In 2017, the government of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban passed a law intended to drive Central European University, a prestigious school founded by a Hungarian refugee, George Soros, out of the country. At the time, this was shocking; as many as 80,000 protesters rallied in Budapest, Hungary, and intellectuals worldwide rushed to declare their solidarity with the demonstrators. “The fate of the university was a test of whether liberalism had the tactical savvy and emotional fortitude to beat back its new ideological foe,” wrote Franklin Foer in The Atlantic.
Liberalism, sadly, did not: The university was forced to move to Vienna, part of Orban’s lamentably successful campaign to dismantle Hungary’s liberal democracy.
That campaign has included ever-greater ideological control over education, most intensely in grade school, but also in colleges and universities. Following a landslide 2018 reelection victory that Orban saw as a “mandate to build a new era,” his government banned public funding for gender studies courses. “The Hungarian government is of the clear view that people are born either men or women,” said his chief of staff. In 2021, Orban extended political command over Hungarian universities by putting some schools under the authority of “public trusts” full of regime allies.
Many on the American right admire the way Orban uses the power of the state against cultural liberalism, but few are imitating him as faithfully as Florida governor and likely Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis. Last month, one of DeSantis’ legislative allies filed House Bill 999, which would, as The Tampa Bay Times reported, turn many of DeSantis’ “wide-ranging ideas on higher education into law.” Even by DeSantis’ standards, it is a shocking piece of legislation that takes a sledgehammer to academic freedom. Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, described it as “almost an apocalyptic bill for higher education,” one that is “orders of magnitude worse than anything we’ve seen, either in the recent or the distant past.”
Echoing Orban, House Bill 999 bars Florida’s public colleges and universities from offering gender studies majors or minors, as well as majors or minors in critical race theory or “intersectionality,” or in any subject that “engenders beliefs” in those concepts. The bill prohibits the promotion or support of any campus activities that “espouse diversity, equity and inclusion or critical race theory rhetoric.” This goes far beyond simply ending DEI programming, and could make many campus speakers, as well as student organizations like Black student unions, verboten.
There’s more. Under House Bill 999, general education core courses couldn’t present a view of U.S. history “contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence,” creating obvious limits on the teaching of subjects like slavery and the Native American genocide. The bill also says that general education courses shouldn’t be based on “unproven, theoretical or exploratory content,” without defining what that means. “State officials would have unfettered discretion to determine which views are ‘theoretical’ and banned from general education courses,” says a statement by the libertarian-leaning Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.
Finally, the bill centralizes political control over hiring by allowing faculty to be cut out of the process. Right now, some boards of trustees have the power to veto hiring recommendations made by faculty and administrators, though Young says they rarely use it. Under House Bill 999, rather than an up-or-down vote on candidates vetted by university bodies, trustees could just hire whomever they want. “They don’t even have to hire someone who applied through the regular process,” said Young. “They can just say, ‘Here’s my friend Joe, he’s going to be the new history professor.’”
This would give DeSantis’ cronies enormous power over who can teach in Florida’s colleges and universities. Earlier this year, I wrote about the governor’s campaign to transform the New College of Florida, a progressive public institution, into a bastion of conservatism. At the time, some faculty members suspected that DeSantis’ new trustees might find their grandiose plans stymied by bureaucratic obstacles. Young believes that House Bill 999 would sweep many of those obstacles away.
The bill, of course, is only one part of DeSantis’ culture war. His administration has already limited what can be taught to K-12 students about race, sex and gender. (Some teachers removed all books from their classroom shelves while they waited for them to be reviewed for forbidden content.) When The Walt Disney Co. spoke out against one of DeSantis’ education measures, the governor punished the corporation. And he is pushing legislation taking aim at the news media by making it easier for people — especially those accused of racial or gender discrimination — to sue for defamation.
Last year, a court blocked parts of DeSantis’ “Stop WOKE” act, a ban on critical race theory that a federal judge called “positively dystopian.” In the likely event that House Bill 999 passes, the courts may block it as well. But the governor, a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, has made his political program very clear.
“DeSantis seems to be putting into practice some of the political lessons Orban has to teach the American Right,” Rod Dreher, an American conservative living in Budapest, recently wrote with admiration. If you want to see where this leads, Hungary has a lot to teach us.
Michelle Goldberg (Twitter: @michelleinbklyn) is a columnist for The New York Times, where this piece originally appeared.