New College of Florida News: Inside the School’s Conservative Transformation

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has forced a rapid makeover of the public liberal arts college.
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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...
Updated on October 4, 2023
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  • New College of Florida was once considered a progressive and liberal institution.
  • That image has been flipped in recent months thanks to new members of its board of trustees.
  • A former Republican politician is now the college's interim president.
  • New College's office in charge of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs was recently eliminated.

A small liberal arts college in southwest Florida is now a central player in the so-called culture wars raging in higher education.

New College of Florida is in the midst of a conservative transformation as Gov. Ron DeSantis, a presidential hopeful, remakes the school in his own image. The college, which enrolls under 1,000 students annually, had previously garnered a reputation for being a progressive and liberal institution, but new conservative leadership aims to steer the institution in the opposite direction.

Enrolled students, alumni, and faculty have strongly opposed the changes since the start of 2023.

The transformation has continued nonetheless, with entire offices and majors slated for elimination. Meanwhile, the school attracted a record number of new students for the fall 2023 semester, largely driven by student-athlete recruitment.

Here's a rundown of the changes from the past nine months:

A Hostile Takeover in January

New College of Florida's transformation began when DeSantis installed six new appointees to the school's board of trustees on Jan. 6. Many of these appointees have strong conservative viewpoints, and DeSantis spoke about wanting to turn the college into the Hillsdale of the South.

Hillsdale College is a Michigan college popular among conservatives.

New trustees wasted little time enacting the governor's agenda.

Trustees gathered for their first meeting on Jan. 31. By the end of that meeting, the sitting president had resigned, the board directed staff to create a plan to dissolve the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence, and a DeSantis appointee was installed as the chair of the board.

President Patricia Okker resigned during the meeting. She told people in attendance that her vision for New College did not align with the new mandate from DeSantis, and, therefore, she could no longer in good conscience lead the institution into this new era.

I do not believe that students are being indoctrinated at New College, she said. This is a hostile takeover.

The board voted to name Richard Corcoran as the interim president to succeed Okker. Corcoran was the former state speaker of the House and is a Republican ally of DeSantis.

Trustees voted to make Corcoran the permanent president on Oct. 3. The board passed the measure in a 10-2 vote.

Tensions escalated again during an April 26 board meeting. Trustee Matthew Lepinski announced near the end of the meeting that he was resigning from the board, got up from his chair, and walked out before the meeting adjourned.

Abolishing DEI Initiatives

New trustees quickly put New College's diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives on the chopping block.

Trustees voted in February to dissolve the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence, which ran the school's DEI programs. The office also worked on student retention, community outreach, and supporting student job searches.

The office employed four full-time workers, three of whom were reassigned to other jobs on campus, according to CBS News.

Trustees also voted to end all mandatory diversity training.

These actions align with the governor's larger war against DEI at all levels. DeSantis signed into law May 15 a measure prohibiting public institutions in Florida from using federal or state funds on DEI programming and offices. That law went into effect July 1.

DeSantis signed the bill into law at New College of Florida.

Students and professors filed a lawsuit to block this law in federal court on Aug. 14. Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, the Florida Board of Governors, and trustees at New College are named defendants in the suit.

It's worth noting that Trustee Christopher Rufo has been at the forefront of many of these anti-DEI measures at New College. Rufo, a fellow at the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute, was a staunch critic of DEI initiatives and critical race theory (CRT) even before DeSantis appointed him to the board of trustees.

Department of Education Launches Civil Rights Investigation

The Department of Education (ED) began a civil rights investigation into New College of Florida on Sept. 8, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

ED's Office for Civil Rights filed the complaint against New College for a myriad of reasons, according to the complaint. ED is investigating whether the institution violated disability discrimination regulations. It also alleged that the school has continued to discriminate against protected groups such as LGBTQ+ students.

New College of Florida alumni filed a civil rights complaint against their alma mater on Aug. 22, which prompted the department's investigation.

Trustee Rufo, who was cited in the complaint, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that he does not plan to change his behavior due to the complaint and investigation.

Left-wing activists want to use civil rights law to force everyone to falsify reality and use absurd, ideologically loaded neo-pronouns, Rufo wrote. I will never bend. I will never bow. I will never submit to the Biden administration's pronoun police.

ED's complaint alleges that Rufo misgendered the college's former DEI director.

Faculty Shakeups

The new era at New College also came with some controversial faculty decisions.

The first domino to fall was the school's former dean for DEI initiatives. The Catalyst, New College's student-run newspaper, reported that the institution fired Yoleidy Rosario-Hernandez without cause in early March, just a few days after trustees dissolved the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence.

New College fired librarian Helene Gold two months later, with just three weeks left in the semester. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that Gold was the second LGBTQ+ employee the college dismissed in 2023.

A personal feud with Trustee Rufo may have led to a history professor being let go from New College.

The institution let the contract for visiting professor Erik Wallenberg expire this summer. This comes after Wallenberg criticized the college's new direction in a Teen Vogue opinion piece in March. The article called comments from Rufo to a student demeaning and rude.

Rufo responded on X, formerly Twitter, calling Wallenberg's research pure left-wing Mad Libs.

He returned to the subject in June after New College decided to let the professor's contract expire without renewing.

It is a privilege, not a right, to be employed by a taxpayer-funded university, Rufo posted. New College will no longer be a jobs program for middling, left-wing intellectuals. We are reviving the great classical liberal arts tradition and setting a new standard for public education.

More than a third of the school's faculty will not be returning for the fall 2023 semester, Provost Bradley Thiessen reportedly said.

Inside Higher Ed reported that New College has looked outside of academia to fill vacant roles. That includes people in administrative roles who previously worked in political roles in Florida.

Gender Studies Likely to Be Axed

New College trustees got the ball rolling to potentially cut the school's 30-year-old gender studies program.

The Tampa Bay Times reported that trustees voted Aug. 10 to begin the process of cutting the gender studies major from New College. However, the school's general counsel advised that doing so may impact existing collective bargaining agreements and potentially violate state regulations, so leaders may need more time to determine if or how the program should be removed.

Rufo, who proposed the measure, said this would impact students enrolling in 2024. It would not affect the 2023 fall semester.

The measure passed 7-3.

More Students, More Problems

New College of Florida will welcome its largest incoming class this fall.

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that then-interim President Richard Corcoran - later named permanent president - succeeded in his drive to welcome the school's largest number of incoming students. Much of that success is attributed to student-athlete recruitment.

That enrollment bump came with a decrease in overall grade point average (GPA) and test scores among new students, according to the Herald-Tribune.

The rise in student-athletes is a 180-degree turn for an institution that previously did not have an athletics department. Corcoran made establishing an athletic program a core tenant of his first few months in office.

Of the 341 incoming students, 155 are student-athletes. Seventy are reportedly enrolling to play baseball at the school, while the remaining athletes will participate in the five other sports the college aims to provide.

For context, 70 is an abnormally large number of players for a single baseball team.

Meanwhile, the other planned sports may not have enough athletes to field a complete team.

This influx of students follows an exodus of faculty over the past year. More than a third of the institution's faculty won't return for the fall 2023 semester, and Inside Higher Ed reports that as a result, many classes won't be offered at New College during the term. That includes courses that are mandatory for certain majors.

It's also creating a student housing issue. New College reached an agreement with a local hotel to provide 133 beds for students. The college also had to close one of its dormitories due to a mold issue.

New College will pay approximately $1.6 million from its emergency fund for the fall semester.

Fresh state funds may help assuage issues brought on by the large incoming class.

DeSantis' 2023-24 budget called for $15 million for New College's faculty and student recruitment, with $10 million recurring annually. The legislature ultimately approved more than $34 million for the institution in the final budget.

Alumni Form Alt New College of Florida

Alumni of New College of Florida joined forces with outside organizations to form an alternative for students opposed to the new direction of the school: Alt New College.

Alt New College is a free, online-only program that will offer lectures and for-credit courses, according to the self-described online institute's website. Alt New College's offerings will focus on subjects that are under assault in Florida, including race and gender.

“The Authoritarian Assault on Gender Studies” was the first lecture offered by Alt New College, hosted on Sept. 18.

Partners include Bard College, PEN America, and the Open Society University Network (OSUN).

Alt New College's fall programming includes talks and courses from author Neil Gaiman and activist David Hogg, as well as professors from colleges and universities across the U.S.

A representative told BestColleges that Alt New College will begin offering for-credit courses during the spring 2024 semester. These for-credit courses can either be made into tutorials, through current New College of Florida faculty, or students can take them as standalone courses accredited through Bard College.

These credits will be transferable, the representative said.

Students Asked to Remove Pride, Black Lives Matter Pins

New College of Florida administrators reportedly instructed student orientation leaders to remove Black Lives Matter and Pride pins during the institution's orientation program for new students.

Xabier Rezola, a student and orientation leader at New College, told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that the college's leadership requested that he and 17 other orientation leaders remove their pins and wear only their name tags on their uniform shirts. Orientation leaders reportedly moved their pins to their pants or backpacks, but officials again told them to remove their pins.

We want to provide a welcoming environment for all students and I will not censor myself for someone else's comfort, Rezola told the HeraldTribune.

The college's first day of the fall 2023 semester is scheduled for Aug. 28.