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New College of Florida's board of trustees meet as community rallies over changes

One of the board's first tasks Tuesday evening was to vote out the current president, Dr. Patricia Okker, and appoint an interim.

SARASOTA, Fla. — A group made up of students, alumni, parents and concerned community members rallied Tuesday in support of the New College of Florida amid changes brought by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration.

The protesters, meeting under the umbrella of "Rally to Save and Defend New College," accused the governor and conservative groups of hijacking higher education to entrench a conservative curriculum. They, too, criticize DeSantis' decision to appoint six new trustees who intend to turn the school into a classical liberal arts school modeled after the conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan. 

Members protested ahead of a meeting of the school's board of trustees comprised of the recently appointed members.

It's the first meeting of the board, whose right-leaning profiles and recent utterances of some of the appointees to the liberal arts college's board, have already raised controversy. This includes issues related to freedom of speech, overhauling the curriculum and terminating employee contracts.

One of the board's first tasks Tuesday evening was to vote out the current president, Dr. Patricia Okker, and appoint an interim, Bradley Theissen. This action is in anticipation of the availability of some of the board member's preferred pick, the former education commissioner and also former house speaker Richard Corcoran.

The expected timeline for Corcoran to take on that role is sometime in March.

While the school has been having issues with finances and enrollment, the group is upset with the governor and state for taking this move.

Critics also say this is part of the governor's push against what he has called "the woke agenda." Earlier in the day, DeSantis unveiled a plan to remove what he calls "indoctrination" from Florida's higher education system — a move that aligns with a controversial law he promoted last year restricting race-based conversation in the classroom.

Earlier in the day at the unveiling of his higher education reform, Desantis said he wants to bring accountability to the school.

"It is by statute supposed to be the premiere honors college in Florida. That's the mission. It clearly hasn't met that mission because our premiere students are going to UF or some of our other schools in the south and I think this is going to reorient it in a very positive way," Desantis said.

To help with that mission was an allocation of $15 million for staff and student recruitment and a plan for $10 million per year. As well as the newly appointed conservative board members including Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. 

"The governor has the courage to set a new standard, the legislators have the courage to set a new standard and back it up with an investment and say this is going to be a place where equality, merit, and colorblindness are the law of the land," Rufo said.

A target of this plan includes courses and initiatives related to critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and gender studies.

"These DEI bureaucracies add nothing to the kid's education, they filter out faculty on the basis of ideology, you actually have to sign a loyalty oath to radical race and gender theory in order to just be considered for employment actually harm students because they limit the discourse," he said.

Students at New College said having a curriculum that allows them to study all of that and more is part of what makes their college unique and they're not being included in the plans.

"No conversations taking place on how we're going to move forward with this. It's just an implementation of their ideas and how that's going to come across and trickle down to us," Rocio Ramirez-Castor said, a student at the school.

"If we want to study critical race theory, that should be allowed. It is academic,  it is freedom of academic thought and that is what the New College is about. We are about preserving the freedom to study whatever we want to study," Chai Leffler said, also a student.

The governor has said this new strategy is aimed at improving student enrollment and the school’s finances. However, most of his critiques say what’s happening at New College is a blueprint of what is planned for schools across the state of Florida.

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