Year One

Inside New College of Florida’s Radical Transformation

New College's first full academic year under its new Board of Trustees is almost over. Elizabeth Djinis looks at how the institution has changed, and what the future might hold.

By Elizabeth Djinis Illustrations by Michael Byers May 8, 2024 Published in the May-June 2024 issue of Sarasota Magazine

It was supposed to be a relatively peaceful year for New College of Florida biochemistry professor Katherine Walstrom. In fact, it was supposed to be her last. Her plan was to retire in August 2024. She had a blurry sense of the future that was beginning to come into focus: cleaning out 25 years’ worth of research and old notebooks, combing nostalgically through notes from her Ph.D. defense and packing up the detritus of a long academic life.

But then, in January 2023, just as Walstrom was putting in motion her plans for retirement, the proverbial ax swung. New College, the state’s public honors college, a free-thinking institution where students were given narrative evaluations instead of formal grades, where each graduate had to complete a senior capstone project, a place dubbed “Barefoot U” because students wandered around campus without shoes, had been, by some accounts, taken over by Florida’s conservative government.

New College of Florida biochemistry professor and faculty union chair Katherine Walstrom.

Image: Barbara Banks

In practical terms, it began with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to appoint six new members to New College’s Board of Trustees, a group that included Christopher Rufo, a prominent conservative thinker and activist, and Matthew Spalding, a constitutional government professor at Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian college in Michigan. Within months, the new board ousted then-president Patricia Okker and replaced her with former state education commissioner Richard Corcoran in an interim role. (By October 2023, the Board of Trustees had chosen Corcoran as the college’s full-time president.) As part of a plan to increase enrollment at the school, Corcoran instituted an athletics program for the first time in the school’s history, adding baseball, softball, basketball and soccer teams, which led 153 athletes to enroll in the 2023-2024 class. At the same time, Corcoran made controversial hires for key administrative postings, like former lobbyist David Rancourt as dean of students and interim provost, who in January delivered a stand-up comedy routine at Sarasota’s McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre that included jokes about rape and exposing himself. Bruce Gilley, a political science professor at Portland State University, was also announced as an incoming presidential scholar in residence. He is perhaps most famous for writing an article (and later a book) titled “The Case for Colonialism.” (Corcoran declined multiple requests for an interview for this story. Rufo also declined to be interviewed.) 

Today, the future of the school is murky. Corcoran’s formal business plan for the college highlights the school’s goal of preparing students by offering a revamped liberal arts curriculum. Marketing materials tout slogans like “Learn how to think, not what to think” and “Learn from the past to define your future.” By this fall, according to the plan, New College will open its Freedom Institute—promoting “freedom of inquiry and champion[ing] tolerance of civil discourse among those of opposing views”—and develop new post-graduate degree options, like master’s programs in marine mammal science, environmental economics and policy, and educational leadership. The school also plans to grow its student athlete population to roughly 25 to 30 percent of its student population, which Corcoran’s plan notes is in line with other top liberal arts colleges. 

At the same time, the college announced the New College Liberal Arts program, a degree program for almost anyone who wants to participate. Students can choose between a one-year certificate, a two-year associate’s degree and a four-year bachelor’s degree. While classes are held largely online, they do require regular attendance per a set schedule. But the program’s “great books” theme—plus the fact that the course is largely open to the public at large—suggests a dramatic shift in the way the college is marketing itself to the outside world. 

In short, life at New College has been upended, and Walstrom’s idea of a quiet retreat into retirement no longer seemed feasible. Instead, when New College’s faculty union chair went on unpaid leave and then resigned, Walstrom, as the union’s vice president, took over the lead role. 

“It’s not what I expected to do during my last year at the college,” she says. “Honestly, the only reason I’m here this year is because I have six students graduating and I need to help them.” 

For the faculty who have remained at New College, this is a common refrain. They want to focus on helping their remaining students complete their courses and earn the relevant credits so they can graduate as planned. Other than Walstrom’s new position as union leader, her day-to-day routine has largely remained the same. She’s lost some students who transferred to other colleges—Massachusetts’ Hampshire College extended an open offer—and she laments the loss of the many faculty who have left. Like most of the people interviewed for this story, there’s only so much she can even publicly say—despite her impending retirement.

“I’m a full professor now,” she explains, “and I’m trying to be careful. I can’t get fired before my students graduate.”

For decades, New College was known as a free-thinking institution where students were encouraged to determine their own educational path.
For decades, New College was known as a free-thinking institution where students were encouraged to determine their own educational path.

It wasn’t always this way. Once, faculty from other states and schools sought out New College as a bastion of a certain kind of intellectual environment. But between this year and last, about a third of the college’s faculty—36 teachers out of more than 90—has left, according to reporting by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. (New College director of communications Nate March notes that only six faculty members resigned following the appointments, and that the other departures included a mix of retirements and leaves of absence.)

One faculty member, who asked not to be identified because they are worried about possible repercussions for speaking with the media, says New College had been on their radar since they were in high school. 

“I’m here because it’s changed my life and I don’t want to go anywhere else,” they say. “I love the school and I love what it offers and the way that we get to teach the students. But I found that, this semester, my classes were way bigger than normal. Because we’d seen faculty leave at a pretty good clip, we had fewer course offerings and students were scrambling left and right.” 

With 153 new student athletes in this year’s freshman class, some of whom didn’t even realize the school offered narrative evaluations instead of grades, this faculty member was overwhelmed trying to balance the needs of former and new students. Intuiting that many of them weren’t doing the reading, the faculty member carved out class time just to allow students to review materials—which was really code for catching up on reading assignments. 

As the past year progressed, a word began to form in this faculty member’s mind, one that they had experienced in classes taught at high schools and middle schools but never, never at New College: “apathy.” 

That is not a product of the quality of the students so much as it is a fact of life on a campus that has become, at best, a site of confusion and, at worst, a site of political warfare. Students reached through faculty or by email to be interviewed for this piece were reluctant to talk. Only two-thirds of first-time students from fall 2022 returned to campus a year later, according to a message sent by then-interim provost Brad Thiessen to faculty, and a quarter of students enrolled at New College in fall 2022 dropped out, double the rate of years past. The school was previously regarded as a safe space for LGBTQ+ students, but that identity has been threatened by the new administration and the state’s increasingly hostile legislation toward the LGBTQ+ community. Campus Pride, which rates schools based on how friendly their policies are toward LGBTQ+ students, actually removed New College from its list of recommended campuses last year. 

Even the way students talk to one another has changed. A February article in New College’s student newspaper, the Catalyst, by Cole Kinsley, documented “many restrictive changes” to student communication, measures that included the shutdown of the college’s long-running digital student forum and new rules regulating flyers and overpass chalking

Kinsley’s article pointed out that New College’s function as a public college has been both a blessing and curse. Messages exchanged on the forum, for example, were considered public records, which led to some students having their messages posted on social media, “where the posts were subject to public scrutiny,” according to the article. 

“The sudden blast of negative exposure confirmed students’ fears,” Kinsley wrote. “Left in a tentative limbo as students transferred or graduated and an influx of new students arrived, activity on the forum took a hit and dwindled." The forum is now offline.

According to Kinsley, the college has also limited access to other forms of digital organizing. The college’s official email list, known as the Students List, was a place where clubs and administrators could share information about events and happenings on campus. As of last year, according to Kinsley, most clubs and organizations do not have access to that list. 

Even physical messaging, like the tradition of stickering student mailboxes and faculty office doors, has been discouraged. In Kinsley’s article, Catalyst faculty sponsor Maria Vesperi, who declined to be interviewed for this piece, noted that she returned from winter break to find the stickers on her office door had been removed. 

New College of Florida French professor Amy Reid, now the chair of the faculty and the faculty representative on the college’s Board of Trustees.

Image: Barbara Banks

By now, the school’s culture of secrecy and surprise is familiar to the faculty who have remained. Gender studies director and French professor Amy Reid, now the chair of the faculty and the faculty representative on the college’s Board of Trustees, discovered at an August 2023 board meeting “in a surprise and unannounced move” (her words) that the board was voting to dismantle the school’s gender studies program. (March writes in an email that the move to eliminate the degree program would “ensure alignment with a classical liberal arts education and optimize degree program offerings.”) The elimination of the gender studies program prompted the resignation of the department’s only full-time, tenure-track faculty member, Nicholas Clarkson, who wrote a letter to Corcoran explaining his resignation. 

“I have loved teaching at New College,” he wrote. “I became a professor because I love reading, learning, talking about ideas, and seeing others’ faces light up when they talk about something they’re passionate about. I’ve taught a handful 
of individual students at other schools who shared my excitement about learning, but at New College, it’s part of the culture. … But now Florida is the state where learning goes to die.”

Clarkson’s last line gets quoted most often, but perhaps it is the first part that is more significant. For better or worse, what New College has always been is unique, and it is this uniqueness that the school's leaders appear to be trying to wring from it. They do this, seemingly, in the hopes that the college will be increasingly marketable to the broader public. After all, conservatives argue, what made New College special wasn’t working. For years, New College’s enrollment numbers were dwindling, from almost 900 in 2017 to fewer than 700 in 2022, according to numbers from U.S. News & World Report

In fact, Corcoran did manage to bring in a record number of 328 students in this year’s incoming class, according to reporting by the Herald-Tribune’s Steven Walker, though academic leaders say that may have come at a price. Almost half of the new class are athletes, and the combined GPA for student-athlete admits was 3.61, Walker reported, compared to the overall GPA of 3.7, while SAT scores for student-athletes were 1097 compared to 1147 for the entire class. Last fall, the college also waived a requirement that prospective students write an essay, though that requirement has since been reinstated. (March notes that athletes do not have “special standards” and that “they take the same rigorous academic course load, including Independent Study Projects and undergraduate research, as any New College student.”) 

“New College has never been about a one-size-fits-all model,” Reid says. “A successful student is not necessarily the student with the highest GPA or the highest SAT score. It’s a student who is really motivated to learn. We give those students the support they need to succeed, but when they get rid of the essay requirement for admissions at the same time as we see a marked drop in test scores for incoming students for fall 2023 and spring 2024, you have to be worried about what the administration’s plans are.” 

Much like Walstrom, Reid has turned her focus to helping her students graduate. In January, during the college’s interterm in which students can embark on independent study projects, she volunteered to teach a course to help students—even though she is officially on assigned research leave and wasn’t paid to do so.

“My only reason for staying here is the students and trying to help them in any way I can,” she says, “even if that means teaching without pay. I’m the director of gender studies, but the demise of the gender studies program is not the top thing on my list of concerns. Students are.” 

A protest outside a New College Board of Trustees meeting in February 2023. The school has become a site of intense political conflict since the overhaul of the board.
A protest outside a New College Board of Trustees meeting in February 2023. The school has become a site of intense political conflict since the overhaul of the board.

New College faculty and students have found support from the outside world. Observers have watched with bated breath, wondering if what’s happening at this Florida college could be a harbinger of what is to befall public education elsewhere. So prevalent was this fear that New College parents championed it as an organizing mantra: “Your campus is next.” 

But, externally, one big thing has changed between January 2023 and now—DeSantis has gone from rising national conservative star to dropped-out Republican presidential candidate. Surely his apparent failure would decrease the attractiveness of Florida as a political model for the rest of the country, right? The answer to that question remains unclear. 

New College’s long-term success is in many ways dependent on the ongoing support of the Florida Legislature. Up until now, the money has been flowing. When Corcoran was made interim president last year, he was hired with a salary of $699,000, more than double Okker’s pay. When trustees approved his five-year contract last October, it included the same base salary and some express benefits: an $84,000 housing allowance, a $12,000 car allowance and up to $200,000 in annual performance and incentive compensation, among other perks. And in an effort to promote the school through videos and other outreach, New College has been paying $15,000 a month to a Tallahassee-based company led by a former spokesperson for DeSantis’ office and a super PAC affiliated with his presidential run, according to The Tampa Bay Times. 

Last year, the Legislature appropriated more than $50 million to retool the college, including remodeling the Hamilton building and parts of the Pritzker Marine Biology Research Center. Roughly $37.1 million is slated to be allocated to New College in 2024-2025, including $10 million in recurring funds for operational enhancements and a minimum of $5 million for scholarships.

Corcoran’s own business plan requests a minimum investment of $400 million to achieve the administration’s goals. But, perhaps now more than ever, legislators may not necessarily be willing to grant all of DeSantis’ demands.

“That money has helped with numerous campus improvements and needed maintenance projects for the campus,” March writes. It has also gone to pay local hotels to house students displaced by the influx of new students and the poor conditions of some of the campus’ dorms.

In the meantime, outside independent bodies have attempted to step in. In February, the American Association of University Professors voted to sanction New College for noncompliance with widely accepted standards of academic government. The decision was inspired in large part by a report issued by the association in December that detailed the “politically and ideologically driven assault” on “academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance in Florida’s public colleges and universities” that was “unparalleled in US history.”

“Whenever we impose sanctions or censures for violations of academic freedom and tenure, our goal is to always remove the sanction as quickly as we can,” says Anita Levy, the association’s senior program officer in the department of academic freedom, tenure and governance. “However, in cases related to shared governance, it’s often very difficult to do, because what we’re looking for is a pattern of meaningful consultation with the faculty. Once a campus has suffered in the way that New College has from departures from those standards, it’s often difficult to reinstitute them, and it takes a while to repair that climate.” 

Jono Miller, the former head of New College’s environmental studies program and the president of NCF Freedom

Image: Barbara Banks

Alumni groups are also getting involved. DeSantis announced his Board of Trustees appointments shortly before a February alumni reunion, where ideas were exchanged. Local alumna Kathleen Coty began to connect with others concerned about the future of the school, culminating in the creation of the grassroots group known as NCF Freedom. Jono Miller, a prominent environmental activist, the former head of New College’s environmental studies program and an alum, is leading the nonprofit as its president. 

“We’re local, and I think pretty early on, we decided that we wanted to stake out the legal territory,” Miller says. “We thought that if the school was going to change, at least it should change according to rule and regulation and law.” 

Last August, the group filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Senate Bill 266, passed three months earlier, violated academic freedom and free speech rules. The lawsuit was dismissed in February, but concerns about the legislation remain. The law stipulates how general education core courses must be taught, including that they “may not distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics … or is based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities.” Humanities courses also must include “selections from the Western canon.” S.B. 266 also prohibits colleges from using “any state or federal funds” to “promote, support, or maintain any programs or campus activities” that “advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, or promote or engage in political or social activism.” 

S.B. 266 also had a significant effect on the recourse available to faculty unions. The legislation funnels most decision-making through the president, who has authority on faculty hiring and final say on faculty grievances. State statutes require that grievances between public employers and unions be settled by “a final and binding disposition” issued by a neutral party chosen by both sides of the dispute, but the language of S.B. 266 supersedes that. “Personnel actions or decisions regarding faculty, including in the areas of evaluations, promotions, tenure, discipline, or termination, may not be appealed beyond the level of a university president or designee,” reads the law

For Walstrom, the chair of the faculty union, this has made her job all the more difficult. Every two weeks, the union’s grievance team meets to discuss various rumors and concerns and whether they rise to the level of violating the group’s collective bargaining agreement. If they do, the union can choose to file a grievance. But at that point, Walstrom says, it’s the union versus the administration. 

“We can’t go to arbitration for all grievances anymore, so you’re not really going to get anywhere if the administration does something you think violates the collective bargaining agreement,” she says. “They’re going to say, ‘No, we didn’t. It’s our way or the highway.’”

One of the union’s chief concerns has been tenure. Five faculty members were denied tenure by the board last year, despite receiving approval during previous steps in the process, and the candidates were asked to defer their tenure applications by a year. In a 2023 memo reported on by the Associated Press, Corcoran urged trustees to delay a decision on the tenure applications, noting the “brand new president,” “brand new provost” and “change in direction.” At a meeting held last month, four of those five teachers were finally granted tenure, along with two other professors. The tenure application of assistant professor of Caribbean and Latin American studies and music Hugo Viera-Vargas, however, was denied for a second time. Viera-Vargas was a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging S.B. 266; critics say the board's vote to deny him tenure amounts to retaliation.

Shortly after the decision, the school's faculty union released a statement decrying the move and calling the "politicization” of faculty evaluations and tenure decisions "chilling and dangerous."

"Today's decision also undermines our meritocratic evaluation process by targeting one of an equally well-qualified pool of seven tenure candidates, rejecting the recommendations of expert reviewers, and denying tenure on the basis of weak and unprecedented rationales," union members said in the statement. "This decision creates an environment of fear for both junior and senior faculty, who may perceive this act as a threat by the administration that no faculty are safe."

Walstrom, who was interviewed before the most recent tenure vote, says this is all a far cry from her first experience as union president 15 years ago. “There have always been some bad bargaining years, and there have been incidents in the past and problems,” she says. “But there is no comparison with what’s going on now.”

New College president Richard Corcoran (right), alongside Matthew Spalding, one of the school trustees appointed by DeSantis in 2023

Most of the organizers and faculty on New College’s campus are in red-alert panic mode, likely not thinking that this is the time to navel-gaze about what New College was and what it might never be again. There’s too much at stake to ruminate on the past. 

And yet, there is a sort of mysticism in the decision a student makes to go to New College. Miller says that he didn’t so much find the college as it found him. A student at a private school in New Jersey, he was sent as a sophomore to the library to look at college catalogs. There, in one of those dusty pamphlets, was a brochure about New College. In it, Miller read with something that must have resembled awe, “Each student is responsible in the last analysis for his own education.” 

“Student progress should be based on demonstrated competence and real mastery rather than on the accumulation of credits and grades,” he says, reading from the faded papers he has managed to preserve. “The best liberal education derives from mastery of a small number of vital ideas, principles and modes of analysis. Students should have, from the outset, opportunities to explore, in depth, areas of interest to them.” Miller pauses. “I was sold,” he says. 

Even for someone unfamiliar with the school, it’s easy to see why so many have decided to rally around New College. It’s not just the school, it’s not just the takeover, it’s not just academic freedom. For decades, the school was an embodiment of an academic ideal, one in which so many still want to believe.

Show Comments