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A college in upheaval: War on 'woke' sparks fear in Florida

Changes so far have come in tandem with a new bill DeSantis unveiled Jan. 31 aimed at overhauling higher education in Florida.

SARASOTA, Fla. — Professors at the New College of Florida are using personal email because they’re afraid of being subpoenaed.

Students are concerned, too. Some fear for their physical safety. Many worry their teachers will be fired en masse and their courses and books will be policed. It’s increasingly hard to focus on their studies.

For years, students have come to this public liberal arts college on the western coast of Florida because they were self-described free thinkers. Now they find themselves caught in the crosshairs of America’s culture war.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has targeted the tiny school on the shores of Sarasota Bay as a staging ground for his war on “woke.” The governor and his allies say New College, a progressive school with a prominent LGBTQ+ community, is indoctrinating students with leftist ideology and should be revamped into a more conservative institution.

Students and faculty say America should take note because the transformation at New College could become a blueprint with national implications as DeSantis gears up for a likely presidential bid.

“I’m sorry, but this isn’t an indoctrination facility. This isn’t a factory that pumps out, you know, non-binary communists,” says Viv Cargille, 20, a marine biology major from Miami.

In January, DeSantis and his allies overhauled the 13-member Board of Trustees and installed a majority of conservative figures. The new trustees promptly fired the college president and replaced her with a Republican politician. Next, they dismantled the office of diversity and equity.

Changes so far have come in tandem with a new bill DeSantis unveiled Jan. 31 aimed at overhauling higher education in Florida. The bill would ban gender studies majors and minors, eliminate diversity programs and any hiring based on diversity, weaken tenure protections and put all hiring decisions in the hands of each university’s board of trustees.

The effect at New College has been chilling and disruptive. Students and faculty compare the upheaval to a “hostile takeover." It feels even more jarring because the school is for many students a haven of open-mindedness and acceptance in a place of idyllic beauty, with palm-tree-lined paths along a stretch of white-sand coast.

“It felt very much like New College was a little bubble in Florida,” said Willem Aspinall, 19, an environmental studies major who grew up in a Chicago suburb. “Now it feels like that has kind of been burst. The campus feels a lot less safe now.”

One of the new trustees is Christopher Rufo, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and architect of the right-wing outrage against critical race theory, a legal term that has come to represent teaching about the effects of slavery. Rufo actively posts on social media about his vision for the future of New College, often in militaristic terms. He has referred to new trustees at the public institution as the “landing team,” saying, “We got over the wall,” and talking of an operation to “recapture” the college.

New College has its problems. Enrollment was declining until last year. Students complain of mold in dorms, broken elevators and other delayed maintenance. Some students say they would welcome more conservative students. DeSantis and the new trustees cite the challenges as justification for the state intervention.

Some students are fleeing, for schools that feel safer. Several professors who asked not to be named are sending out resumes.

New College has long been an anomaly in a state filled with large public universities. It has barely 700 students, no fraternities or sororities, and no football team. The average class size is 11 students. There are no letter grades; students get detailed “narrative evaluations” as part of a pass-fail system.

The academic freedom is mirrored by a student body that feels free to express itself, say students and faculty, who describe New College as a haven for brainy kids who are high-achieving and intellectually curious. Some were the quiet kids in high school, or were bullied for being queer or different, or struggled socially because of autism or other disabilities. They arrived at New College and felt welcome in a way they never had before.

“It is one of the most unique places I think that exists in American higher education,” says Elizabeth C. Leininger, a neuroscientist and associate biology professor, who knows all her students by name. She compares an education at New College to small, private liberal arts schools at a fraction of the cost. In-state tuition at New College is $7,000 and out-of-state is $30,000, but many students get scholarships that cut tuition by at least half.

Students and faculty are noticing new restrictions they worry are aimed at curtailing freedom of expression. Faculty received a memo recently with new recommended guidelines for email signatures. They say the signature “should only include” name, title, college address and phone number, which faculty see as a ruling that disallows pronouns. An event known as V.I.P. Weekend that was organized by the diversity and equity office to host prospective students was abruptly canceled. And maintenance crews were recently instructed to wash away chalk drawings and messages that covered a campus overpass. Many of the chalk messages voiced outrage at DeSantis and the new trustees or carried messages of support, such as: “Diversity is our strength.”

Faculty are advising students to concentrate on schoolwork and block out the noise, but it’s hard to shake the feeling the worst is yet to come, said Aspinall, the environmental studies major.

“I’m concerned they’re going to take a school that does not indoctrinate students and turn it into a school that does.”


The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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