Trustees chosen by DeSantis can replace the progressive college

SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) — “Your education. Your way. Be original. Be you.

Here’s how New College of Florida describes its approach to higher education in an admissions brochure. The public school of fewer than 1,000 students, nestled along Sarasota Bay, has long been known for its progressive thinking and creative course offerings that don’t use traditional grades.

The school, founded in 1960, is also a haven for marginalized students, particularly from the LGBTQ community, sophomore Sam Scharf said in a recent interview on campus.

“There are a lot of students who aren’t allowed to be themselves in their hometowns,” said Scharf, who is transgender and identifies as a woman. “When they come here, they’re going to thrive because they’re really going to be themselves.”

For Scharf and others, New College’s reputation as a haven for originality and individualized coursework is now in jeopardy. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis recently appointed six new trustees who intend to transform the school into a classic liberal arts school modeled after conservative-favorite Hillsdale College in Michigan.

One new trustee, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Ruffo, said in a column on his website that the governor wants the group to achieve what he calls an “institutional recapture” that would move New College away from things like programs on diversity, equity and inclusion and teaching of critical race theory—the idea that racism is enmeshed in American society.

“Our project is one of takeover and reinvention,” Ruffo wrote, listing several ways he believes leftist ideas have infiltrated universities across the country. “Conservatives finally have an opportunity to demonstrate an effective countermeasure to the long march through the institutions.”

Students like Scharf and New College faculty began pushing back, organizing strategy-planning meetings and issuing statements against the conservative takeover.

“We support (students’) fearless pursuit of knowledge, including research on race and gender,” United Faculty of Florida’s New College division wrote in a public statement last week. “We stand by our unwavering commitment to free speech, academic integrity, and the respectful exchange of diverse viewpoints.”

Scharf said many students worry that New College will become the “quote-unquote ‘Hillsdale of the South.’ I’m not trying to be in an environment where I’m force-fed a dogmatic, nationalistic, Christian education. I want to be in a place where you are free to think and learn what you want.’

The governor’s appointment of New College trustees, including a state professor at Hillsdale College, is just one part of DeSantis’ efforts to move Florida’s 28 state-funded institutions of higher education in a more conservative direction. The moves come as DeSantis considers a potential 2024 presidential campaign in which battles over education culture could play a prominent role, especially in Republican primaries.

Those efforts include a memo DeSantis sent to all Florida colleges and universities asking them to list programs and staff involved in diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, or DEIs. The governor signed legislation last April to change the accreditation method for Florida schools and strengthen the performance review of tenured professors.

During his second commencement address earlier this month, DeSantis said his goal was to “ensure that our institutions of higher learning are focused on academic excellence and the pursuit of truth, not the imposition of a modern ideology.”

The presidents of all 28 Florida colleges and universities responded to DeSantis’ memo on DEI’s initiatives with a joint statement seeking to distance their institutions from critical race theory and similar concepts. They set a goal on February 1 to remove all objectionable programs.

That statement said in part that schools would not fund programs with the underlying idea that “systems of oppression should be the primary lens through which teaching and learning is analyzed and/or improved.”

The presidents added that critical race theory could be taught, but only “as one of several theories and in an objective way.”

Back in Sarasota, New College has previously fended off attempts to be affiliated with another public school, such as Florida State University or the University of South Florida, which has a nearby campus. It was once a private school, but since 2001 it has been part of the state university system.

The new trustees, temporarily pending confirmation by the Florida Senate, will join the rest of the 13-member board at a Jan. 31 meeting. Students and other opponents of conservative change expect to make their views known, Scharf said.

“The majority of people on campus don’t want that,” she said. “They would delete a lot of things on campus. I don’t want to be in a place that tries to erase my existence.”

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