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What DeSantis' conservative overhaul could mean for Sarasota's New College of Florida

A picture of the front of New College, with sign and trees
WUSF Public Media
Several of the new DeSantis appointees are vocal opponents of gender- and race-related education issues in schools.

The smallest school in Florida’s university system, New College of Florida has about 700 students and lists one of its core values as building a “just, diverse, equitable and inclusive community” on campus.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday announced changes that would transform Sarasota's liberal arts school, the New College of Florida, into a conservative institution.

WUSF'S Cathy Carter spoke with Sarasota Herald Tribune reporter Zac Andersonabout the governor's plan.

What can you tell us about the moves the governor set in place last week?

So, the governor appointed six new members to New College’s board of directors, and it's not unusual; the governor appoints new board members to colleges and other state institutions all the time. But in this case, it is very unusual because it came with sort of the stated idea that these new board members are going to completely transform New College — known more as the left-leaning institution — because the governor appointed all these conservative board members, including high-profile conservative activist Chris Rufo, and some others who have affiliations with conservative think tanks and that will take New College from what it is and turn it into something completely opposite of it.

As you mentioned, conservative activist Chris Rufo is one of the governor's appointees. What more can you tell us about him?

So, he's probably the most famous person that the governor has appointed. He's really become prominent in the new conservative culture wars. He has gone after institutions over transgender issues, critical race theory, he's gotten attention on Fox News and other conservative media outlets. The governor tapped him when he signed House Bill 1557, the Parental Rights in Education Act, also known by critics as the "Don't Say Gay" bill. Chris Rufo was with the governor during that bill signing. He's very active on social media and has really gone after all sorts of institutions over policies that he disagrees with.

One of the other appointees is a dean at conservative Hillsdale College, which the governor has said he wants to model New College after. What can you tell us about Hillsdale College?

Hillsdaleis a small, private Christian college in Michigan that really has outsized influence in sort of conservative circles for its education agenda. The president of the college is sort of aligned with DeSantis and with Trump. They've created a network of charter schools and are really pushing a more conservative agenda and again, would be a complete transformation of New College into something very, very different, and really would fundamentally change the school.

What are you hearing from students, alumni, and faculty about the changes?

I think a lot of the people at the school and alumni, we're sort of in shock. Some of the students started a Twitterfeed to fight back against this. The gender studies professor there was very quick to defend her discipline as being a mainstream discipline. These are the types of disciplines that I think some of the school population worry is going to be targeted, because conservatives have targeted disciplines, such as gender studies, in the past. So, she kind of said that, you know, hopefully, this will be accepted, because it is a curriculum that colleges all over the country have, and it's been in existence for decades. So, I think there's a lot of trepidation about what's happening amongst the faculty. There are a number of faculty members that I spoke who did not want to talk on the record, but we're hearing more and more as this unfolds.

And Zac, New College of Florida is a public institution. Have we heard from local state lawmakers about the new direction?

So, Sarasota and Manatee counties are Republican-leaning counties. New College sort of straddles the two counties and the local lawmakers are all Republicans and they've all supported DeSantis. None of these lawmakers question this move at all. They all said that they support where the governor is going with this. Their stated reason really is that New College has struggled in recent years, which is true. The enrollment has not been where it needed to be to be a financially stable institution, even though it's very well regarded. You know, it is an honors college, but they've had some issues in terms of meeting certain benchmarks that the state set, but I think also a lot of them are unwilling to go against DeSantis even if they wanted to.

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.