Tiny Public College Known for ‘Free Thinkers’ Is Latest Target for DeSantis

SARASOTA, Fla. — After her son began attending New College of Florida, Dr. Sonia Howman felt a pang of fear about the future of the small, little-known public liberal arts school on the shores of Sarasota Bay.

Her son, who identifies as L.G.B.T.Q. and had been bullied in high school, had found “a tiny place of safety in this increasingly hostile state,” she said. “I kept praying that DeSantis would never find out about it. But he did.”

A plan by Gov. Ron DeSantis to transform New College, which is known as progressive and describes itself as “a community of free thinkers,” into a beacon of conservatism has left students, parents and faculty members at the tight-knit school reeling over what they see as a political assault on their academic freedom. Mr. DeSantis’s education commissioner has expressed a desire to remake the school in the image of Hillsdale College, a small Christian school in Michigan that has been active in conservative politics.

Over 25 tumultuous days last month, the Republican governor removed six of the college’s 13 trustees, replacing them with allies holding strongly conservative views. The new board then forced out the college’s president, a career educator, and named Mr. DeSantis’s former education commissioner, a career politician, as her replacement. On Monday, the board signed off on paying its pick a salary of $699,000 a year, more than double what his predecessor earned.

Mr. DeSantis, who is widely thought to have White House aspirations, has made ideological attacks on public education central to his politics. His administration banned instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation through third grade, limited what schools can teach about racism, rejected math textbooks and prohibited an Advanced Placement course in African American studies for high school students.

“You knew it would eventually spiral to higher education,” said Sam Sharf, a second-year New College student. “But I didn’t anticipate it would happen this fast.”

On Jan. 31, when the college president was ousted, Mr. DeSantis unveiled higher education policies — to further weaken faculty tenure protections, eliminate diversity and equity programs and mandate Western civilization courses — that for many deepened a chill that had already taken hold across Florida’s public colleges and universities. The state has made it harder for faculty members to retain tenure, asked students and faculty to fill out a survey about their political leanings and requested information about resources for transgender students.

After Mr. DeSantis installed a new conservative board at the school, a crowd cheered for New College’s outgoing president.Credit…Todd Anderson for The New York Times

But the changes may come most abruptly at New College, which has roughly 700 students. One of the new trustees, Christopher Rufo, said in early January that the school’s academic departments “are going to look very different in the next 120 days.”

The denizens of the quiet campus are feeling a pervasive sense of uncertainty. Should they stay, or flee? Will the type of student drawn to New College fundamentally change? Will junior faculty members get the tenure they are up for? Will the new board or president fire the staff en masse, as one of the new trustees suggested should happen?

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“Everything that’s been happening has been very disruptive,” said Elizabeth C. Leininger, an associate biology professor, noting that the spring semester began the day before the Jan. 31 board meeting. “It’s kind of like when we get a hurricane here in Florida, and everyone’s preoccupied.”

That New College faces challenges is indisputable. Its enrollment had been dipping until last year. Its dorms are moldy, its labs dated. There are few activities outside the classroom. In reviews posted on niche.com, a college ranking site, current and former students have criticized decrepit facilities, lack of structure and, in some cases, what they described as an obsession among students with identity politics.

The college performs poorly in state metrics — such as the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in high-demand fields and the percentage of graduates making at least $30,000 a year after graduation — designed for huge universities with economies of scale that the school just does not have.

Still, unsupported claims by Mr. DeSantis and his allies that New College’s students are being indoctrinated by far-left professors have offended students, faculty, parents and alumni, who feel misrepresented. Many said that the school welcomed young people who might not fit elsewhere — intensely bookish kids, bullied kids, kids with disabilities, queer kids — and required them to be driven.

That attracts a self-selecting group of young adults, many of them undeniably progressive and L.G.B.T.Q., who feel drawn to the existing student body, said students, parents, alumni and faculty. But that does not mean what is taught in classes necessarily aligns with students’ views, they added.

Joshua Epstein, who is 17 and on schedule to graduate next year after amassing college credits while in high school, said that if anything, he had become more conservative at New College. He credited professors who teach many points of view and encourage students to make their own judgments. He switched his major from political science to quantitative economics and hoped to become a corporate lawyer or an investment banker.

“The painting of this school as a liberal university with all students who are socialist radicals is just not true,” he said.

Joshua Epstein, a first-year student at New College of Florida, said professors at the school taught many points of view.Credit…Octavio Jones for The New York Times

He said he would welcome more conservatives on campus — for him, a close-to-even ideological split would be ideal — but feared that was not the governor’s goal.

“I wholeheartedly support any effort to bring conservative students to this campus and to bring more conservative professors,” he said. “I don’t want them to take the school and turn it into a solely conservative institution with only conservative professors. I think that’s the antithesis of what they’re preaching.”

R. Derek Black, a 2013 graduate, said the educational independence that New College fosters — students design their own academic programs and have few required classes — tends to make its students “generally less conformist.” So they are less likely to hew to social expectations, he said, but that does not undermine the school’s academics.

“When I was there, and still as far as I can tell, it feels like intellectual rigor is disconnected from upholding a social norm of being strait-laced,” he said in written responses to questions.

(The last time New College drew national attention was in 2016, when The Washington Post wrote about Mr. Black, the son of a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, disavowing white nationalism, in part because of his experiences at the school.)

At New College, students complete a thesis to graduate. Class sizes average 10 students. Students do not receive grades but either pass or fail, with a narrative evaluation. Many students devote themselves to independent study programs. The school boasts an impressive rate of alumni who go to graduate school, receive prestigious fellowships and make high salaries a decade after graduation. Annual tuition for Florida residents is about $7,000.

Mr. DeSantis blamed the school’s embrace of diversity and equity programs, which he argues serve as “an ideological filter,” for its failure to attract more students.

“That’s part of the reason I think it hasn’t been successful and the enrollment is down so much,” he said hours before the Jan. 31 board meeting. “I’ve talked to people who live in Sarasota and didn’t know what New College was.”

Mr. DeSantis has made ideological attacks on public education central to his politics. Credit…Mike Lang/USA Today Network

He has promised $15 million for new faculty and scholarships, which could be transformative, several current and former faculty members said. But they and others wondered why the state had never invested that sort of money in New College before.

On Friday, the faculty voted to release a statement saying that they “reject all attempts to politicize our support of every member of our community.”

New College has been underfunded since state lawmakers made it independent in 2001, according to several current and former faculty members, alumni and a former trustee. Before that, it had been part of the University of South Florida for 26 years.

Providing a liberal arts education, with low faculty-student ratios and intimate classroom experiences, is expensive. But when the state separated New College from U.S.F., it failed to adequately fund its administration and later its capital budget, current and former faculty members and a former trustee said, leading to a threadbare staff, nonexistent marketing and degraded facilities, all of which hurt enrollment over time.

Blair Sapp, a New College alumnus, remembered going to the State Capitol to ask for money for the school as a member of student government.

“We couldn’t afford, at our scale, a high-paid lobbyist,” he said, contrasting New College with heavyweights like the University of Florida and Florida State University. “U.F. and F.S.U., they have people constantly there pushing the buttons.”

The coronavirus pandemic further hurt New College’s enrollment. In 2021, after a six-month national search, trustees hired Patricia Okker, a former University of Missouri dean, as president. Charged with turning the school around, chiefly by growing the student body but also by improving fund-raising, the school’s national reputation and its diversity and equity programs, she helped increase enrollment in 2022.

But that mattered little to save her job. Hours before Mr. DeSantis’s new trustees held their first meeting on Jan. 31, word leaked that Richard Corcoran, the former state education commissioner, would be named the school’s interim president. Mr. Corcoran will make a base annual salary of $699,000, compared with Dr. Okker’s $305,000. The president of Florida State, which has about 40,000 students, makes a base salary of $700,000.

Several trustees at New College cheered for the outgoing president, Patricia Okker, seated, during a meeting. Credit…Todd Anderson for The New York Times

How the new trustees organized the leadership change without running afoul of Florida’s Sunshine Law, which prohibits members of the same board from discussing public business in private, remains unclear. Mr. Corcoran did not return calls seeking comment. Neither did Dr. Okker.

Not a single member of the public spoke in favor of the new trustees’ plans at the meeting.

“I’m getting condolence messages before the meeting starts from students in other schools, because they leaked what was going to happen before the meeting,” said Alex Obraud, 21, a third-year student. “It’s just very clear: Something’s very wrong.”

Mr. Obraud, who described New College as a nurturing school where students were encouraged to try intellectual pursuits even if they failed, said he cried after Dr. Okker offered parting words defending the students.

“They don’t care about the school,” he said of the new trustees. “They don’t care about the students.”

Near the campus entrance, yard signs warn visitors: “Your campus is next.”

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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