The entrance to New College of Florida
The entrance to New College of Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed six conservative members to the board of trustees, sparking questions about the Sarasota school's future. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Nestled between Sarasota Bay and the Tamiami Trail, the small campus once dubbed “Barefoot U” has been a progressive enclave in a conservative county for 60 years.

New College of Florida has clung to its identity since its founding at the peak of the counterculture movement.

Now, the 110-acre liberal arts school with fewer than 700 students finds itself in the national spotlight, thrust into the culture wars after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the appointment of six noted conservatives to its board of trustees on Jan. 6.

RELATED: DeSantis installed 6 new trustees at Sarasota’s New College. Who are they?

The new members include Matthew Spalding, a former vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank; professors and right-leaning authors Charles Kesler and Mark Bauerlein; and Christopher Rufo, an activist who spurred a national backlash against critical race theory and LGBTQ issues.

Rufo, who appeared with DeSantis when the governor unveiled Florida’s “Stop Woke Act” in 2021, already has announced an ambitious plan to quickly revamp New College. In an interview with the New York Times, he said plans are afoot for a “top-down restructuring” and the design of “a new core curriculum from scratch.”

He predicted the school would look “very different in the next 120 days.”

Some Republicans say the appointments are an opportunity for Florida to emulate Hillsdale College, a small, private Christian university in Michigan that has helped DeSantis shape education policy since 2019. New College, they say, could be “a Hillsdale of the South.”

While a Hillsdale spokesperson called the comparison flattering, the label elicited polarized views and concern among some alumni, faculty, students and prospective students.

Both supporters and critics see the six appointments to the 13-member boardas part of a larger, rapid push to alter Florida’s higher education system in much the same way DeSantis put his mark on K-12 schools in 2022.

Late last month, the governor’s budget office required all state universities and colleges to detail what they spend on diversity initiatives and critical race theory. And later this month, the state Board of Governors will consider a new policy that restricts faculty tenure and ties enforcement to the Stop WOKE Act.

DeSantis press secretary Bryan Griffin said New College is due for a change.

The new trustees will be “committed to refocusing the institution on academics and truth and ensuring that students are receiving a quality education,” he said. “The campus will become a place for learning and discourse, as it was designed to be.”

The newly reelected governor, supporters say, is out to “recapture higher education.”

‘Just the beginning’

When Bella Croteau first toured New College, the senior at Lakewood High in St. Petersburg immediately felt at home.

“My first thought was I don’t want to take a gap year anymore,” Croteau said. “I want to be here now. The demographic is exactly my type of people. There are so many LGBT students, there are a lot of Dungeons & Dragons players.”

Croteau gasped with delight during a visit when someone on campus said, “You look like you go here.”

“I was like, ‘That’s the best compliment ever,’” Croteau said.

“It’s so important to feel like your existence can be acknowledged, especially in school, when you are always beneath someone, when you’re always the small fish,” they said. “Having an unconditional love for people, just humans, regardless of age or what major they’re in or what they identify as, having that there and saying we see you and we work with you — not around you — is what New College does and what makes it New College.”

The school, which has a ratio of six students for every faculty member and an average class size of 11, is known for its atypical approach. Students receive evaluations rather than grades and pursue independent research projects between traditional semesters.

Alaska Miller, a second-year student studying cognitive science and minoring in gender studies, described the campus as “quirky, queer and creative.” In trying to capture it, she mentioned she knew multiple people who read philosopher Michel Foucault for fun.

“Have you ever met that person who is a little quirky, but they’re like the smartest person you’ve ever met?” she said. “That’s like the kind of people who go to New College.”

Miller said the school’s significant LGBTQ population is a hallmark of its culture. She heard about the six new trustees on the way to a dining hall.

“To see suddenly we’re in the middle of a culture war is completely insane,” Miller said. “I never in a million years thought they even knew we existed sometimes. But now they want to turn New College into this weird ‘Hillsdale of the South’? It’s very strange.”

To Miller, who considers herself a leftist, the portrayals of New College as a bastion of “woke ideology” don’t hold up. In a class on political theory, she read Karl Marx and Thomas Hobbs, Frantz Fanon and Niccolo Machiavelli, a group encompassing a wide range of thought.

Sam Sharf, a second-year student from Tampa studying international politics, agreed.

“We come here as a predominantly LGBT student body and have a progressive vision for society,” Sharf said. “It’s not like they’re teaching us to be like this. We would be like this regardless if we came here or not. This is just a place where freedom of thought is allowed to flourish. Not all teachers are sympathetic to our visions.”

Sharf said she’s concerned about the attention the campus has drawn in recent days.

“Our small school is becoming a battleground in the conservative culture war, and with that it could bring violent actors to our campus,” she said.

She’s also concerned at the direction the new trustees may take.

“The alternative they’re positing is actually what they’re projecting us as being,” she said. “They want to create a conservative, dogmatized education where only that thought process is accepted … They don’t want people to learn things that are critical of the state or America, or just critical thinking in general. This is just the beginning. If they succeed, they’ll be emboldened to try this everywhere. They’ll try this at Florida State University or the University of Florida.”

A school ‘on the ropes’

Though U.S. News & World Report ranks New College No. 5 among public liberal arts colleges nationally, the school has faced troubles in recent years.

“They’ve kind of been on the ropes,” said Christian Ziegler, vice chairperson of the Florida GOP. After the new trustees were announced, he sent a message to supporters about DeSantis’ “aggressive and incredible actions,” asking them to “let the victory saturate — THIS IS WINNING!”

The college’s most recent state accountability plan outlined two challenges to overcome. It said, “New College of Florida must become an inclusive community where all independent thinkers and innovators eager to learn in an engaging academic environment experience a strong sense of belonging.” Also, the college “must fully realize the transformative power of integrating career education with a challenging honors curriculum,” the plan said.

It laid out a goal that every student complete an internship or apprenticeship before graduating. It set a target to increase enrollment to 800 undergrads by 2026.

Since 2016, when New College welcomed a freshman class of 861, enrollment and revenue have declined. Patricia Okkerbecame president in 2021 and was handed the task of building community partnerships, boosting the endowment and improving the school’s numbers. The most recent fall class saw a slight increase in enrollment and the largest group of transfer students in recent years.

Okker started a task force to improve retention rates and recently launched the New College Challenge, bringing students and scholars at top universities together to solve coastal resiliency issues.

For some, like faculty union chair Steve Shipman, the newest call for changes came as a surprise.

“It’s a little disheartening,” he said. “It felt like we were on an upswing.”

Griffin, the DeSantis press secretary, said the new trustees have a firsthand understanding of Florida’s education system after working with the state on other initiatives.

He pointed to the values section on New College’s mission page, which says the school is committed to creating a more “inclusive community” and “ensuring that historically marginalized and oppressed groups are not experiencing trauma and harm.”

Griffin said the passage illustrates the college has been “completely captured by a political ideology that puts trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning.”

“The public expects their tax dollars to go towards the statutorily stated mission of ‘provid[ing] a quality education,’” he said in an email, quoting state law. The school’s mission statement, Griffin argued, “quite literally admits the institution will adjust outcomes based on non-academic factors of their choosing.”

Ziegler, the GOP leader, said the change is beneficial for everyone involved.

“Their mission, vision and values have the same woke principles the governor and Legislature frankly are fighting against every day,” he said, adding that New College might fare better with state budget writers after undergoing “a reset.”

Ziegler said Hillsdale College has “carved out a reputation going back to the basics and really focusing on history as it really was, rather than going to college, getting brainwashed by liberals.”

He said that, as a father of three young daughters and a Sarasota County business owner, he’s excited by the prospect of broader higher education options for his family and the community.

“This is the first step,” Ziegler said. “And hopefully there are more steps when it comes to reforming higher education.”

What will happen?

On Monday, President Okker issued a statement giving a “warm welcome” to the new trustees, who are awaiting confirmation by the Republican-controlled state Senate. She said she was eager to hear their ideas for making New College “a national model for a top-tier liberal arts college.”

For the first time in years, Okker added, the school has a “tremendous opportunity” to be led by a full board.

Florida gives university boards of trustees broad powers — from hiring the president to planning and budgeting and deciding which academic programs stay or go. Each board has 13 members — six appointed by the governor, five by the state Board of Governors and one representative each for the students and faculty.

The Board of Governors, which is mostly appointed by the governor, soon will add a new trustee as well, likely giving the New College board a seven-member majority that could execute the governor’s vision for the school. State officials declined to answer questions about how the governor’s six vacancies came open at once and how the new trustees were vetted.

Others were more cautious than Okker but still optimistic about New College’s future.

Joey McMahon, a third-year transfer student, said he looks forward to talking with the new trustees, particularly Rufo, who compared his 120-day plan to Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter.

Shipman, the faculty union chair, said he was unsure how much could be achieved in that time frame, given academic hiring cycles. “We’re adopting a wait-and-see mentality,” he said.

Even Rufo’s fellow appointees expressed skepticism about his timeline.

Bauerlein, the Emory professor, said he felt the board would operate in a way that would be “a lot less political and a lot more managerial,” with a healthy mix of personalities.

“At this point, it’s good to have a guy like Christopher in the room,” he said, referring to Rufo. “We’re going to have a student representative on the board, who I’m betting will be very much on the opposite side of Christopher. There’ll be a faculty member who I imagine will not share Christopher’s outlook on things.”

Spalding, the Hillsdale professor, said in a statement that the “political controversy” surrounding the appointments was “overwrought.”

“I appreciate the complimentary nods to Hillsdale College,” he said, “but we are not going to serve New College’s mission by remaking it into a carbon copy of another institution.”

Croteau, the Lakewood High student, said they still plan to attend New College.

“It’s not like we’re going to disappear,” Croteau said. “Until something changes, it’s still the New College I toured and the one that I love. I’m just having high hopes now.”

Times Staff Writer Jeff Solochek contributed to this report. Divya Kumar and Ian Hodgson cover higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

Education data reporter for The Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.