‘Hostile takeover’: the tiny Florida university targeted by Ron DeSantis (2023)

New College of Florida started making history from the day it opened its doors to its first incoming class of 101 undergraduate students in 1964. It was the first institution of higher education in Florida – which was once part of the slave-owning Confederacy – to pioneer an open admissions policy committing the school not to discriminate based on “race, creed, national origin, or cultural status”.

The founding principles of the college emphasized freedom of inquiry and the eminent historian and philosopher Arnold Toynbee was lured out of retirement to join the fledgling institution’s charter faculty. New College – which became a public institution when it joined Florida’s state university system in 1975 – soon established itself as one of America’s premier liberal arts schools.

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Now New College may again be on the verge of making history – but of a very different sort.

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Its picturesque seaside campus in the city of Sarasota, Florida, finds itself in the crosshairs of rightwing Republican state governor Ron DeSantis’s latest culture wars crusade, in this instance to destroy its unofficial reputation as a haven for approximately 650 generally progressive-leaning students, about half of whom identify themselves as non-heterosexual.

Widely expected to challenge Donald Trump for the Republican party’s presidential nomination for the 2024 election, DeSantis famously declared “to the woke mob” on the night of his re-election victory last November that “Florida is where woke goes to die.”

To that end, he has taken on Disney for its chief executive officer’s announcement last March that the corporation would pause all political donations within Florida after the state legislature enacted a so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill that banned the teaching of lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity to public school students in the third grade or younger.

The 44-year-old DeSantis has also lately focused increasing attention on educational issues. Last year he unsuccessfully tried to bar University of Florida faculty members from testifying in criminal court trials as expert witnesses for defense attorneys. Earlier this month, he banned the teaching of an advanced placement African Studies course in all public high schools in the state because some of the course material allegedly used Black history to push a political agenda that he said was tantamount to “indoctrination”.

And New College is also firmly in his sights.

DeSantis’s office issued a statement on the first Friday of the new year announcing six gubernatorial appointments to New College’s 13-member board of trustees, and some of the names stunned students and faculty members alike.

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They included Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who has spearheaded the ongoing attack on the supposed teaching of critical race theory in primary and secondary schools; Matthew Spalding, a professor and dean at a private, conservative Christian school in Michigan called Hillsdale College that was often touted by the late Rush Limbaugh on his popular radio talk show as the kind of university his listeners should send their teenagers to; and Charles Kesler, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in southern California and editor of the conservative publication the Claremont Review of Books.

Almost no one at the campus saw that one coming. “I was completely blindsided,” said Steven Shipman, a professor of physical chemistry and president of the college’s faculty union. “I basically thought that we’re such a small institution that the governor would have other priorities.”

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Rufo, a senior fellow at a conservative thinktank called the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, all but declared war on New College in a barrage of tweets and press interviews in the initial days of 2023. In an interview with a New York Times columnist, the 38-year-old alumnus of Georgetown University set out his goals and those of his fellow DeSantis-appointed trustees in unequivocal language: “We want to provide an alternative for conservative families in the state of Florida to say there is a public university that reflects your values.”

Rufo gleefully invoked military metaphors on Twitter to describe his tactical plans as a future trustee of New College. He announced plans to tour the campus soon with “our landing team”, and on 6 January when DeSantis’s office issued the bolt-from-the-blue statement about the future membership of the College’s board of trustees, Rufo tweeted that “we are over the walls and ready to transform higher education from within”.

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Some academics specializing in issues related to higher education say they have never seen a scorched-earth assault on a college or university for apparently political reasons that remotely approaches what is facing New College today.

In his first campaign for the governorship of California in 1966, Ronald Reagan reserved some of his ire for the University of California’s flagship campus, which he described as “that mess at Berkeley” where the radical free speech movement had flourished. He fired the president of the University of California’s board of regents at the first meeting of the panel Reagan attended in 1967 as the state’s freshly inaugurated governor.

But Berkeley survived that episode with its reputation intact, and the events of 56 years ago are small beer compared to what is currently unfolding in the Sunshine State, according to one scholar.

“DeSantis makes Reagan look like an advocate for academic freedom,” said Brian Rosenberg, a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and president emeritus of Minnesota’s Macalester College. “I’ve never seen a case of a governor, who is building a political platform around being a social warrior, send in a team with a mandate to change everything from the school’s curriculum to its departments and its faculty.”

Some New College alumni are among its biggest boosters. X González, who uses they/them pronouns, graduated in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, and cherished the school’s tolerance of diverse gender identities and the freedom to design their own area of concentration if none of the more than 50 existing majors on offer suited their academic curiosity and ambition.

González also really liked the fact that instead of giving students a grade, faculty members produce detailed evaluations in writing of each student under their supervision. “It was so dynamically better than any other situation I could have encountered,” said the 23-year-old survivor of the Parkland school shooting, which killed three staff members and 14 students. “New College is such a transparently trans and queer school, and that’s one of the reasons why DeSantis decided to stage this hostile takeover.”

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The starkly contrasting views of what New College should stand for came to a head on campus last Wednesday when Rufo and another DeSantis-appointed trustee met with faculty members and students in separate sessions. Dressed in a well-tailored blue business suit and sporting a neatly trimmed beard, Rufo drastically toned down his rhetoric and cast himself as a lifelong apostle for a liberal arts education.

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“I don’t want my views to be the new stifling orthodoxy on campus,” he told faculty members amid some audible snickering in the auditorium. “We want to create space for conservative students, liberal students, Marxist students. We have to have the courage to disagree with each other and live out the democratic process.”

But some faculty members and students indicated they weren’t going to be drinking that Kool-Aid anytime soon. “Their rhetoric focuses on pushing their Christian and anti-science agendas while pretending to be fighting for free speech and diversity of opinions,” said Riley Wood, 19, a second-year computer sciences student who posed a question to Rufo.

Wood added: “Their belief in open debate is in fact just a convenient frame for the forcible introduction of rightwing ideology into the school – and it will be dropped as soon as it fails to serve that goal.”

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