A Look at New College's Cloudy Future

With a new conservative majority on its board of trustees, the college is poised to undergo major changes, and many affiliated with the school are worried it could lose what makes it special.

By Elizabeth Djinis January 30, 2023

New College of Florida has always been defined by both intellectual rigor and a dose of eccentricity. It's a school where students receive narrative evaluations at the end of a course rather than a letter grade and are required to finish a senior capstone project. And it's a place where, in lieu of a cap and gown, graduates can wear whatever they want for graduation, whether that’s a goddess crown, elf ears or a Sailor Moon costume. The school was famously once known as "Barefoot U.”

So when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced at the beginning of January that he would be appointing six new members to the college’s Board of Trustees, and a seventh member was appointed by the Florida Board of Governors, the news came as a shock. The governor’s appointees all had a particular background, almost none of them matching the flavor of New College: There was Christopher Rufo, a prominent conservative activist who pioneered the backlash to critical race theory; Jason “Eddie” Speir, who co-started the Bradenton faith-based private school Inspiration Academy; and Matthew Spalding, a constitutional government professor at Michigan's Hillsdale College. (All the appointments must be confirmed by the Florida Senate before they are official, per DeSantis’ press release.)

It is the Hillsdale name that has perhaps struck the most fear in faculty, students and parents. In an oft-referenced quote first reported by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr. noted his desire for New College to become “Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the South."

What "classical" means is still to be debated, but Hillsdale seems like a stark contrast to what New College has been. Hillsdale is described as a “small, Christian, classical liberal arts college” and has been, according to The New York Times, “considered a hidden gem” among “erudite conservatives.”

“People here in Sarasota should be very concerned that a public institution is going to be remodeled along the lines of a parochial private school,” says Amy Reid, the director of the gender studies program and a French professor at New College.

But the new trustees have so far been rather general when discussing what they hope to achieve at New College—and how much of an overhaul will really take place. The most concrete examples come from Rufo, who released a short agenda on Twitter on the day DeSantis’ press release went out. He wrote that he hoped to “shift the university to a classical liberal arts model,” “create a new core curriculum and academic master plan,” “abolish ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ and replace it with ‘equality, merit and colorblindness” and “hire new faculty with expertise” in areas like constitutionalism, religious freedom and American principles. (Rufo’s team declined a request for comment for this story, citing time constraints.)

New College of Florida.

Despite community backlash, local state legislators appear to be largely in support of DeSantis’ plan, based on Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporting. A video taken by the newspaper’s Zac Anderson at a Sarasota County legislative delegation meeting earlier this month showed state Sen. Joe Gruters defending the new appointees.

“We’re trying to save the college for all of our community members,” Gruters said. “This is not a takeover. This is a bridge to save New College.”

But that’s not how professors like Reid see it.

“Personally, I was stunned when news of the board appointments came out,” Reid says. “But in the past two weeks, I have been really cheered and buoyed by the dedication of my colleagues to New College and our students and our mission as a public liberal arts college.”

Others, like Tracy Fero, the parent of a first-year student at New College, took action immediately. After hearing about the appointments, Fero drove to Sarasota and reserved a hotel room. She set herself up in the school’s dining hall and started flagging down as many students as she could find, imploring them to make posters and protest. Soon, Fero’s name took on a life of its own, and parents started reaching out to learn more.

“We were just all appalled, trying to put our heads together,” says Fero. “It was a fact-finding mission, basically, on how much power they had.”

Parents, students and faculty are now looking ahead to a concrete date that might shed light on the college’s future. On Tuesday afternoon, the first board of trustees meeting with the new appointees will take place. Before the meeting, new board member Speir wrote a Substack post outlining some of his goals for the day. They include discussing “the need for a new president” and giving current college president Patricia Okker the “title of interim president.” Speir also suggested “terminating all contracts for faculty, staff and administration” and “immediately rehiring” those who “fit in the new financial and business model.”

It’s scenarios like these that the faculty union is trying to prepare for, says Steven Shipman, the union president and a chemistry professor.

“We’re trying to be really vigilant of any attempts to do things that would force us to react,” says Shipman. “To be clear, I don’t think this is going to happen, but if somehow they tried to fire a faculty member on Tuesday, that’s really against our contract.”

When it comes to possible checks and balances on the trustees’ power, the union contract does require that “changes to the college academic program” be made “only in consultation with the teaching-and-research faculty.” Moreover, the faculty are entitled to a “yes-or-no vote,” which must be given “full consideration” before any changes are adopted.

With the sweeping changes that Rufo has already proposed, it’s clear that almost everything that makes New College special may be at stake, and many parents, students and faculty are afraid that it will be dismantled. When faculty and parents discuss what makes the school unique, they often cite its mix of creativity, research, rigor and experimentation.

Shipman spoke to me near the end of the school’s one-month January period, in which students complete independent projects under the guidance of faculty. He was working with one student on a radio telescope, with another on mutations and proteins and with a third on a simple yet compelling question: Why do fireflies glow?

“If I were at a big place, I would be told, ‘Steve, what are you doing? Go back to your lab and get more research done,’” says Shipman. “I do get research done. But the flexibility to play with really interesting ideas and creative students is phenomenal.”

Fero’s child was initially attracted to the college’s unique grading system. Now in their second semester, they plan to study marine science, scuba dive with the college’s Dive Club and work on coral reef protection. Also, they identify as nonbinary, and New College has provided a safe space for them.

Dwindling enrollment has plagued both New College and universities nationwide for years. In 2017, the school was awarded millions in state funding as part of a growth plan to increase enrollment. Yet even after that funding, enrollment numbers continued to decrease, from almost 900 students in 2017 to 659 in the fall of 2021, according to U.S. News and World Report, mirroring a national trend

Still, it's one thing to require that the school increase its enrollment. It’s another to institute what some have called a hostile takeover of the institution. Local activists worry about what kind of precedent this might set for the future of public education.

“It’s way bigger than just New College and it’s bigger than just the whole Florida system,” says Robin Taub Williams, the president of the Democratic Public Education Caucus of Manasota. “This is very chilling. It’s an attack on academic freedom nationally.”

Fero has harnessed this anxiety into a slogan—“Your campus is next"—and says she's focused on ensuring New College's experience doesn’t become a model for other public colleges. She says she's watched her child mature, grow and become “more self-confident” than ever at New College. She doesn’t want that taken away. 

“I’m so proud of our students each time they speak out,” says Reid. “But they’re here for an education. Let them be.”

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