Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and anti-civil rights activist Christopher Rufo are waging a campaign against New College of Florida that strongly resembles actions taken by Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister Viktor Orbán in 2017 and 2018 to shut down Central European University.
DeSantis appointed Rufo, known for his anti-Black and anti-LGBTQ messaging propaganda, to the board of trustees at New College of Florida in early January. Since then, Rufo has engaged in what amounts to a hostile takeover of the school, forcing the president out and attempting to reinvent the school as a conservative institution. The scheme echoes Orbán’s plot to force CEU out of Hungary just years earlier.
Right-wing media personalities and activists in the United States have extensively praised Orbán in recent years, including after he gave what his own adviser called a “pure Nazi speech” in which he decried “race mixing” among Hungarians. During a May 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference event in Hungary, Orbán referred to Fox News star Tucker Carlson as a “friend” whose show should be “broadcasted day and night.” (Carlson passionately defended Orbán in 2021, characterizing his views as “moderate and conventional.”) A separate event known as the National Conservatism Conference also served to strengthen the ties between the illiberal Hungarian leader and his stateside admirers.
Whether DeSantis and Rufo are deliberately modeling their efforts on Orbán’s — or the similarities have arisen naturally from the authoritarian ideologies all three men share — isn’t clear. Regardless, Rufo himself appeared to endorse Orbán’s targeting of CEU in a tweet to conservative writer and Orbán fanboy Rod Dreher.
Other members of DeSantis’ inner circle have praised Orbán’s administration. During the National Conservatism Conference in Miami last September, Christina Pushaw, a longtime DeSantis aide, “told the audience that Orbán’s government gave her inspiration” for icing out mainstream journalists, as reported in New York magazine.
“The New Yorker wrote to Orbán and asked for comment on their hit piece, and they received a response that was just perfect. It said, ‘We are not going to participate in the validation process for liberal propaganda,’ ” she recounted, “and I don’t think we need to participate in that validation process either.” Instead, she noted, DeSantis gives access to conservative sites, which then get quotes and scooplets they can use to build their audience.
At the same conference, an Orbán adviser praised DeSantis and used the governor’s policies to justify and normalize Hungary’s own. From New York magazine:
At one panel, The Federalist’s Sean Davis asked Balázs Orbán, an adviser (no relation) to Viktor Orbán, how his government is preventing the fake-news media from poisoning the minds of the youth. “Just as is done in Florida,” Orbán replied, explaining that the Hungarian regime used state power to prevent the left from indoctrinating the country in its ideology. (His spokesperson explained that he was referring specifically to “gender propaganda.”) He mocked the idea that the regime was behaving autocratically: “You can say I am autocratic, pro-Putin, pro-everything that is bad, but look, in Florida, in the United States, the Republicans are doing the same.”
The similarities in the campaigns that DeSantis and Rufo in Florida, and Orbán in Hungary, have waged against a particular institution of higher learning are striking. Beginning in 2017, Orbán set his sights on CEU, one of Budapest’s top universities. Founded in 1991 by liberal philanthropist George Soros, who was born in Hungary, the school was meant to serve as a model of post-Cold War openness and cosmopolitanism. Orbán saw it as a threat — a bastion of liberalism that threatened his far-right regime.
Orbán, who studied law at István Bibó, a college in Budapest, moved to impose requirements on CEU that appeared to be impossible to meet by design. As The Atlantic reported:
Although the legislation didn’t mention CEU by name, the school was its obvious—and only—target. The bill would suddenly make CEU’s existence in the country dependent on quickly meeting a series of impossible-seeming requirements. As a foreign university, it would have to operate a campus in its country of origin. (CEU was chartered in the state of New York, but it didn’t have any faculty or facilities there.) Its national government would need to enter into a bilateral accreditation agreement with Hungary. (In the U.S., accreditation agreements are the jurisdiction of the states, not the federal government.)
Textbooks and curricula, once the domain of municipalities, have been centralized and now inculcate the regime’s politics. “The government is quite clear that patriotic education is as important as transferring knowledge,” Péter Kréko, the political analyst, told me. An eighth-grade history book praises Orbán as a “foundational figure.” A high-school textbook opens a section on “multiculturalism” with an image of refugees huddled at the Budapest train station, accompanied by a quotation from the prime minister: “We consider it a value that Hungary is a homogeneous country.”
Rufo has been alternately open and cryptic about his plans for New College. He sometimes describes his efforts almost modestly, as in a closing paragraph on his blog at City Journal:
My proposals include redesigning the curriculum to align with the classical model; abolishing DEI programs and replacing them with “equality, merit, and colorblindness” principles; adopting the Kalven statement on institutional neutrality; restructuring the administration and academic departments; recruiting new faculty with expertise in the classical liberal arts tradition; and establishing a graduate school for training teachers in classical education.
The new majority’s plan, Rufo told me just after his appointment was announced, is to transform New College into a public version of Hillsdale. “We want to provide an alternative for conservative families in the state of Florida to say there is a public university that reflects your values,” he said.
Rufo has made clear that New College is just the beginning. “If we are successful, the effort can serve as a model for other states,” he wrote at City Journal.
Orbán was successful in driving CEU out of Hungary. Whether DeSantis and Rufo can remake New College remains to be seen, much less whether their actions are scalable. Regardless, Rufo has stated that his ambitions do not end with the DeSantis administration. In a recent video titled “The Strategy Behind the Campaign to Abolish DEI Bureaucracies in Public Universities” posted to his YouTube page, he says that his goal is to “get it done in one state, in the state of Florida, and then see a domino effect of other states following suit.”
But it would be wise to take warning from CEU’s president, Shalini Randeria.
“We are a textbook case because what we need to realise is that all of these ‘soft authoritarian’ regimes, as I call them, are learning from one another. There is a playbook they are carefully watching to see what works in one case or another,” she said in an interview with University World News. “We need to study this carefully to see there is a certain toolbox they’re using, and no university is safe.”