Students, professors report chaos as semester begins at New College of Florida

By Carlos Suarez, Denise Royal and Nicquel Terry Ellis, CNN August 26, 2023.

Months after what critics have decried as a conservative takeover at New College of Florida, students and professors say a sense of confusion and anxiety looms over the start of fall semester in Sarasota, Florida.

Amy Reid, a member of the school’s Board of Trustees, said course options have dwindled after nearly 40% of faculty members have resigned.

Reid said the situation is quickly becoming “untenable.”

“Just before I came to this meeting, I received word that one more faculty member in biology is leaving,” she told CNN. “That’s going to make a challenge for students to complete their areas of studies here.”

Classes are scheduled to begin on August 28, but Chai Leffler is already struggling to navigate his fourth year at the school.

Leffler is an urban studies major, but he said most of his professors have resigned.

In order to graduate, Leffler said he has asked faculty in other subject areas to sponsor his thesis.

“It’s a little messy, kind of like a dumpster fire right now in terms of administration,” Leffler said. “At the end of the day, I want to get my degree.”

Once heralded as a progressive liberal arts school, New College of Florida has found itself at the center of the state’s culture war over education.

In January, Gov. Ron DeSantis replaced six of the 13 members on the college’s Board of Trustees. New members include Christopher Rufo, who who has been at the forefront of the conservative movement against critical race theory.

In May, Gov. DeSantis signed a series of higher education bills on the campus of New College, aimed at ending critical race theory and curbing diversity spending in higher education.

At a press conference following the bill signing, Rufo called the changes “the most significant higher education reform in a half-century.”

The new board has since voted to abolish diversity, equity and inclusion programs, and replaced the college’s former president with Richard Corcoran, the state’s former education commissioner.

“The New College Board of Trustees is succeeding in its mission to eliminate indoctrination and re-focus higher education on its classical mission,” DeSantis said earlier this month in a press release.

The governor also pointed to concerns about enrollment numbers and test scores at the school.

“If it was a private school making those choices, then fine, I mean what are you going to do?” DeSantis said. “But this is being paid for by your tax dollars.”

Earlier this year, Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz said state officials wanted New College of Florida to “become Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the South.”

Hillsdale College is a private conservative Christian college in southern Michigan.

Some students told CNN they chose to attend New College for its progressive values and because the school offered an environment where LGBTQ+ students could freely express themselves.

Earlier this month, the Board of Trustees began the process to eliminate the school’s gender studies program. The move prompted one gender studies professor, Nicholas Clarkson, to quit.

In his resignation letter, Clarkson described Florida as “the state where learning goes to die.”

“When you start banning terms and banning fields of study and arguing that the state has the right to tell faculty what they can and can’t say in the classroom that really hampers the learning environment,” Clarkson told CNN.

New College Trustee Matthew Spalding, who is also a dean at Hillsdale College in Michigan, disagreed. At a board meeting earlier this month Spalding said the gender studies program was “more of an ideological movement than academic discipline.”

‘A challenge for the students’

In February, Florida legislators approved $15 million in funding for New College to increase faculty recruiting and fund new scholarships. Officials at New College said recruitment efforts are ongoing and more classes could soon be offered.

Ryan Terry, a spokesperson for the college, pointed to an increase in fall enrollment as a sign the school is appealing to more students.

Terry confirmed that there are 341 incoming freshman this year compared to 277 in the fall of 2022. The school has a total enrollment of about 800 students, he said.

It’s not just administrative issues complicating the return to school, students are also struggling to find on-campus housing. New College said in a press release that it is currently housing some students in Sarasota-area hotels after a recent engineering report cited air quality concerns in the Pei residential complex.

“Out of an abundance of caution, and for the health and safety of the NCF community, Interim President Corcoran has made the decision to shutter all of the Pei dorms,” the press release said.

Terry confirmed the school is now using other dorms to house the incoming class of freshmen, while returning students are being housed in hotels.

New College senior Galen Rydzik said the move to hotels was poorly planned.

“It’s more of a challenge for the students that were told last minute because a lot of them are not being housed here,” Rydzik said.

Despite the chaos, Leffler said he is determined to try to preserve the “unique student culture” at New College. Last year, students organized their own graduation ceremony to protest the governor’s changes at the school. Leffler said he is hopeful students will be able to do the same in the spring.

“We’re willing to do what it takes to keep the culture alive at this school,” Leffler said. “We are really focusing on just the students, the administration is out of my control.”

 Image Credits: Thomas Simonetti-The Washington Post-Getty Images