Will a small, quirky Florida college become ‘DeSantis U’? (2023)

Higher Education

The governor appointed six trustees to New College of Florida, rattling many on campus

By Jack Stripling

January 23, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EST

Will a small, quirky Florida college become ‘DeSantis U’? (1)

Randy Fine, a Republican state representative, thought New College of Florida was a travesty — a bastion of liberalism and a money-suck for taxpayers. At the LGBTQ-friendly campus, which some have dubbed “Barefoot U,” bookish seminars are popular, classes are given pass-fail and fraternity parties don’t exist. When students couldn’t settle on a mascot, they embraced a mathematical symbol instead: a pair of empty braces denoting the “null set.” There’s no football team for the 660 students to root for anyway.

Fine, like many conservatives, wanted New College gone. So in 2020, the lawmaker from Melbourne Beach, Fla., introduced a bill that would have merged the Sarasota school with a larger state university. But his Tallahassee colleagues weren’t on board, and the measure died in the legislature.

Then, earlier this month, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) appointed six new members to the school’s board of trustees, including some outspoken conservatives. At the “genius” of this plan, Fine, a Harvard graduate, could only marvel.

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“The institution as it exists will be effectively shut down and be rebuilt as ‘DeSantis University’ or whatever it gets called,” Fine said. “It’s a brilliant idea. I wish I’d thought of it.”

The looming transformation expected from the new board members has set people on edge at New College, where anxious faculty, students and alumni see themselves as unwitting conscripts in a politicized battle over education that the governor is waging statewide. DeSantis signed a law limiting what professors can teach; his administration has directed schools to report on diversity and equity programming; and it requested information about any gender-affirming care that universities provide, such as puberty blockers. These moves build upon a national playbook for Republicans, who, in recent years, have sought to abolish tenure and defund college diversity centers.

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Now, New College, an idiosyncratic little school founded in 1960, is in the crosshairs. Bryan Griffin, DeSantis’s press secretary, says it is a wayward institution in need of rescue. “New College of Florida has been completely captured by a political ideology that puts trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning,” he said in a statement. The new trustees, he said, are “committed to refocusing the institution on academics and truth.”

Targeted Programs

When the new board appointments were announced, students and professors immediately worried the trustees would target courses and programs tied to diversity and gender. An article about the appointments in the Daily Caller, a conservative website, contained a laundry list of such programming, identifying “courses in queer studies, queer history and feminist philosophy.”

“I would get rid of gender studies if it had an outspokenly political aim,” said Mark Bauerlein, an incoming trustee and an emeritus professor of English at Emory University. “If gender studies has the aim of eliminating patriarchy from society, that means it’s not an academic department; it’s an activist department.”

Amy Reid, director of the college’s gender studies program and a French professor, said that gender studies is an established academic discipline dating back four decades in the United States.

“We are not feeding students any ideological line,” Reid said, “and we are not forcing or shoehorning students into any narrow model. We’re asking questions that invite students to engage in true, critical inquiry and to find the questions that they want to ask.”

DeSantis has considerable power to influence Florida’s public universities by shaping their governing boards. Among New College’s 13 board members, nearly all are appointed either by the governor or the university system’s Board of Governors, whose members are mostly gubernatorial appointees. Trustee posts require confirmation by the state senate, in which Republicans hold a majority.

The new appointments include Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who does not waste time. On Twitter, he said, he will tour the campus soon with “our landing team." (The university said Rufo and another incoming trustee are set to visit on Wednesday.) And he already has a multi-point plan: Faculty will be hired with expertise in conservative-friendly disciplines, such as “constitutionalism, free enterprise,” and “American principles.” “Diversity, equity, and inclusion” programming will be replaced with “a small ‘equality, merit, and colorblindness’ department.” The college needs a “new core curriculum,” said Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and a “mandatory board review of all course offerings.”

“We are now over the walls,” Rufo tweeted on Jan. 6, “and ready to transform higher education from within.”

Rufo declined an interview request, offering only a brief statement disparaging The Washington Post.

Rufo has also said the college needs “new leadership.” The current president, Patricia Okker, has been on the job for only a year and a half.

Two people familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the president’s status, told The Post that there is a good chance of turnover at the top. “With such a drastic change in Board of Trustees appointments,” one of the people said, “a change in leadership could be likely as the university is rebranded.”

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Griffin, DeSantis’s press secretary, said the new trustees “will make determinations about how to best correct course and get New College back on track.”

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The college did not make Okker available for an interview.

In addition to Rufo and Bauerlein, the new board members include Matthew Spalding, a professor in constitutional government at Hillsdale College, a private Christian college; Charles Kesler, a professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College and editor of the Claremont Review of Books, a conservative publication; Debra Jenks, a Florida lawyer; and Jason (Eddie) Speir, co-founder of a private Christian high school in Bradenton, Fla.

London Weier, a fourth-year New College student, sees the developments on her campus as part of a grander plan. “Right now, they’re focused on New College, but in a few months it could be a different school,” she said.

Bauerlein, who describes himself as a “social religious conservative,” said Alex Kelly, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, approached him late last year about becoming a trustee. The professor’s loathing of “identity politics” is well-known, but Bauerlein said the governor’s office gave him no specific directions about how to approach his role. Nor was there any talk about New College being too liberal, Bauerlein said.

“I feel like I have an independent hand here to make my own judgments,” said Bauerlein, who is editor at First Things, a conservative religious journal.

Bauerlein previously worked with DeSantis’s office to craft new English Language Arts standards for K-12 schools, adding requirements for Shakespeare, romantic poetry, and ancient drama. The professor has argued that schools have harmfully shifted away from prescriptive content standards, because English literary history is perceived as “too white-male.” DeSantis embraced standards more to Bauerlein’s liking.

“For doing that,” Bauerlein said, “DeSantis earns my loyalty.”

‘Hillsdale of the South’

Colleges, even small ones, don’t turn on a dime. Some at New College are counting on that.

For one, the college’s union contract defines academic programming as a “shared responsibility,” requiring that a faculty vote be given “full consideration” before changes can be made. But nothing says the vote is binding. Additionally, the college must abide by the standards of its regional accrediting agency, which states that the “primary responsibility” for curriculum resides with faculty. In a recent message to professors, New College’s provost emphasized that the college is subject to the collective bargaining agreement and accreditation standards.

Steven Shipman, a physical chemistry professor and president of New College’s chapter of the faculty union, said making changes is “bureaucratic slow work.” “So let’s see what actually happens once people get here,” he said.

Bauerlein, the new trustee, agrees. “I don’t think a revolution is going to happen,” he said.

Manny Diaz Jr., Florida’s education commissioner, has said that New College could become something akin to “a Hillsdale of the South,” referencing the private college in southern Michigan. Hillsdale does not accept federal and state subsidies or allow students to use government aid, freeing the college from a host of regulations. Along with Hillsdale’s president, two of the incoming trustees — Kesler and Spalding — participated in the “1776 Commission,” a group formed under President Donald Trump, who described the commission’s work as a corrective to “left-wing indoctrination in our schools.”

In an email to The Post, Spalding said that there is “no definitive plan” for New College. But he expects to offer his expertise as a professor and an academic dean. A “proper” liberal arts program, he said, isn’t about giving students “a smorgasbord of pop literature coupled with trendy academic pursuits.” Rather, he said, it’s about exposing them to “the great works of great thinkers.”

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Neither Spalding nor Bauerlein offered specific critiques of New College’s curriculum or programs. Instead, they lamented that colleges in general have dumbed down instruction and undervalued the Western canon.

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New College’s general education requirements emphasize mastery of skills, such as oral communication, but prioritize student choice without rigid course requirements. Under the new board, students worry, there could be a push toward a more prescriptive curriculum favored by political conservatives.

“The idea of our curriculum and our education right now is to hear both sides of the story,” said Sofia Lombardi, a fourth-year political science major and former president of student government. “It is academic freedom. And I feel like they’re doing the exact opposite of that.”

New College is designated as the “Honors College of the State of Florida” but a longtime goal of enrolling 1,200 students has proved elusive. That’s made it difficult for the college to insist its model is working. “The market has largely rejected the product,” Fine, the state representative, said.

One objection conservatives often register with universities is the embrace of what they call “cancel culture” — the effort to silence speech, usually from the right, that students dislike. New College faced a stark test of this principle when R. Derek Black, an avowed white nationalist, matriculated in 2010. Students who learned of his views denounced him, but the school’s president at the time, Gordon “Mike” Michalson, turned away pressure to boot Black from the campus.

“My phone rang off the hook in those days — mainly alums — demanding I kick Derek out immediately,” Michalson wrote in an email. “I simply pointed out that, based upon what I knew from the dean of students, Derek had broken no student conduct rules. Surely there could be no justification for kicking him out for what he believed.”

Black stayed. He developed stronger critical thinking skills, he said, and forged deeper relationships with classmates at Jewish Shabbat dinners. Black credits these experiences in part with his eventual renunciation of white nationalism, a journey The Post covered.

The white flight of Derek Black

“My experience goes so against the idea that this is some sort of ideologically driven institution, because the administration never acted against me in any way,” said Black, who is pursuing a doctorate in history from the University of Chicago. “If anything, they were supporting my right to be there.”

Many view Black’s story as a testament to New College’s power to change lives. Michalson lamented that “people who have never spent a day on campus” seem dead-set on upending the place.

For students at New College, there is nothing to upend — and much to protect. One of them, a trans woman who spoke with The Daily Beast, said she was so troubled by news of the board appointments that she had gotten “really sad” and “laid down.” Rufo, the incoming trustee, posted the student’s quote on Twitter, adding a crying laughing emoji.

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