What is Going On at New College of Florida? - What to know

Written by Sarah Jividen
Published on May 24, 2023 · Updated on May 30, 2023

What is Going On at New College of Florida? - What to know

Written by Sarah Jividen
Published on May 24, 2023 · Updated on May 30, 2023

New College of Florida Students Protest, Source: WUSF Public Media

Jump Links

  1. January
  2. February
  3. March
  4. April
  5. May
  6. June

Sarasota’s New College of Florida is a public liberal arts school that is making headlines as, what AP News called, “a college in upheaval”.

For years, free-thinking students have been drawn to this unconventional honors college on Florida's western coast. New College of Florida offers individualized curricula and uses a contract-system instead of grades. It is also a progressive school with a big LGBTQ+ community — the school earned a B+ on the Campus Pride Index

Yet many students and professors have found themselves on the front lines of a cultural and political struggle in Florida. 

The governor and his supporters say that the university indoctrinates students with leftist beliefs and should be converted into a more conservative institution.

New College of Florida, Source: @newcollegeofFL Twitter

Despite the fact that this small school has only 691 students, significant changes are taking place that could have repercussions for universities across the country – and they’re making headlines. Here's an overview of what's really happening at New College of Florida.

Timeline of What is Going On at New College of Florida

January 2023

On January 6, Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis appointed a majority of new conservative leaders to New College’s 13-member Board of Trustees. 

“New College of Florida, under the governor’s new appointees, will be refocused on its founding mission of providing a world-class quality education with an exceptional focus on the classics,” DeSantis’ Press Secretary Bryan Griffin explained.  

“We must ensure that our institutions of higher learning are focused on academic excellence and the pursuit of truth, not the imposition of trendy ideology,” DeSantis said in a statement

Arguably the most notable appointment to the New College board was Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist and opponent of Critical Race Theory. “Under the leadership of Gov. DeSantis, [we] will demonstrate that the public universities, which have been corrupted by woke nihilism, can be recaptured, restructured, and reformed,” Rufo announced on Twitter

DeSantis’s other appointments included:

  • Eddie Speir, a co-founder and superintendent of a Christian school in Bradenton, Florida
  • Matthew Spalding, a professor and Dean at Hillsdale College
  • Charles Kesler, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute
  • Mark Bauerlein, a retired English professor from Emory University
  • Debra Jenks, an attorney in Palm Beach and New College alum

On January 26, the Florida Board of Governors appointed a seventh new trustee, Ryan Anderson, head of conservative think-tank, Ethic and Public Policy Center.

As the month went on, more changes came. The school, which previously had no sports teams, hired an athletic director to start a sports program. 

Student Chai Leffler described the students’ defiance in an interview. “The way that students are going about it is like, alright, if we’re going to have a sports team, let’s make it the gayest, most loud sports team that we can,” he said. 

Leffler told reporters that he comes from a southern, conservative family where being gay was difficult, but New College changed his life. “I was taught how to love myself again and to stand up for myself like we all are today,” Leffler said. “I understand we are everything DeSantis hates.”

Students reported that the new administration sent out an email asking students to vote for a new mascot. New College of Florida’s former mascot was the “null set”, symbolized by two brackets “{ }”. In math, a null set contains no values or elements. The poll received over 2 million votes, with the majority in favor of changing the mascot to the New College Snowflakes. 

According to a report by AP News, New College of Florida students and faculty also saw the following changes:

  • Faculty were given new recommended standards for email signatures: they "should only include" name, title, college location, logo, and phone number, which faculty interpreted as a pronoun-free edict. 

  • The office's V.I.P. Weekend, which welcomes prospective students overnight, was abruptly canceled. 

  • Maintenance staff were recently told to wash away chalk drawings and inscriptions that covered a campus overpass, a long-standing tradition of unique art and expression.

On January 31, the new board held its first meeting and voted to remove the college president Patricia Okker, making her the first of several administrators to be fired. 

The board also announced plans to hire new general counsel, Bill Galvano, an attorney and former GOP Florida Senate president.

Throughout the upheaval, students planned protests, town halls, and trips to the state capital in Tallahassee to ask legislators to oppose the reforms.

Also in January, Gov. DeSantis announced Florida legislation that would do the following:

  • ban gender studies majors and minors
  • eliminate diversity programs and any hiring based on diversity
  • weaken tenure protections.
  • put all hiring decisions in the hands of each university’s board of trustees

This bill did not come as a surprise since the governor’s administration had requested that schools submit budget data and information on programs relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as critical race theory, in December.

Also in January, Gov. Ron DeSantis moved to ban the curriculum for an Advanced Placement course on African American history because it included the study of “queer theory” and political movements that advocated for “abolishing prisons.” 

“That’s a political agenda,” DeSantis said at a press conference. “We believe in teaching kids facts and how to think, but we don’t believe they should have an agenda imposed on them when you try to use Black history to shoehorn in queer theory, you are clearly trying to use that for political purposes.”

February 2023

On February 13, the trustees held their second meeting. Okker was replaced by Republican politician Richard Corcoran, a close ally of DeSantis and a former state House speaker and education commissioner. The board also approved a base salary of $699,000 for Interim President Corcoran, more than double Okker's salary. 

Students Protest, Source: AP News

On February 28, the new trustees met again. Students dressed as handmaids from Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale protested on campus before the meeting.

The board voted to eliminate the Office of Inclusive Excellence, the DEI office on campus. Rufo reportedly told the board that DEI programs “restrict academic freedom and degrade the rigor of scholarship” because they treat “people differently based on their skin color or other inborn identities.” 

The campus’s remaining employees were reassigned to other jobs. 

March 2023

On March 3, President Corcoran quietly fired Chief Diversity Officer Yoleidy Rosario-Hernandez, who identifies as a transgender person of color and uses the pronouns ze/zir.

Later on March 23, the college announced the resignation of Provost Suzanne Sherman, who had publicly clashed with the incoming trustees.

Sydney Gruters, former Republican congressional assistant and wife of former Republican Chair Joe Gruters, was named Executive Director of the New College of Florida Foundation. 

Also in March, Hampshire College announced that it would match tuition for any New College of Florida student in good standing who wished to transfer. 

“What is happening at New College of Florida is merely the most radical example of increasingly aggressive efforts to suppress meaningful examination of the realities of our society and curb the advancement of democratic ideals, aspirations that should be the mission of higher education,” it posted on the school’s website. 

April 2023

As the changes at New College gained national notice, additional states stepped up to support the students. On April 5, California’s governor Gavin Newsom stopped in Sarasota to encourage the New College of Florida students, faculty, and community. 

Meanwhile, the school announced a ban on certain social media platforms, including TikTok, for security reasons.

On April 26, the Board of Trustees met again. Interim President Corcoran delivered the President's Report, which indicated that only 100 students had registered for the 2023 freshman class. He suggested that the drop in enrollment was due to poor publicity.

Board of Trustees April 26th Meeting, Source: YouTube

Interim Provost Brad Thiessen introduced the college’s 2023 Accountability Plan, of which the top three strategies were:

  1. Enrollment Growth:  Current enrollment is 691 and has never been beyond 875. Historic freshman enrollment hovers around 200.  
  2. Increase Funding: Successful fundraising to rebuild to excellence and recruit students and faculty.
  3. Add world-class faculty
  4. Strengthen academic programs: Craft a defined curriculum to achieve the aim of the liberal arts education: to teach students how to think.

The board also announced in April that it would deny tenure to all five faculty members that applied.

May 2023

On May 15, Corcoran addressed the public about the school’s promising new core curriculum and also a “record” incoming enrollment.

Meanwhile, the school newspaper's editor-in-chief Sophia Brown gave the student speech and received a standing ovation.

June 2023

As the academic year concludes, it is unclear what the future holds for New College of Florida. One thing is certain: the culture of the college appears to have been permanently altered.