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Christopher Rufo’s Alarming and Deceptive Crusade Against Public Universities

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Young is the Freedom to Learn program director at PEN America

“Public universities,” Christopher Rufo wrote on August 11 on X (formerly Twitter), “are not a ‘free marketplace of ideas.’”

This provocative statement doesn’t fully convey Rufo’s views on the subject; he’s noted elsewhere that universities should be an “environment of open, substantive debate.” But as a trustee at New College of Florida, Rufo has demonstrated the limits of his tolerance for ideas that differ from his own.

Rufo has begun the process of helping abolish the popular Gender Studies department at the public liberal arts school, presenting the act as a routine part of college governance. “State legislators and boards of trustees have the right—the duty—to redirect, curtail, or close down academic programs in public universities that do not align with the mandate of the taxpayers who generously support them,” Rufo wrote in a piece for City Journal, a magazine published by conservative public policy organization Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

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Not only is every word of that sentence deceptive, it’s also important to understand why it’s so alarming.

Rufo, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and a key architect of the attacks on critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion in academia, is just one of a number of figures making this argument right now—but his opinion in particular is certainly the one that’s having a media moment. His new book debuted on the bestseller list at The New York Times, where his support for DEI bans got its own op-ed; his Park Avenue book parties are generating feature stories in The New Yorker.

But Rufo is more than merely an edgy commentator on higher education. At New College, Rufo is one of several trustees appointed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis this year as part of a takeover campaign that is sowing chaos at the institution. In this role, Rufo has real power. And he’s used it to advance a simple goal: The suppression of speech and ideas he doesn’t like.

Read More: Critical Race Theory’s Merchants of Doubt

Rufo questioned the scholarship of a visiting professor who criticized him publicly, then when that professor’s contract was non-renewed, suggested it was because of the professor’s “leftwing” views; the American Historical Association compared this sequence of events to McCarthyism. And Rufo told the TimesMichelle Goldberg that his gender studies ban was an attempt to “rebalance the ratio of students” by driving some women out of New College. Women students, Rufo argued, “caused all sorts of cultural problems” and made the college a “social justice ghetto.”

Rufo’s efforts recall similar actions in Hungary, where Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian government not only banned all university gender studies programs, but drove one university out of the country altogether. Rufo, who recently spent over a month in Hungary witnessing the effects of Orbán’s education policy, wrote that “none of this is authoritarian” because “all of it is done with the vote of the legislature and the consent of the governed.”

But this type of rhetoric is how authoritarianism flourishes. Those who censor ideas often claim they are just enacting the will of the people. But Rufo’s actions at New College belie his rhetoric. He’s justified his gender studies ban by claiming other universities have terminated departments for similar reasons—that he’s being a normal, responsible trustee. But he’s also boasted that the ban “sets a new historical precedent.” In helping to ban a field of inquiry because he disagrees with it, he makes clear he wants to run not a college, but a propaganda mill.

Rufo has said that universities exist to promote “the true, the good, and the beautiful.” But he ignores that some people think gender studies and DEI are true, good, and beautiful. In a free society, we let people make their own choices about what they value, and our universities, steeped in traditions of academic freedom and scholarly rigor, embrace and debate a multiplicity of viewpoints and disciplines.

To preserve intellectual freedom on campus, universities must be insulated from direct political control over their initiatives, curricula, and instruction. The institutional autonomy of public universities isn’t, as Rufo wrote, “a privilege granted by voters.” It’s a long-heralded principle that forms the lifeblood of free inquiry on campus.

Most important, a free marketplace of ideas is the essential ingredient of a university. Just as a public playground is open to all, a public university is a space where all ideas are open for debate. Take away that freedom to think and speak, and you rip out the heart of an educational institution. That’s exactly what’s happened at New College, where more than a third of the faculty have fled and over 10% of last year’s students applied to transfer out of state in light of the takeover.

Universities aren’t blameless when it comes to free expression. Too often, campus culture and administration reflect an illiberal orthodoxy emanating from the left, or place diversity and free expression in unnecessary opposition. But the solution is reform and education. We should be adding more voices and ideas to campus, not restricting those that are already there.

“Learned institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people," James Madison wrote in a letter to William T. Barry on August 4, 1822. We are certainly a far cry from that, if a trustee is working to keep his own college from being a free marketplace of ideas. Rufo’s actions at New College demonstrate that beneath the patina of media-ready quips is an Orbán-style authoritarianism that isn’t just bad for higher education, but incompatible with the ideals of a free society.

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