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Students and their supporters decry big changes coming to New College of Florida

A group of students, many holding protest signs, rally at New College of Florida
Cathy Carter
WUSF Public Media
New College of Florida students, alumni, faculty, and parents protested changes to the school put in place by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration.

They gathered before Tuesday's board meeting. Later, board members voted to fire university president Patricia Okker and agreed to enter discussions with DeSantis ally and former Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to serve as interim president.

Protesters, meeting under the banner of a "Rally to Save and Defend New College," said Tuesday that Gov. Ron DeSantis and his conservative appointees to the Board of Trustees are "attempting to dismantle the institution’s educational mission, values, and principles."

Before the board meeting, about 200 people participated in a demonstration on campus opposing the changes happening at New College.

Among the speakers was X Gonzalez, a New College graduate and survivor of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Speaking behind a podium that read, "Defend Educational Freedom," Gonzalez spoke of her time as a student at the small liberal arts college in Sarasota.

“‘I learned how to take care of my body and my mind, since this is an institution that focuses on quality of work and thought over efficiency,” Gonzalez told the crowd. “And I learned what my professors thought of my progress as a student when I read their narrative evaluations as opposed to arbitrary letter grades and numbered scores in a one size fits all system.”

Other speakers at the rally included former Democratic lawmaker Carlos Guillermo Smith, who served on higher education committees during his tenure as a representative in Florida’s House of Representatives.

“I’ve had a front-row seat to this slow creeping attack on higher education,” he said.

Smith accused DeSantis of using New College of Florida to "score political points."

“He is using fear and intimidation to accomplish his extreme agenda, even sometimes without any new laws being passed,” Smith said. “For example, late last year he began demanding that state universities and state colleges provide to his administration data and information about what programs they had related to diversity, equity and inclusion, even asking for the names and titles of those individuals who are employed by our universities and state colleges to do work related to DEI. It was almost a threat to these higher education institutions.”

Woman holds microphone, speaks at rally.
X González, who gained national attention as one of the faces of the gun reform movement following the mass school shooting in Parkland Fl, graduated from New College of Florida last year.

Before the rally ended, many people migrated across campus to the college's Sudakoff Conference Center for the first meeting of the school's now conservative majority of the Board of Trustees, filling the small venue to capacity.

The meeting, which lasted just under four hours, started with a public comment section that included about two dozen speakers, nearly all of them criticizing the changes at New College.

Elise Mitchell, the parent of a freshman at New College, began by thanking the school’s president, Patricia Okker, whose contract was later terminated at the meeting.

“My son is a national merit scholar and he chose New College because of its liberal arts curriculum, the ability to work closely with his professors, and the warm sense of community that’s fostered on this campus,” Mitchell said. “He and his classmates have done nothing to deserve the type of disruption that is currently happening to their education.”

Hours into the emotional meeting, then New College president Okker apologized to students for what she called a "hostile takeover" before the board voted to fire her and agreed to enter discussions with DeSantis ally and former Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to serve as interim president.

Fighting back tears, Okker said she could not go along with the “new mandate” at NCF and said that she did not believe New College students were being "indoctrinated," a claim made by conservative board member Christopher Rufo and others.

“I believe a president needs to stand behind her words when she asks donors to contribute,” Okker said. . “You cannot ask me to go forward and argue that we are indoctrinating students here.”

In a Tuesday night statement, the group "New College of Florida Students for Educational Freedom" wrote: “Pat’s final remarks brought us to tears tonight but tomorrow they will inspire us to keep fighting for freedom at New College, in Florida and nationwide. We will never stop letting our light shine and we will never stop loving each other for who we are.”

After the meeting concluded, several people were in tears. Others, like Eliana Salzhauer the parent of a New College freshman, expressed anger.

"What happened here today is a charade,” Salzhauer said. “And if this can happen here, this can happen anywhere. And every parent across America and every educator should be concerned. You've got DeSantis with national ambition. Godspeed, let him go away. Get out of Florida. Him and Trump can eat each other alive okay, but leave our kids alone."

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.