Gov. DeSantis Appoints 5 Trustees to Florida Polytechnic University Board

The governor's appointments raised eyebrows given the recent conservative transformation at New College of Florida.
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Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
Published on November 1, 2023
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  • Florida's governor can appoint six board of trustees members at every state institution.
  • Gov. Ron DeSantis' appointments are under more scrutiny than usual due to his attacks on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts on college campuses.
  • One of Florida Polytechnic's new trustees is a fellow at a conservative think tank.
  • Another is a university professor who has criticized DEI initiatives at colleges and universities.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed five members to Florida Polytechnic University's board of trustees, including two opponents of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

DeSantis can appoint up to six board of trustees members at each state institution, but the governor's latest announcement is under increased scrutiny. He previously used New College of Florida as a launchpad for his so-called "anti-woke" platform — which started with installing new board of trustees members.

Two of the appointees at Florida Polytechnic, a public university in Lakeland focused on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), are ardent critics of DEI efforts on college campuses.

DeSantis himself has often criticized college DEI programs, claiming they are more divisive than they are helpful. He signed a bill into law in May that banned DEI at all levels in the state, including at public colleges and universities.

While it's unclear whether Florida Polytechnic will be the site of a transformation similar to New College, many are bracing for change, as the school is also searching for a new president.

"Another erosion of higher education," state Rep. Anna Eskamani wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Florida Polytechnic University's New Board of Trustees Members

Florida Polytechnic will soon welcome new trustees from all over the U.S.

The state Senate must confirm each appointee, but state law allows the appointees to begin serving on the board immediately. They will be removed if the Senate does not approve their nomination.

Ilya Shapiro

Shapiro is sure to draw attention due to his ties as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

That's because a January appointee to New College's board of trustees also included a Manhattan Institute fellow, Christopher Rufo. Rufo has led the charge in recent months to abolish DEI programs at the liberal arts college and has feuded with the school's left-leaning students and professors.

Shapiro's anti-DEI track record may not be as extensive as Rufo's, but it is still noteworthy.

According to Inside Higher Ed, Shapiro co-wrote and pushed for anti-DEI legislation across the U.S. His proposals centered on defunding DEI programs at colleges and universities.

He made headlines in 2022 due to comments he made in reference to President Joe Biden's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson. Condemning the "racist tweets," the Black Law Students Association at Georgetown University, Shapiro's previous employer, called for the school to revoke his contract.

Shapiro later resigned after serving a suspension.

He told Inside Higher Ed that he does not have a mandate from DeSantis to remake Florida Polytechnic into a conservative university. He stated instead that his goal is to emphasize the pursuit of "academic rigor and scientific innovation while maintaining what should be the core values of any higher-ed institution: truth-seeking, open inquiry, and civil discourse."

Dorian Abbot

Abbot is an associate professor at the University of Chicago's Department of Geophysical Sciences.

He also has an anti-DEI history.

Abbot co-wrote a Newsweek opinion piece where he said an emphasis on DEI "compromises the university's mission." His article also likened DEI initiatives to Naziism, causing outcry and a canceled lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

He also serves on the advisory board at the University of Austin, a conservative-oriented institution in Texas.

Similarly to Shapiro, Abbot told Inside Higher Ed he did not join Florida Polytechnic's board of trustees to begin a conservative transformation of the institution. He said his goal is to ensure students "get a rigorous scientific education that prepares them for success in their careers and puts them in a position to give back to their communities."

Clifford Otto

Otto is the current chair of the Florida Polytechnic University board of trustees.

His appointment, however, technically expired in 2019, but he has continued to serve in his role.

Otto is a retired business owner. He is the former national president of the Warehousing Education and Research Council, according to a statement from DeSantis.

David Clark

Clark is the current CEO of MyGovGuide, a tool for businesses to gain insight into Florida state agency budgets.

Perhaps more notably, Clark is the former deputy chief of staff for DeSantis.

Clark shared that he has not been directed to instill conservative values at Florida Polytechnic. Instead, he told Inside Higher Ed that state officials stressed a desire to elevate the institution to become the "MIT of the South."

Sidney Theis

Theis owns RDRTec Inc., a radar research and development (R&D) business in Dallas.

According to DeSantis, he is also on the board of visitors at Texas A&M University at Galveston and serves on the Texas Governor's Council. However, there is no mention of Theis on the governor's online list of council members.

Changes Coming to Florida Polytechnic University

Most of the incoming board members disputed the idea that Florida Polytechnic will undergo a conservative transformation akin to New College of Florida.

Change is coming to Florida Polytechnic no matter what, however.

Randy Avent, the university's current president, announced in August that he plans to step down from his position at the end of the current academic year. The school's board of trustees soon after established a presidential search committee to find the university's new president.

The board of trustees will ultimately vote on a presidential candidate to send to the state board of governors to confirm.

"We are committed to conducting a successful search process, and I'm confident we will find an exceptionally talented and qualified individual with strong STEM academic management experience to serve as the second president of Florida Polytechnic University," Chairman Otto said in a statement.