Ron DeSantis has made a tiny liberal arts college the latest target of his public education culture war. And the students on campus say they feel like they’ve been turned into guinea pigs in a right-wing social experiment.
The Florida Republican governor’s aggressive move to fundamentally change the character of New College, a tiny public liberal arts school with fewer than 700 students in Sarasota, is his latest plan to dramatically remake Florida’s educational system in his image and build his right-wing bona fides ahead of a likely presidential run. In a few short weeks he’s appointed a hard-right board of trustees who promptly fired the school president and are promising wholesale changes to remake the college in their image. And it’s left the school’s tight-knit community shaken to its core.
“This last month has felt a little dystopian. These people like DeSantis and the people he’s appointed, they clearly don’t know what New College is, but they’re trying to control what we’re learning and who we are,” Madison Markham, a fourth year sociology major, told VICE News.
Students on campus see DeSantis’ aggressive efforts as part of a wider program of right-wing educational indoctrination—an effort that could go national if he becomes president.
Students on campus say they feel like they’ve been turned into guinea pigs in a right-wing social experiment.
“New College is unique in terms of how quickly and aggressively and brazenly things are moving. But this is very much a part of a broader push against educational freedom,” said Alex Obraud, a third-year anthropology major. “This school is a test case of how far you can take censorship and push politics in public schools.”
Students have mobilized in protest. They held a rally last week that drew hundreds to speak out against DeSantis’ efforts, and a fundraiser to “Save New College and Educational Freedom” had raised nearly $100,000 on GoFundMe as of Tuesday. The organizers say the money will be used to “help our coalition build capacity and infrastructure to organize and fight back against this partisan attack on New College and educational freedom across America.”
But a harsh reality is already setting in. At a board meeting last week, members of DeSantis’ newly minted right-wing school board sat patiently as students, parents, and community members raged against their plans—before moving right along with their plot.
Right-wing education activist Christopher Rufo, the board’s most controversial new appointee, repeatedly grinned and chuckled during the meeting’s public comment period. When one member of the audience yelled “Your opinion don’t matter” at Rufo as the new trustee proposed closing the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion office and firing all of its employees, Rufo had a cold retort: “It does matter, actually, unfortunately for you.”
The board quickly proved Rufo right. They moved swiftly to fire New College President Patricia Okker, a leader widely beloved by students, in what she described in a final teary speech as a “hostile takeover”—and signaled their intention to replace her with a longtime Republican lawmaker. They made clear they’d soon do away with the school’s DEI office while hinting at significant changes to come with the school’s curriculum.
The battle over New College is just the latest salvo in DeSantis’ educational culture war—one that’s made him a hero on the right and is fueling his chances at the Republican nomination in 2024.
Kacie Bates was one of the many students who couldn’t get a spot in the actual meeting room for the board hearing. They’d been at a student rally they helped organize to protest the board’s actions, a protest that drew hundreds. Since the board had set up the hearing room to limit public attendance, they retreated to their dorm afterwards with friends to watch the livestream. They’d known what was on the agenda, but that didn’t make it any less painful to witness Okker’s removal.
“We just cried. We just cried during the speech, for her ending remarks as the president,” Bates told VICE News. “It just broke our hearts.”
The battle over New College is just the latest salvo in DeSantis’ educational culture war—one that’s made him a hero on the right and is fueling his chances at the Republican nomination in 2024. DeSantis championed last year’s deeply controversial “don’t say gay” law, which puts severe restrictions on discussion of LGBTQ issues and gender identity in Florida classrooms, and recently pushed through his “Stop WOKE” law, which restricts how teachers can discuss race and diversity.
That law has led some school districts to close their libraries until all their books can be vetted to make sure they’re in compliance and avoid felony charges. Just last week, after DeSantis said he’d block a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies because it was too leftist, the College Board announced it would drop some topics and scholars to avoid his ire.
There are commonalities to these efforts. A claim that the educational system is biased against conservatives and white people and teachers are pushing extreme leftist agendas, and a move to end this supposed left-wing indoctrination by legislating a system of right-wing indoctrination under the guise of fairness and impartiality that at best glosses over or leaves out unflattering parts of American history and minorities’ experiences and at worst actively whitewashes things to paint the U.S. in a more flattering light.
DeSantis and his allies have specifically singled out diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and the once-obscure “critical race theory,” which isn’t actually taught in K-12 schools, but which Rufo has played a key role in turning into a catch-all label for teaching history critical of America.
And New College is an easy punching bag, with DeSantis blaming the school’s long-running financial struggles on its hippie culture.
“We are going to eliminate all DEI and CRT bureaucracies in the state of Florida...it really serves as an ideological filter, a political filter," DeSantis said at a press conference alongside Rufo just hours before the trustee meeting. “New College has really embraced that, and that's part of the reason I think it hasn't been successful.”
DeSantis and his allies have been explicit about what they want to do with New College, which has long been a bastion for LGBTQ students and offered a less structured learning experience, and as such is an easy school for him to caricature.
The school has always leaned left, embraced the weird and quirky, and proudly touted its motto of “educating free thinkers, risk takers and trailblazers.” Three quarters of students identified as liberal or very liberal, with just 3 percent saying they were conservative in a 2019 survey; When a speaker at the rally mentioned that the school was full of hippies, students cheered.
And the school’s academics operate differently than many colleges and universities. Students receive qualitative written “narrative evaluations” of their work instead of grades. In between semesters, students have a month to work on independent study projects where they’re encouraged to follow their academic whims.
The school board members DeSantis put in charge of New College are a cadre of deeply conservative education activists.
While the governor and his new trustees have railed against so-called indoctrination of students and insist they just want a school open to students of all viewpoints, the example they’re aiming for is far from a neutral campus. DeSantis’ chief of staff and his education secretary both said that they hoped to transform the school into a “Hillsdale of the South,” referencing the conservative, Christian private college in Michigan that is a feeder school for right-wing politics and has close ties to both DeSantis and Trump.
The school board members DeSantis put in charge of New College are a cadre of deeply conservative education activists. Rufo, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, was a key player in making critical race theory a right-wing bogeyman, and has now pivoted to decrying what he calls “gender, grooming and trans ideology in schools.” Another DeSantis appointee is Eddie Speir, the founder of a Christian high school in Bradenton, who has publicly floated the idea of firing every single professor at the college. (Professors at New College and leaders in the United Florida Faculty union, which represents New College faculty, told VICE News they believe such a move would be a blatantly illegal violation of the faculty’s collective bargaining agreement.)
They’re joined by Matthew Spalding, a dean at Hillsdale College, and Charles Kesler, a professor at Claremont McKenna College and senior fellow at the hard-right Claremont Institute. Spalding and Kesler were both deeply involved in then-President Trump’s “1776 Commission,” whose report sought to frame America in the best light possible by whitewashing the sins of the past.
The school’s new interim president will be former Republican state House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who more recently served as DeSantis’ education commissioner.
Corcoran told a Hillsdale National Leadership Seminar last summer that education was “100% ideological.”
“Education is our sword. That’s our weapon. Our weapon is education,” he declared.
Rufo has also used martial terms to describe their efforts. “We are now over the walls and ready to transform higher education from within,” he said shortly after being appointed to the board of directors. “Under the leadership of Gov. DeSantis, our all-star board will demonstrate that the public universities, which have been corrupted by woke nihilism, can be recaptured, restructured, and reformed.”
“Education is our sword. That’s our weapon. Our weapon is education.”
In his constant search for new targets in the culture war that fuels his support with his base, DeSantis has a bully’s knack for finding easy targets—marginalized communities, fringe lefties who make for easy straw men. He’s always looking for new libs to own, and a campus with a large LGBTQ population and a shoes-optional attitude is perfect for his goals. And the attacks on the New College have hit the campus’s LGBTQ students the hardest.
Bates, who identifies as queer, said that they had felt much more at home at New College after transferring in from another liberal arts school, where they said they felt they “couldn't really truly be my authentic self.”
It was “terrifying,” Bates said, when they found out who DeSantis had appointed to the board.
Sam Sharf, a second-year sociology major and organizer for the New College campus group Students for Educational Freedom, began transitioning at the end of high school. She says New College gave her opportunities she wouldn’t have had elsewhere in Florida.
“[If] I went to another state school, especially early on in my transition when I was 18…it would have been a lot more hostile and would have been way harder to develop as a person when you're being judged for your decisions and life,” Sharf said. “There aren't many colleges around the country, probably not in the world, that offer that same social support to LGBT students.”
In his constant search for new targets in the culture war that fuels his support with his base, DeSantis has a bully’s knack for finding easy targets—marginalized communities, fringe lefties who make for easy straw men.
And while DeSantis argued his intervention will help current and future students academically, multiple students said the stress of what they felt was an assault on their community had made it hard to stay focused on academics.
Bates, who’s studying chemistry, said they’d enthusiastically begun their midwinter independent study project looking at how different dyes affected solar panel absorption, but that the chaos swirling around the school had proven a depressing distraction.
“Because of that news, I was not really able to put my whole heart into my [Independent Study Project] project, which was very disappointing,” they said. “When I was in the lab I would be able to work on my projects but once I got out of the lab and sat down, it was just really hard to take care of myself or focus on anything other than what was happening. I’ve just been emotionally exhausted. It's a very frustrating and scary situation that is completely out of my control.”
New College theater and dance professor Diego Villada said that he’d had to cancel a final dress rehearsal for a show that was opening just days later “because the students were distraught” after the board meeting.
The college does face its challenges. It has a long history of financial struggles—part of the reason it went from being a private college to part of Florida's public university system in the first place—and is often an afterthought for those focused on Florida’s higher education system. It has suffered from decades of neglect and occasional hostility from Florida’s legislature, which has been in unified GOP hands since the mid-1990s.
New College’s physical infrastructure isn’t in great shape—one former student association president recently wrote that their first impression of the college upon arrival was that it “was in desperate need of a pressure wash,” and multiple students complained that student housing and facilities were in disrepair.
“The school is deeply underfunded and it’s lacking resources,” Sharf told VICE News. “The dorms are old and falling apart… These are problems that New College students have been talking about forever.”
A 2019 study the school commissioned under its last president found that many students complained the school didn’t do enough to prepare them for life after college, and suggested more emphasis on education that could be put towards potential career interests—something DeSantis has encouraged.
Enrollment has dipped in recent years, something DeSantis and his allies have pounced on as proof that the school is failing. He’s promised $15 million to improve the school next year, with $10 million a year after that. But it’s not like the school is an educational backwater.
New College ranks fifth in the nation on U.S. News’ list of the top public liberal arts schools, right behind the four U.S. military academies.
Nearly three dozen students have been awarded the prestigious Fulbright scholarship in just the past five years, a significant number given the school enrolls fewer than 700 students and that only 2,000 Fulbright scholarships are awarded to U.S. students in an average year. All students have to complete a thesis project to graduate, a rigorous step not required at many colleges and universities.
New College ranks fifth in the nation on U.S. News’ list of the top public liberal arts schools, right behind the four U.S. military academies. Overall, U.S. News ranks New College 76th among liberal arts colleges nationally. Hillsdale, the conservative Christian school that DeSantis’ chief of staff says is the model New College should strive for, isn’t that far ahead, at number 48.
And unlike most colleges on that list, New College is actually affordable: It costs Floridian students less than $7,000 a year, and is one of the only liberal arts colleges in the nation with in-state tuition.
While DeSantis and his allies have routinely painted New College as a bastion of woke leftist indoctrination lacking in academic rigor, students say nothing could be further from the truth.
Markham, a fourth-year sociology major, said they’d been assigned to read as much Adam Smith as they had Karl Marx.
“If there’s indoctrination going on, I can tell you it’s being very well-hidden in any of the classes.”
Joshua Epstein, a quantitative economics major, told VICE News that he’d actually become “far more conservative” in his first year at New College, due to what he’d learned in his economics classes. He said he had “never read a page of Marx”—but had been influenced by studying libertarian economist Milton Friedman.
“If there’s indoctrination going on, I can tell you it’s being very well-hidden in any of the classes,” Epstein said. “My two main career aspirations are corporate lawyer and investment banker. So the idea that I am, by any standard, woke, is a joke.”
Antonia Ginsberg-Klemmt, a fifth-year student, said that she’s “never ever felt pressured to do anything or feel anything, or think anything. I love that because it’s a very free place for you to be yourself.”
Most of the students VICE News talked to said they planned to stick it out at New College through graduation, but many had friends who were discussing transferring out. And they mourned that future generations wouldn’t have the chance at the same experience they’d had before DeSantis turned his gaze on the school.
“I just feel absolutely devastated for future students, because they won’t have the same access to such a beautiful community as we did,” said Bates.