How is Gov. Ron DeSantis’ push to remove “woke” indoctrination from Florida’s higher-education system going? Great for politicians who have enlisted in his anti-woke army. Not so well for excellence in the leadership of our colleges and universities, as we learned this week.
The Herald and other news outlets reported that a Republican lawmaker with few credentials — and a previous arrest that got him suspended from the Osceola County Commission — is the one and only finalist to run South Florida State College, a small community college based in Avon Park. That’s the same lawmaker, Rep. Fred Hawkins, who flanked the governor at a news conference in April to announced Florida’s latest round of attacks against Disney. Hawkins also sponsored a bill to take over Disney’s special taxing district after the company opposed a parental-rights law known as “Don’t say gay,” the Herald reported.
Hawkins boasted on Twitter this week he’s “becoming the next President of South Florida State College,” even though the college’s board of trustees isn’t scheduled to vote on the matter until next month, the Herald reported.
What makes Hawkins so confident that he’s getting the job? Hint: It’s not because of his resume.
Hawkins is a former rodeo cowboy from St. Cloud who has run a K-12 education foundation in Osceola County since 2016, the Herald reported. Besides sitting on higher-education legislative committees, he doesn’t appear to have any experience running a higher-education institution. He has a bachelor’s degree, but no advanced degrees, unlike the three other job finalists who suddenly dropped out. All of them currently hold leadership jobs in other community colleges and have doctorates.
Hawkins became a finalist five days after the South Florida State College Board of Trustees — controlled by DeSantis appointees — voted to lower the education requirements for the position.
Hawkins doesn’t have the credentials, but he meets one important set of criteria. He’s a Republican and he’s not “woke.” The other applicants “were all Democrats,” South Florida State College Trustee Louis Kirschner told the Tampa Bay Times. Essentially, highly qualified professionals shouldn’t bother applying if they have a D on their voter registration.
“The governor doesn’t appoint all Republican trustees and expect us to select a Democrat,” Kirschner said.
Why should the trustees hide their partisan motivation when DeSantis’ push to weaponize state colleges and universities is so blatant?
Kirschner, who has been on the Board of Trustees since 1999, admitted that 10 years ago political orientation might not have mattered as much. A decade ago, Florida’s governor was Rick Scott, a bona fide Tea Party conservative. The GOP running the state today is not the same of yesteryear. It’s driven by the extremism and pettiness that Donald Trump and DeSantis have normalized.
Under such new leadership, the Legislature last year laid a veil of secrecy over university and college president searches. A new law keeps the identity of applicants secret until the final stages of a search. That makes it easier to sneak in less-qualified candidates like Hawkins.
Who needs actual know-how when our state colleges are becoming looked at as mere tools to win political and culture wars? Take Sarasota’s New College of Florida, a liberal-arts school that underwent a conservative takeover when DeSantis changed its board of trustees this year.
They quickly pushed out New College’s president and appointed as interim former House Speaker and Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, another loyal soldier in DeSantis’ crusade against “woke.” Corcoran’s near $700,000 base salary to run a school of 700 students is larger than the base pay his counterpart at Florida International University was offered in October to oversee the education of 56,000.
And Florida Atlantic University might become collateral damage. State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, has said the governor’s office approached him about running the Boca Raton-based school. Fine is better known for his vindictiveness and outrageous statements than for his legislative accomplishments. Most notably, he called a Brevard School Board member and sworn enemy a “whore” and threatened funding for a Special Olympics event because she was invited to a fundraiser and he wasn’t.
Fine’s transgression might not rise to the level of Hawkins’ arrest in 2020 for impersonating a law-enforcement officer to try to gain access to a meeting of a homeowners association. The charges were dropped on the condition that he completed a diversion program. DeSantis suspended him from the Osceola County Commission.
How Hawkins has risen to be the top — and now only — contender to run a state college is no mystery. He’s on the “right” side politically and did the governor’s bidding. But given the thinness of his resume to lead South Florida State College, the District Board of Trustees owes it to taxpayers and students to reopen the job search and to not do either such a grave disservice.