SARASOTA, Fla. — “Your education. Your way. Be original. Be you.”
That's how New College of Florida describes its approach to higher education in an admission brochure. The state school of fewer than 1,000 students nestled along Sarasota Bay has long been known for its progressive thought and creative course offerings that don't use traditional grades.
The school, founded in 1960, is also a haven for marginalized students, especially from the LGBTQ community, said second-year student Sam Sharf in a recent interview on campus.
“There's a lot of students out there that are not allowed to be themselves in their hometowns,” said Sharf, who is a transgender woman. “When they get to come here, they get to thrive because they really get to be themselves.”
To Sharf and others, New College's reputation as a haven for originality and individualized coursework is now threatened. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' recently appointed six new trustees who intend to turn the school into a classical liberal arts school modeled after conservative favorite Hillsdale College in Michigan.
One new trustee, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo, said in a column on his website that the governor wants the group to accomplish what he calls “institutional recapture,” which would move New College away from such things as diversity, equity and inclusion programs and teaching of critical race theory — the idea that racism is enmeshed in U.S. society.
“Ours is a project of recapture and reinvention,” Rufo wrote, listing several ways he believes left-wing ideas have permeated universities across the country. “Conservatives have the opportunity finally to demonstrate an effective countermeasure against the long march through institutions.”
Students such as Sharf and New College faculty have begun to push back, organizing meetings to plan strategy and issuing statements against the conservative takeover.
“We support (students') fearless pursuit of knowledge, including research on race and gender,” the New College chapter of United Faculty of Florida wrote in a public statement last week. “We assert our unflagging commitment to free speech, academic integrity and the respectful exchange of different viewpoints.”
Sharf said many students worry New College will become “a quote-unquote ‘Hillsdale of the South.’ I'm not trying to be in an environment where I'm force-fed dogmatic, nationalistic, Christian education. I want to be in a place where you're free to think and learn what you want.”
The governor's appointment of the New College trustees, including a government professor at Hillsdale College, are only one part of DeSantis' effort to shift Florida's 28 state-funded institutions of higher learning in a more conservative direction. The moves come as DeSantis considers a potential 2024 presidential campaign in which education culture battles could play a prominent part, particularly in a Republican primary.
These efforts include a memo DeSantis sent to all Florida colleges and universities requiring them to list programs and staff involved in diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, initiatives. The governor signed legislation last April to change the accreditation method for Florida schools and heighten performance review of tenured professors.
During his second inaugural address earlier this month, DeSantis said his goal is to “ensure that our institutions of higher learning are focused on academic excellence and the pursuit of truth, not the imposition of trendy ideology.”
The presidents of all 28 Florida colleges and universities responded to DeSantis' memo on DEI initiatives with a joint statement seeking to distance their institutions from critical race theory and similar concepts. They set a Feb. 1 goal to remove any objectionable programs.
That statement says, in part, that the schools will not fund programs with the primary idea that “systems of oppression should be the primary lens through which teaching and learning are analyzed and/or improved upon.”
The presidents added that critical race theory can be taught but only “as one of several theories and in an objective manner.”
Back in Sarasota, New College has previously fended off efforts to fold it into another state school, such as Florida State University or the University of South Florida, which has a nearby campus. It was once a private school and then was part of USF beginning in 1975 but, since 2001, has been a standalone part of the public university system.
The new trustees, on an interim basis pending Florida Senate confirmation, will join the rest of the 13-member board at a meeting Jan. 31. Students and other opponents of conservative change expect to make their views known, Sharf said.
“The vast majority of people on campus don't want this,” she said. “They would erase a lot of things on campus. I don't want to be in a place that tries to erase my existence.”