As the 2024 Republican primaries begin, candidates and prospective candidates sense an opening on an issue that has long favored Democrats: schools and education. No one embodies this more than Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
While the laws she signed into law limiting the teaching of race and gender identity topics have garnered the most attention, another recent move indicates that there is a real risk that Republicans will overreact while leaning on such issues.
DeSantis has targeted New College of Florida — a small public liberal arts school that, according to its website, invites students to join a “community of freethinkers, risk-takers, and trailblazers” — for a “takeover hostile” ideological. He filled the board with allies, one of whom, activist Christopher Rufo, proclaimed the plan was to convert honors college into “a public version of Hillsdale” – a private conservative college that is the antithesis of what New College of La Florida offers its student body. In their first meeting, the new trustees voted to end the college’s contract with its president, Patricia Okker, a veteran educator who had only been in the job for 19 months.
This echoes the situation at the University of Missouri in 1849, when new board members replaced its president to advance a political agenda. And that story indicates that politicians who interfere with college leadership to advance a divisive agenda can produce a backlash if the new leadership is out of step with the public.
In 1839, an act of the Missouri General Assembly established Missouri State College, the first public university to be established west of the Mississippi River. It represented the fruit of a decade-long effort by Missourians who wanted a local, state-supported higher education that met the standards of classical liberal arts colleges in the more established eastern part of the United States. The efforts of James Sidney Rollins, a 27-year-old Whig representative just elected to the General Assembly, to found the public college and then have it built in Columbia, Mo., earned him the moniker “Father of the University of Missouri.”
When the original board of trustees met to begin creating the college, they considered a number of college presidents and trustees to head up their new institution, some of stature and some with personal ties to board members. After a couple of failed recruiting attempts, the board hired John Hiram Lathrop, a professor at Hamilton College in New York. Lathrop had been involved in a mess with the New York state legislature regarding an abolitionist petition that had been circulating on the Hamilton campus, and he hoped to put the political turmoil behind him. Lathrop arrived in Colombia and immediately began plotting a plan to recreate a traditional classical education program in the American West.
Lathrop has enjoyed nearly a full decade of unbridled leadership over the college, with his biggest concerns boosting enrollment and overcoming the consistently tight purse strings of the Democrat-controlled Missouri General Assembly (two concerns – enrollment and funding – which constantly plagues public universities even today).
However, in the late 1840s, US land grabbing – the annexation of Texas (1845), the settlement of the dispute with the British over Oregon (1846), and the Mexican cession, which took the northern part of Mexico as the spoils of victory after the Mexican-American War (1848) – had reignited politics surrounding the expansion of slavery into US-controlled territories. In Missouri, this tension first manifested itself in an effort by slavery forces led by Democratic state Senator Claiborne Fox Jackson to oust longtime Sen. Thomas Hart Benton (D-Mo.), who had avoided taking a firm position on the expansion of slavery in the territories.
As his hermetic clique tarnished Benton’s reputation, Jackson turned his attention to the state institution of higher learning, believing that Lathrop harbored a “coincidence of feelings” with Benton on the subject of slavery. He sponsored a bill that would have expanded the board of trustees, which would have given slave Democrats the ability to reshape the state college in their vision, one that explicitly promoted the ideology of slavery. After Jackson’s bill passed, the new board forced Lathrop to resign and replaced him with James Shannon, an ardent slavery minister of the Church of Christ and president of Bacon College in Kentucky. Shannon had recently had a falling out with his spiritual mentor, Alexander Campbell, who described him as “married to the political school of John C. Calhoun, and would rather suffer death than abandon his creed.”
Shannon proved to be the opposite of Lathrop, exactly as Jackson had hoped. During the first half of the 1850s, he toured the state giving steadfast orations on slavery, attracting attention for his lively and effective delivery.
When political violence began to erupt across the border in Kansas Territory over whether neighboring Missouri was a slave or free state, it prompted a group of anxious proslavery Missourians to hold the Lexington Conference to plan a collective response to the situation. They chose Shannon to deliver the keynote speech, in which he presented his usual biblical justification for slavery before closing with a call to secede from the United States.
Shannon had gone too far. Missouri citizens across the state have written to their legislators demanding that something be done about University President Cinder. Voters pleaded with Rollins, the titular father of the university, to oust Shannon to prevent the state university from becoming “an annulment school.” The majority in the Missouri legislature agreed with that sentiment and placed conditions on Shannon’s employment that made it impossible for him to hold the position.
Slavery ideologues had overplayed their hand at a time when tensions in the United States were reaching a fever pitch. Every day Missourians had no desire to take a radical position regarding the maintenance of slavery. This story illustrates how if the new New College of Florida board selects a trustee with explicit political goals in mind, it could backfire. New College is a public institution – unlike Hillsdale or other conservative schools such as Liberty University – and citizens do not like to see their educational institutions engaged in radical politics, nor do they want them to be run by people whose primary goals are political, not educational.