Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to transform the New College of Florida into a conservative beacon are being compared to fascism by the school’s director of the applied data science program, who issued a scathing rebuke recently while announcing his resignation.
Aaron Hillegass, in a letter shared on social media Saturday, tore into the Republican governor’s recent appointment of six conservatives to the public school’s Board of Trustees and the ousting of the school’s president in favor of a conservative career politician.
He further ripped a DeSantis official’s expressed desire to turn the small liberal arts school into a conservative “Hillsdale College of the South.” One newly appointed trustee said this could inspire other conservative state legislators to “reconquer public institutions all over the United States.”
Hillsdale College is a small private Christian school in Michigan that has prided itself in not adhering to Title IX ― a civil rights law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in schools ― since it doesn’t accept public funding.
“Hillsdale College is bad for America,” Hillegass said in his letter addressed to the school’s newly appointed interim president Richard Corcoran, a former Republican speaker of the Florida State House who was reportedly awarded a lucrative $699,000 a year salary for the new role ― more than double of what the school’s previous president was making.
Hillegass, who said he was hired just before DeSantis’ takeover, said in his letter submitted Friday that Republican efforts to overhaul the Sarasota college, his alma mater, “cultivates prejudice against immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community, minorities, and non-Christians.”
“When a governor guts the leadership of a state school in an effort to make a facsimile of Hillsdale, this is fascism,” he wrote.
“Not the shocking Kristallnacht-style fascism,” he said, referencing acts of Nazi violence against Jews, “but the banal fascism that always precedes it.”
Hillegass went on to say that while he loves New College, he hopes the school “fails miserably and conspicuously” and that “If I were more patriotic, I would burn the college’s buildings to the ground” — a comment that he told HuffPost by phone on Tuesday was merely hyperbole.
“I would never burn a building down. Nor should anyone else,” he later tweeted.
“My peers at the university have been very supportive. They’re happy that someone stood up and said it,” Hillegass told HuffPost of the general reaction on campus.
“Academic freedom, whether you’re on the left side or the right side, all academics agree that academic freedom is important.”
Hillegass, who said that he would be leaving the college when his contract ends in August ― a decision that he said followed him being asked if he would renew ― emphasized the importance of academic freedom.
“Academic freedom, whether you’re on the left side or the right side, all academics agree that academic freedom is important,” he said, though standing up for this has not been easy.
“People have left threatening voice messages for me, people have sent me really awful emails,” he said of some of the public response. “It’s a whole range of a lot of really angry posts, a lot of really supportive posts.”
Internally, he said he has “not been given any trouble” at the school over his letter and even had “a very good talk about it” with one of the new trustees, Eddie Speir.
He said he believes many others employed by the college have been quietly sending out their resumes amid ongoing legal efforts by DeSantis to ideologically transform public education.
“I think that this is true all over Florida with House Bill 999,” he said, referencing a controversial bill that, among other things, would prohibit certain course material in public schools that support diversity, equity, inclusion, or the teaching of Critical Race Theory. It also would make changes to tenure.
“I think that a lot of academics in Florida who have options are sending out their resumes,” he said. “As top-notch professors leave the state, Florida will find itself having a hard time producing a modern workforce.”
Representatives with New College did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment Tuesday.