Aaron Hillegass attended New College of Florida as an undergraduate, had a successful career as a software engineer, and returned to the school this January to teach in its new data science program. But there was one problem for him: Florida governor Ron DeSantis.
Hillegass believes that DeSantis’s democratically approved higher-education reforms are a form of “fascism” and that the new slate of conservative trustees at New College, including me, are dangerous “sycophants” and “chuckleheads” who have “terrified the students and faculty.” Hillegass has been teaching at New College for only three months, but the reforms—designed to improve the struggling college, which ranks dead-last on Florida’s state performance metrics—were too much.
On Saturday, he resigned, releasing a dramatic public statement that compared DeSantis with the perpetrators of the Holocaust. “I love New College, but for the good of our nation, I hope the school fails miserably and conspicuously,” he wrote. “If I were more patriotic, I would burn the college’s buildings to the ground.”
These stunts are designed to drive left-wing media narratives (“Professor Resigns in Protest of DeSantis’s Fascism”) and to boost the profiles of their attention-seeking authors. The playbook is well-worn, and yet Hillegass, a data scientist, made a simple mistake. In his rhetoric about “burn[ing] the college’s buildings to the ground,” he revealed the ugly truth about modern “anti-fascism”: it believes that violence against the right targets is perfectly legitimate.
This appeal to violence is part of a larger pattern. When I first visited New College to hold a conversation with the campus community, an unidentified individual made a death threat against my fellow trustee Eddie Speir, and administrators tried to shut down the public forum, citing the threat. The following week, after our first board meeting, in which we terminated the contract of then-president Patricia Okker, student protesters screamed and menaced outside, requiring police to provide a protective barrier and shuffle us into a van.
The howling mob, like Hillegass, accused the new board of “fascism.” They might consider a remedial history course. Some notable characteristics of fascism include contempt for democratic governance and the use of street intimidation to achieve political objectives. Hillegass and his supporters should ask themselves whether that better describes the newly appointed board of trustees or the left-wing protesters.
Hillegass, apparently, had some guilty feelings. After an uproar in the press, he backed away from his violent statement. He claimed that it was a “poetic flourish,” clarified that he would “never burn a building down,” and then played the victim, arguing that “academic freedom” was under threat in Florida. But Hillegass never bothered to substantiate his argument. Had any policies limited his ability to research, write, and teach data science at New College? Had any restriction been made on his speech inside or outside the classroom? Pending any evidence, the answer is no.
Hillegass’s rhetoric might be over the top, but it reveals something fundamental about the nature of contemporary politics. The American Left, which has achieved hegemony in academia, would rather destroy a university than cede control of it to the Right. They do not believe conservatives are wrong; they believe conservatives are evil, and that this evil should be violently opposed. Without such resistance, Hillegass argued, Florida would descend into totalitarianism. “When a governor guts the leadership of a state school in an effort to make a facsimile of Hillsdale, that is fascism,” he wrote. “Not the shocking Kristallnacht-style fascism, but the banal fascism that always precedes it.”
This is fantasy. Hillegass and the young protesters, who work, live, and study in unprecedented peace and prosperity, are play-acting an imaginary historical drama designed to win fawning coverage on MSNBC, not to stop Governor DeSantis from building concentration camps on the beaches of the Sunshine State. In contrast to his fevered rhetoric, Hillegas feels no sense of practical urgency. In his resignation note, he states that he wants to stick around until his contract expires in August. But if Florida is perched on the verge of fascism, shouldn’t he get out now? If he truly believes the college is irredeemable, why continue to teach in its buildings until the semester ends?
I would encourage Hillegass to get on with it. At New College, we are building a classical liberal arts institution, in which there is no place for those who cannot differentiate between classical liberalism and political fascism. The faculty of New College need to be stewards of a great tradition, not arsonists of an eternal present.
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