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New College of Florida Is DeSantis’s Launchpad for Attack on Higher Education

Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed six trustees to the New College of Florida to quash its progressive curriculum.

Florida’s colleges and universities are in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s crosshairs as he pushes to follow through on his January 23 inaugural promise to make the Sunshine State the place “where woke goes to die.”

The state’s 40 public colleges and universities — 10 of which allow students to pursue degrees in African American studies, Latinx studies, ethnic studies and gender studies — are facing an impending attack from House Bill 999. The bill, a right-wing legislative wish list of curricular and staffing changes, could, if passed, alter higher education in Florida. Meanwhile, DeSantis is using the tiny New College of Florida (NCF), a 63-year-old, once-private school, as a test case to push right-wing politics into Florida’s colleges and universities: He recently appointed six people to the NCF Board of Trustees, all of them deeply connected to right-wing institutions.

The Looming Threat of House Bill 999

House Bill 999, which is currently pending, was introduced by Republican State Rep. Alex Andrade at the end of February. As written, the bill aims to control curricula, destroy tenure and put the entire public higher education system under state control. Among other things, it would ban the hiring of campus diversity officers, “remove critical race theory, gender studies, and any majors or minors that engender belief in these concepts,” and give state-appointed trustees the authority to approve all faculty and administrative hires.

The bill would also give trustees the right to review — and fire — tenured faculty for “cause,” a term that is never defined but that clearly undermines job security, and seeks to “align education for citizenship of the constitutional republic and Florida’s existing and emerging workforce needs.” Furthermore, it prohibits any and all projects that “espouse diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) or [critical race theory],” even if the funding for these projects comes from outside sources.

If the bill passes, it will build on the state’s already right-wing approach to primary education. In September 2022, the conservative Heritage Foundation named Florida the best state in the country for “education freedom.” This accolade resulted from the minimal oversight afforded by state educational entities over both private schools and homeschooling for kids in pre-K through 12th grade. Heritage also lauded the state’s welcoming environment for “parent-advocacy groups,” many of them newly formed to quash curricula that discuss racial and gender inequities.

As HB 999 makes clear, DeSantis and his allies are scrambling to revise every aspect of public education and are hoping to start a contagion that spreads to other states.

The Right-Wing Attack on the New College of Florida

But he is starting small. NCF, a school of approximately 700 students, bills itself as a “community of free thinkers, risk takers and trailblazers,” and the new trustees have wasted no time in working with DeSantis to remodel the school. DeSantis has repeatedly made his goal explicit: He wants to turn NCF into the “Hillsdale College of the South.”

Hillsdale is a private, Christian liberal arts college that focuses on the teaching of classic texts: Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche and Plato, and is frequently cited by the right wing as the pedagogical model every college and university should aspire to. Western civilization is emphasized, as are the ways philosophy and religion intersect. “The forces of secularization” are, predictably, denounced.

For its part, NCF — dubbed the honors college in its promotional materials to prospective students — eschews grades in favor of narrative evaluations and emphasizes student-faculty collaboration over rote lessons. Learning is largely self-directed; 50 majors and classes in environmental studies, gender studies, animal well-being and conservation, and more traditional disciplines are offered.

John Newman taught religion at NCF from 1990 until his retirement in 2016. “I loved it,” he told Truthout. “I was given absolute freedom to teach. The ability to design my own courses was magic, and there was very little administrative superstructure impinging on the education we offered. The school was a refuge for bright, non-conformist kids, and it’s been a bubble of progressive ideas for decades. I fear that the new Board of Trustees will be deleterious to both teaching and learning.”

Newman’s concern is shared by virtually everyone on the NCF campus — students, alumni, faculty and staff — and they worry about how DeSantis’s new trustees will affect staffing, curriculum and campus culture.

Koch Brothers’ Ties to the NCF’s New Board of Trustees

So who are these trustees? All six were announced shortly after DeSantis began his second term in office. They are Chris Rufo, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and the man credited with instigating the national backlash against the alleged teaching of critical race theory to children; Trump booster Mark Bauerlein, an emeritus professor at Emory University; Charles R. Kesler, professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College and a widely published conservative writer who coauthored a book with National Review founder William F. Buckley; securities attorney Debra Jenks; Matthew Spalding, dean of the Van Andel School of Government at Hillsdale College; and Eddie Speir, whose Substack lists him as a “follower of Jesus. Husband. Father. Brother…” and co-founder of a charter school called the Inspiration Academy.

Among the trustees’ first actions: the firing of college president Patricia Okker and the installation of former Florida House speaker (2017-2018) and commissioner of education (2018-2022), Richard Corcoran, as an interim replacement. Corcoran’s base salary, $699,000, plus a $104,850 retirement supplement, an $84,000 housing stipend and a $12,000 car allowance, is reportedly $400,000 more than the total salary paid to Okker.

But piddling financial matters seem of little concern to the new trustees. Their interest is ideological, and they’re doing little to hide their deep ties to right-wing organizations — among them the Koch network, The National Association of Scholars (NAS), and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) — and to each other.

In fact, NAS was quick to post a congratulatory note to Rufo, Spalding, Bauerlein and Kesler on its blog, calling them “particular friends of NAS.” The four trustees have all been champions of The American Birthright K-12 social studies curriculum, which was developed by NAS to promote “human liberty, individualism, religious freedom and republican self-government” and celebrate the “military virtues” of courage and endurance. “Action civics” and hands-on community building efforts or internships are denounced in the curriculum. What’s more, the curriculum explicitly replaces DEI programs with “Equality, Merit, and Color-blindness.” It’s a complete repudiation and dismantling of the work done by progressive educators over the past 50 years.

And these alliances are not new. As TampaBay.com reports, as early as 2017, DeSantis, Corcoran and other Florida conservatives attended a retreat sponsored by the Koch network of billionaires. Subjects of discussion at the retreat included how best to inculcate free market economics and the relationship between capitalism and what they refer to as “individual freedom,” the ability to operate free from government regulation or oversight, into college coursework.

Six years later this is exactly what is unfolding.

What’s more the effort has literally paid off. In 2021 alone, UnKoch My Campus reports that the people in the network raised $187 million for 140 colleges and universities. This was on top of $458 million given to 560 universities between 2005 and 2019 — a staggering amount that is tied with enormous strings.

The conservative American Council of Trustees and Alumni has also had an impact on the thinking of NCF’s trustees. An ACTA report from as early as 2008 named trustees as essential drivers of the conservative transformation of higher education, noting, “Academic quality, affordability and accountability rarely happen on their own. They require exceptional leaders. And Trustees are the key.”

This brings us back to New College of Florida — and to the attempt to change the way public higher education is practiced there.

“Right-wing, plutocratic, libertarians in Florida saw a chance to create pro free-market, pro-government-deregulation policies as a response to the Black Lives Matter protests and the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020,” Isaac Kamola, co-author of Free Speech and Koch Money: Manufacturing a Campus Culture War, told Truthout. “Three years ago, many people were starting to demand a structural transformation of U.S. society. The right saw and heard this demand and freaked out. They weaponized [critical race theory] and Black Lives Matter, turning both into villains. The right then made this a platform, but what DeSantis has done is to bring public education directly into this.”

Kamola added that because the right has an effective echo chamber, their media and think tanks repeatedly “pump out the message that education about race, gender or sexuality is a threat to the culture and an effort to destroy America.”

NCF Faculty and Students Are Struggling to Fight Back

Debarati Biswas, visiting professor of English and American literature at New College, calls what is happening on the campus a hostile — maybe even fascist or totalitarian — takeover. “We have to refute what is being said: that DEI is bad, that gender studies is bad, that being ‘woke’ or supporting [critical race theory] are bad. Anti-racism is a good thing, and we can’t run away from it or refuse to use these terms,” she told Truthout. “The new trustees and the DeSantis administration are fighting against decades of knowledge rooted in facts, research and lived experiences on racialized and gendered systems of opression.”

Amy Reid, professor of French language and literature and director of NCF’s gender studies program, told Truthout that while faculty, students and alumni are organizing to support each other in their fight to protect academic freedom, faculty governance and free speech, she understands that the trustees have control over the college’s purse strings. “Gender studies gets about $7,000 a year for programming and office supplies, things like our phone and copy machine. We have a staff person who works 15 hours a week,” Reid said, “This is a difficult moment because we expect to lose that support.”

“I came to New College 27 years ago because our students are exceptional. It’s an honor to teach students who are so capable and joyful,” she added.

Erik Wallenberg, a visiting professor of history, agreed. “I’ve only been at NCF since August 2022, but it’s been a delight to be here,” he said, adding that the pedagogical model used at NCF “is one that should be replicated, not destroyed.”

“The lack of letter grading and use of narrative evaluations are game changers,” Wallenberg said. “Students talk about their academic goals and work on big, in-depth projects.”

Although he said that students, faculty and staff were blindsided by the trustee appointments and by Okker’s firing, Wallenberg noted that people are meeting to figure out the best ways to fight back. Several rallies have taken place and campus activists are soliciting support from community groups, education activists, unions and progressive leaders. They are heartened that “Wake-Up Wednesdays,” a weekly protest organized by Florida Rising, is raising issues of educational inequity at demonstrations throughout the state. Additionally, the NCF alumni association and groups including the Professional Staff Congress of the City University of New York, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Coalition Against Censorship have issued statements in support of New College students and staff.

A still unscheduled campus teach-in is currently being planned, and students, faculty and staff are staying informed about the actions of state legislators and the NCF trustees.

Andy Trinh, an English and computer science student who expects to graduate from NCF in 2025, told Truthout that he and his friends are talking among themselves to “make sure we know why we’re staying at New College and what we’re fighting for. We have to make sure we still have a community worth preserving, no matter what DeSantis is doing.”

Likewise, first-year student Beaux Delaune. Delaune said they chose New College because “it’s small, queer-friendly and offers in-person classes with a genuine opportunity to talk about the world. I’m trying to stay focused on going to class and living my life as normally as possible. I intend to do this until the hand of the conservative party chokes the pursuit of education in Florida.”

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