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2 DeSantis-appointed trustees showed up at New College. Here’s how it went.

A blue New College flag
A school flag waves in the wind on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, at New College of Florida in Sarasota, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed six conservatives to the board of trustees. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

SARASOTA — In an unusual visit to the New College of Florida campus Wednesday, two of the six people appointed to the school’s board of trustees this month by Gov. Ron DeSantis told faculty and students they are coming with a mandate to rescue an institution they described as failing and in need of a turnaround.

Christopher Rufo, a conservative journalist and commentator, called himself “a drastic solution to a crisis.” He was accompanied by Jason “Eddie” Speir, the founder and superintendent of a private Christian high school in Bradenton.

Their appearance drew a range of responses, from those who disputed the new trustees’ descriptions of New College to others who said they saw a chance for the school to improve under new leadership. It was a prelude to Tuesday, when the school’s newly reconstituted board will meet for the first time, now populated with several strong conservative voices.

In his opening statements to staff and faculty, Rufo raised concerns about what he described as the school’s declining performance and enrollment.

“We’re all here because there is a serious problem,” Rufo said, adding that legislators had long been frustrated with the school and had even considered dissolving New College.

He outlined four core concerns, including the school’s “echo chamber” culture and its struggle to attract and retain students. The school’s “extraordinary focus on social justice” was driving down enrollment, he argued.

New College admits nearly 75% of applicants, according to federal data. “Most liberal arts colleges try to keep that number under 20%,” Rufo said. “You accept more or less anyone who applies.”

Last year, less than 80% of students who were accepted enrolled in the college and 20% dropped out or transferred in their first year, he said.

He also raised concerns over the college’s graduation rate, which trails most of the state’s other public universities, and the relatively low employment rate and earnings of alumni in the year after graduation.

Rufo claimed that New College students and faculty had reached out to say they had been intimidated and ostracized because of their race or political views.

Speir echoed those concerns, saying that he had faced threats of violence if he attended the day’s event.

“We were about to be shut down and not have this dialogue… because of a threat made against me,” Speir said. “I have not been respectfully treated when I came here.”

In a Q&A session with faculty and staff, conversation ranged from funding and leadership to concerns over Rufo and Speir’s prior statements regarding the school’s “woke” culture.

Rufo asked the members of the audience to raise their hands if they agreed New College had serious problems.

“You are the problem,” one member shouted.

Donal O’Shea, who was president of New College until 2021, asked if the new trustees had ideas for securing funds for dorm improvements and deferred maintenance.

Rufo agreed that the small campus had a hard time competing against bigger state schools with “fancy glass and steel” buildings. However, funding would come only once the school had made the changes state leadership deemed necessary.

“When we show we are moving in that direction and understand the assignment…. I think the coffers will open,” Speir said.

“We’re coming in with a set of relationships with the legislators and the governor, who has said very clearly and mandated us (to) turn things around,” he added. “They’re going to do everything in their power to support that.”

Other faculty raised concerns over the pair’s previous statements about queer and LGBTQ communities.

Elizabeth Bates, a psychology technician at New College, confronted Rufo over his prior statements linking queer and transgender individuals with pedophilia — a characterization that Rufo said he “totally disagreed with.”

O’Shea said afterward he felt the two trustees were open and was heartened by the session.

Culturally, he said, he doesn’t think New College had the problems they described. The number of conservative students on campus is few, he said, but they are vocal. And their low numbers, he said, are partly the result of the college’s small size.

But the students, he said, are intellectually curious, and he disagreed with the characterization of the campus as “quirky” or not academically serious.

During a separate session for students Wednesday, many asked pointed questions about Rufo’s credentials and about their safety.

When asked how the trustees would keep up enrollment when many current students were dismayed by their selection, Speir said he hoped for the students’ patience.

“You can decide, ‘I don’t like this place anymore,’ and leave,” Speir said, “but I would really like you to stay and watch this play out.”

Dylan Hogan, a fourth-year student, said he felt lucky to be graduating soon.

The session “was everything I expected and less,” he said. “No one came in blind about what these trustees thought. This was just a clarification.”

Diego Villada, a professor of theater, wore a sombrero vueltiao and a progress flag over his shoulder in a sign of solidarity with LGBTQ students.

“When I read about you in the media, you seem crazy,” Villada told Rufo and Speir. “Standing here, I feel like I understand the words that are coming out of your mouth.”

He said he believed the two were genuine, but asked how they measured the decline in academics and “stifling orthodoxy.” Rufo had used the example of wanting to see a Christian student debating a non-Christian student.

“In the trenches, that is happening,” Villada said.

Villada, who is Colombian, evoked the phrase “dar la cara,” roughly translating to “show your face.”

“You are showing your face,” he said. “You are here, you are talking to us and you are letting us talk, which is what I appreciate.”

Divya Kumar and Ian Hodgson cover higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

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