Political Cronies and Thugs Are the Winners in DeSantisworld

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Reuters/Shutterstock/Wikimedia Commons
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Reuters/Shutterstock/Wikimedia Commons

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Florida Atlantic University’s (FAU) is in the midst of a Cinderella run in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, reaching the Final Four in its first tournament appearance in more than two decades—a historic achievement for a school that is a “mid-major” in college sports. But those feel-good vibes could be fading very soon.

FAU might soon be the latest Florida public university to potentially be run by a GOP politician. And not just any Republican pol, but a leading right-wing agitator in Florida’s culture wars and a close ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis—state House member Randy Fine.

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Fine is a bully in the DeSantis mold and lacks the basic level of respectful discourse or decency to be a university president. Simply put, as he mirrors DeSantis’ values and demeanor in so many ways, he seems a very logical pick to continue the governor’s ongoing war against intellectual freedom at Florida’s public universities.

In 2018, Fine’s hometown paper, Florida Today, penned an editorial lambasting his personal style, arguing it would be a hindrance to his ability to effectively work for his constituents. In 2019, Fine (who is Jewish) called a Jewish organizer of a local panel discussing Israel-Palestine issues a “Judenrat”—a term used for Jewish collaborators with the Nazis. Last year, Fine publicly threatened President Joe Biden on Twitter.

On Tuesday, Fine confirmed he is in contention for the FAU job and has been publicly recommended by the governor. A law passed in 2022 requires candidates for president of Florida’s universities to be concealed until finalists are determined. But Fine has jumped out in front of that secrecy in publicly declaring his interest.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Florida state Rep. Randy Fine</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Phil Sears/AP/Shutterstock</div>

Florida state Rep. Randy Fine

Phil Sears/AP/Shutterstock

Fine’s elevation to the job of FAU president would be just the latest salvo in DeSantis’ effort to undermine academic independence, and impose a right-wing bias on Florida’s state universities.

Last year, the University of Florida stunningly elevated former U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) to president in a secret process. Earlier this year, New College—a well-respected liberal arts school that was the jewel of the state university system—was taken over by a right-wing board and named former Florida Speaker of the House and Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran as its president. (Corcoran, who has long sought to be a university president, is a close ally of DeSantis.)

One of those DeSantis’ appointed board members at New College is Christopher Rufo, the notorious anti-woke activist who has never resided in Florida.

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This is exactly what DeSantis wants. He has a permanent ax to grind with academia and what he sees as a liberal education. The governor routinely extols the virtues of math and science education while making snide remarks about liberal arts and humanities. At the pre-college level, he’s mandated history be taught in a deeply sanitized fashion and deputized random cranks from around the state to make complaints about “divisive” books that can be summarily removed from school libraries and syllabi.

In appointing Sasse and Corcoran, DeSantis is helping to engineer the student bodies of those schools, as students seeking an education that doesn’t comport with the governor’s anti-woke culture war will look elsewhere. Rufo has made this mission explicitly clear, tweeting: “The student body will be recomposed over time: some current students will self-select out, others will graduate; we'll recruit new students who are mission-aligned.”

Yet, as ideologically-driven and educationally destructive as both Sasse and Corcoran are likely to be as presidents of public universities in Florida, Randy Fine is almost certain to be worse.

For starters, Fine’s brutish style includes a real mean streak when it comes to education and children. He constantly mocks people and makes public statements that would mortify most decent folk, provided they’re not also sharing in Fine and DeSantis’ obsessions about the “woke mind virus.’

As a legislator, Fine has threatened public universities directly. In 2019, as Chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, Fine suggested the University of Central Florida (the state’s largest public university) be shut down over spending abuse. Fine said at the time, “I believe that we are stewards of taxpayer money and we are obligated not to fund organizations that refuse to steward that money in an appropriate way… If it was a private business that I owned, I would shut it down.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Bradenton Herald/Getty</div>

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

Bradenton Herald/Getty

In 2021, Fine attacked Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins (who advocated for a mask mandate in Brevard schools) so viciously that he even found himself suspended by Facebook for 24 hours. The next year Fine made targeting the Special Olympics part of his agenda because of his feud with Jenkins, whom he referred to as a “whore.” Fine touted his cozy relationship with the governor in this situation, stating DeSantis would veto the Special Olympics funding because of him.

Fine is perhaps best known nationally for his leading role in DeSantis’ war on Disney. It was Fine’s legislation which punitively targeted Disney for its opposition to Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law by revoking its self-governing status. Fine’s close alliance with DeSantis was why he, and not any other legislator, was entrusted by the governor to lead this effort. Authoritarian illiberal bullies have got to stick together, after all.

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And this is why DeSantis wants Fine to run FAU. The legislator has been a loyal soldier, a leading lieutenant in the governor’s effort to undermine academic freedom and mold it to fit their right-wing sensibilities.

When it comes down to it, DeSantis elevating Fine isn’t just about rewarding a political ally, it’s about making sure positions of leadership throughout the state’s public university system are stocked with his cronies.

Fine is a perfect choice to lead the latest front in DeSantis’ illiberal war on academia.

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