Gov. Ron DeSantis began the process Friday of transforming Sarasota's New College of Florida into a more conservative institution, appointing six new board members, including conservative activist Christopher Rufo, a dean at conservative Hillsdale College and a senior fellow at The Claremont Institute, a right-wing think tank.
"It is our hope that New College of Florida will become Florida's classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the south," Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz said in a statement.
The shakeup of the 13-member board is certain to create major tensions at New College, an institution that started as a progressive private school before becoming the state's liberal arts honors college. The small school's student body and faculty have a reputation for leaning left politically.
Turning New College into a Florida version of Hillsdale would amount to flipping it upside down, a wholesale reinvention akin to a hostile takeover, and one that many current students and faculty are likely to resist.
DeSantis aides blasted the school Friday and said an overhaul is needed.
"Unfortunately, like so many colleges and universities in America, this institution has been completely captured by a political ideology that puts trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning," said DeSantis Communications Director Taryn Fenske.
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Rufo is known for his activism on transgender and racial issues, making him a leader in the new wave of conservative culture wars. He joined DeSantis when the governor signed HB 1557, the Parental Rights in Education Act, which is derided by critics as the "Don't Say Gay" bill.
Rufo said in a series of Twitter posts Friday that public universities have "been corrupted by woke nihilism" and he is "ready to transform higher education from within." He said he plans to recruit new faculty to New College to "create an institution where academics can thrive, without self-censorship."
“My ambition is to help the new board majority transform New College into a classical liberal arts institution. We are recapturing higher education.” Rufo said.
Rufo recently applauded DeSantis on Twitter for requesting information on diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory at all Florida colleges and universities.
"Gov. DeSantis is going to lay siege to university 'diversity, equity, and inclusion' programs," Rufo wrote.
Among Rufo's goals for New College that he laid out in a tweet: Restructuring the administration, developing "a new core curriculum," eliminating diversity, equity and inclusion policies and restructuring academic departments.
New College professor Amy Reid teaches French and Genders Studies and directs the school's Gender Studies Program, a discipline that some conservatives have targeted.
In an interview, Reid defended Gender Studies as "a mainstream academic discipline well established for four decades in this country. "
"The courses we offer reflect curricula at the best schools across the country,” she added.
Reid also said that “as an educator, as a mother, I stand up for the values of diversity, equity and inclusion, for religious and intellectual freedom and respect.”
“I hope the new board members are interested in finding out about New College's educational program and helping us do better at what we do well, which is to provide an excellent education for talented and motivated independent learners," Reid continued.
Joining Rufo on the New College board is Matthew Spalding, a professor of constitutional government at Hillsdale College and the dean of the college's graduate school of government in Washington, D.C. Spalding previously was vice president of American studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Hillsdale is a small Christian college in Michigan that has been active in conservative education politics. DeSantis spoke at Hillsdale's National Leadership Seminar last year and has tapped the school to help reshape Florida's education system.
Charles Kesler, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a senior fellow at The Claremont Institute, also is joining the New College board. Among the books written by Kesler: “I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism.”
The Cleremont Institute has gained prominence in the Trump era.
"Claremont scholars have collaborated with Ron DeSantis and helped shape the views of Clarence Thomas, Tom Cotton and the conservative activist Christopher Rufo, and the institute received the National Humanities Medal from President Trump in 2019," the New York Times wrote last year.
Trump lawyer John Eastman, another senior fellow at The Claremont Institute, recently was referred to the U.S. Department of Justice for investigation and potential prosecution by the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Eastman wrote a memo detailing strategies for overturning the 2020 election results.
Appointing prominent conservatives and individuals associated with high-profile right-wing institutions to New College is an effort by DeSantis to completely reorient the school.
DeSantis touched on his goals for higher education this month in his second inauguration speech.
"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," he said.
DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin highlighted the governor's comments in a statement that declared: "Starting today, the ship is turning around. 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."
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The other new board members are Mark Bauerlein, who teaches at Emory University, Debra Jenks, a New College alum and attorney, and Jason "Eddie" Speir, the co-founder, chairman and superintendent of Inspiration Academy, a Christian school in Bradenton.
The governor gets six appointments to each university board, while the state Board of Governors - which oversees the university system - gets five. The faculty chair and student body president also serve on the board. The Board of Governors, which is loaded with DeSantis allies, is poised to appoint a New College board member for a seat vacant on Jan. 7, meaning a majority of the board soon will consist of new appointees who can control the direction of the school.
New College President Patricia Okker thanked DeSantis "for today’s announcement and for the slate of new board members."
"I look forward to getting to know them and working with them to ensure New College continues to serve our students, community, and state in the years to come," Okker said in the brief statement.
The governor's appointments "fill positions that were previously vacant or expired, and I am grateful that New College will now have a full board," Okker added. The board members serve five-year terms.
Efforts to reach New College alumni for comment, as well as a foundation that supports the college, were unsuccessful Friday, and some professors said they did not want to comment.
New College routinely ranks well on higher education "best of" lists, having been singled out as a good value and among the best public liberal arts colleges. It is known for attracting accomplished students to an intimate setting that blends academic rigor and quirky experimentalism.
However, the school has struggled in recent years with low enrollment, low scores on a state system for ranking universities, concerns raised by state lawmakers about whether the college is an efficient use of public money because of the high cost of each degree and questions about the stability of its funding.
There was a push by Republican lawmakers in 2020 to merge New College with another higher education institution. It was blocked by former state Senate President Bill Galvano of Bradenton.
Galvano said at the time that he understood the concerns about New College's cost-per-degree but argued the school "provides a unique balance between a traditional liberal arts experience and a modern, innovative curriculum."
Galvano said Friday in a text message that he is "very supportive of these efforts and think this creates a lot of positive opportunities for the university."
Other Republican leaders in Sarasota and Manatee counties also expressed support for the governor's New College overhaul.
Sarasota state Sen. Joe Gruters said DeSantis has a "bold vision" for the school.
"The state has propped it up but it is time for a transformation to a model that is sustainable," Gruters added.
Sarasota state Rep. Fiona McFarland called New College "an indisputable gem in Florida's education landscape."
"But they've had issues with cost and enrollment... I hope this can be a positive development for the school's future," she said.
Sarasota state Rep. James Buchanan also said he's supportive of what DeSantis is doing at New College.
"This is an exciting moment for our community and I'm thankful for the bold leadership of Gov. Ron DeSantis," Buchanan said. "For nearly two decades, fringe ideologies and political activism has eroded the mission of New College of Florida."
Bradenton State Rep. Will Robinson said the changes are warranted given New College's "dismal enrollment numbers and relative high cost to the state."
New College has roughly 700 students.
"The current model is not working," Robinson said. "I look forward to this fresh start with renewed hope that with the Governor's bold action the newly formed Board can tackle these serious enrollment and financial issues."
The changes at New College come amid other efforts by DeSantis to put his imprint on various government bodies, including the Palm Beach County Commission and Disney's Reedy Creek Improvement District. Democratic state Sen. Lori Berman said the combined actions make DeSantis look like an "autocrat."
"Recently, DeSantis installed a Republican to the PBC Commission, announced plans to take over Disney with a state-run board, and flooded New College's board with conservatives," Berman wrote on Twitter. "There is no room for dissent. Not in local governments, not in businesses, not in schools. Autocrat."
The choices for the New College board drew criticism from Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida union.
“Like many Floridians who have ties to the New College community, UFF (the United Faculty of Florida) was surprised and disturbed today to see the appointment of six trustees whose only apparent interest in the institution is politically and ideologically motivated,” Gothard said in a statement to the News Service.
Gothard said trustees have a “solemn duty” to act in the best interest of everyone on campuses.
“Promises to upend programs with ideologically driven claims that could not be farther from the truth of what actually occurs in a higher education classroom — these do nothing to improve New College, nor will they draw interested students to a campus where trustees are so at odds with the faculty, the local administration and the truth,” Gothard said.
Herald-Tribune Arts Editor and Theater Critic Jay Handelman contributed to this report. Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Gov. Ron DeSantis wants conservative overhaul at Sarasota's New College of Florida