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Why there will be 2 commencement ceremonies at New College of Florida

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There will be two very different commencement ceremonies at New College of Florida this week. Some students at the liberal arts college in Sarasota are upset at the direction of the school under a new president and board of trustees appointed by Governor Ron DeSantis. So they're holding an alternative commencement. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: For decades, New College of Florida drew little attention from state policymakers. It was the smallest and most poorly funded of the state's public universities. The liberal arts honors university drew a diverse student population, attracted by its low tuition and its individualized curriculum, allowing undergraduates to design their own course of study. But Florida Governor Ron DeSantis decided this year to put the school on a different path.

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RON DESANTIS: So we are committed to the mission here. I would love for this to be - and I think it will be - the top classical liberal arts college in America.

ALLEN: New College has always scored well in national rankings, rated fifth recently by U.S. News & World Report among public liberal arts schools. Governor DeSantis has another model in mind, one that has begun reshaping the school along the lines of Hillsdale College, a private Christian liberal arts institution in Michigan. In January, DeSantis replaced the board of trustees at New College with his own appointees, among them conservative educational activists and a Hillsdale professor. DeSantis's board immediately made waves, firing the school's popular president and appointing Florida's former education commissioner interim president. More changes followed. The board eliminated the school's Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, fired staff, including two LGBTQ faculty members, and denied tenure to several others. Students, faculty and community members have opposed most of the changes. This week when he appeared on campus, DeSantis made light of the protests.

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DESANTIS: Yeah, I saw some of the protesters out there. I was a little disappointed. I was hoping for more, but, you know.

ALLEN: The interim president, Richard Corcoran, has big plans for the school's transformation and the money to carry it out. Lawmakers allocated $50 million to help him reshape the school. Corcoran says the changes are already paying off.

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RICHARD CORCORAN: It's leading to what will be - and I'll say it publicly - record enrollment. We are on the verge of having the largest incoming class ever in the history of New College in just 90 days.

ALLEN: Left out of much of the discussions and all of the decisions about the changes at New College are those most affected, the students and faculty. K.C. Casey is a senior who's graduating soon. They're one of a group of students who organized an alternative to the university's official commencement ceremony.

K C CASEY: I think it started as simple as I don't want to shake this person's hand, this new president's hand.

ALLEN: Students and alumni raised more than $100,000 for their alternative event. The commencement speaker is Maya Wiley, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Casey says one of the most distressing things about the school's new leadership is the message that's been sent to students.

CASEY: We have board members who are actively telling students that if they aren't mission-aligned, that they should leave the school. They intentionally are trying to remove people for their identities and their beliefs.

ALLEN: Casey is graduating, has begun applying for theater apprenticeships. They're worried, though, that DeSantis's takeover of New College is part of a larger effort to influence the next generation.

CASEY: They want you to be complacent. They want you to think like they think, so that you won't go out in the world and make a change. And New College students are the people who will go out in the world and make a change.

ALLEN: The alternative graduation event, scheduled tonight, comes a day before the school's official commencement. The speaker of that event is Dr. Scott Atlas, former President Trump's adviser on COVID.

Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.