointments signal a shake-up in leadership for the STEM-focused public university in Lakeland similar to the conservative transformation carried out at New College earlier this year — just as the board is set to begin its search for a new president, according to board meeting minutes.

Driving the news: DeSantis announced five new appointees to the 13-member Board of Trustees overseeing the university of about 1,600 students and 70 faculty members.

  • His office did not respond Wednesday to Axios' requests for comment about his reasoning for the appointees.

Zoom in: Among the new appointees is Ilya Shapiro, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute who in February 2022 was placed on leave from his administrative role at Georgetown Law after criticizing President Joe Biden's decision to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court.

  • Shapiro later resigned, writing in the Wall Street Journal that Georgetown "yielded to the progressive mob, abandoned free speech, and created a hostile environment." He has since written numerous op-eds and court briefs criticizing campus diversity initiatives.
  • Another appointee is Dorian Abbot, an associate professor at the University of Chicago's Department of Geophysical Sciences who has expressed similar criticisms of college campuses.
  • Abbot made national headlines in 2021 when an invitation to speak at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was rescinded after students complained about his stances on affirmative action and diversity programs.

Zoom out: Abbot's and Shapiro's stances are in line with DeSantis' views on higher education. Along with the New College shake-up, the governor has pushed through legislation to eliminate campus diversity, equity and inclusion programs and curtail teaching on race and gender.

What they're saying: "I look forward to working with my fellow trustees to ensure that the university pursues academic rigor and scientific innovation while maintaining what should be the core values of any higher-ed institution: truth-seeking, open inquiry, and civil discourse," Shapiro said in a statement to Axios.

  • Abbot said via email: "My hope is to help provide oversight to ensure that the students of Florida Polytechnic University get a rigorous scientific education that prepares them for success in their careers and puts them in a position to give back to their communities."
  • He added that he is well-qualified for the role "as I have written more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific manuscripts and have developed multiple science core courses … that have been taken by thousands of undergraduates."

Of note: DeSantis' other three appointments are David Clark, the governor's former deputy chief of staff; Sidney Theis, the founder and CEO of a Dallas-based radar technology company; and Clifford Otto, the retired CEO of a logistics company who lives in Lakeland and has served on the Board of Trustees since at least 2016.

Between the lines: While five members don't constitute a majority, the terms of several more trustees are set to expire in 2024, according to the website.

  • The board is made up of six appointments by the governor and five by the State University System's Board of Governors, a body that's closely aligned with DeSantis.
  • The remaining two are the chair of the faculty senate and the student body president.

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