California Gov. Gavin Newsom greets second-year New College student Niko Jackson following a conversation with students at Betty J. Johnson North Sarasota Public Library in Sarasota on Wednesday, April 5, 2023. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

After months of protesting the takeover of their school by conservative trustees appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, students and faculty at New College of Florida found an empathetic ear from an unlikely source: California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“I’m crawling out of my skin for you guys,” Newsom told an audience near the Sarasota campus Wednesday. “I want you to know you’re not alone. You matter, we care. This is the ‘why I’m here.’ I’m not your governor. But I’m a member of the larger community all bound together.”

Newsom, who was joined by his wife, Jennifer Newsom, spoke at the Betty Johnson North Sarasota Public Library near the New College campus, a recent battleground in Florida’s culture wars. His appearance came weeks after DeSantis criticized California’s approach to the pandemic and education during a speech at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

He did not hold back regarding DeSantis, who in January appointed six high-profile conservatives to the New College board of trustees with a mandate to remake the state’s public liberal arts honors college. The group included Christopher Rufo, the architect of several education-related bills across the country. One of the board’s first actions was to fire President Patricia Okker and replace her with former House Speaker Richard Corcoran, now the school’s interim leader.

”Weakness, Ron DeSantis — weakness masquerading as strength,” Newsom said. “So I want you to know you’re on the right side of history. You have something he’ll never have: moral authority.”

Bryan Griffin, press secretary for DeSantis, said the Florida governor “is focused on getting Florida’s public institutions of higher learning refocused on academics and truth. Stunts from political opponents don’t matter and have no effect.”

Newsom, a Democrat, and DeSantis, a Republican, have been taking swipes at each other for the past two years, and both have been mentioned as presidential hopefuls for 2024. Last year, Newsom pledged $100,000 to DeSantis’ opponent, former Republican governor and Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist. Newsom also challenged DeSantis to a debate.

The Sarasota appearance was the last stop on Newsom’s five-state tour to combat “authoritarian leaders” in his newly formed Campaign for Democracy. The event was in partnership with Newtown Alive, a nonprofit celebrating a historic Sarasota Black community.

In press huddle after the event, Newsom denied further political ambitions. He said he would just as soon be ex-governor and a dad, and was taking his sons on a tour of the South during their spring break.

“I want to meet the moment,” he said. “I want to be able to look my kids in the eye and say I did everything I could and put it all out in the field.”

Newsom said he thought Trump would “thump” DeSantis if the Florida governor ran for president. He also criticized DeSantis’ other initiatives — from flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard to banning books. He also lambasted fellow Democrats for not speaking out against DeSantis’ attempts to ban an Advanced Placement course in African American studies.

“We have plenty of challenges in the state and I own every single one of them,” Newsom said of California. “But the last guy — truly the last guy — I’m interested in the lecture from is Ron DeSantis when it comes to foundational principles that he claims to champion.”

Newsom asked the New College students how they felt and what they were experiencing, jotting notes while they told him they felt like pawns in a larger political game.

Beau Delanne, a first-year history student, told him the school’s four-person diversity office that was recently dissolved came into being at the state’s direction after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in the summer of 2020.

Yoleidy Rosario-Hernandez, the school’s chief diversity officer who was fired by Corcoran after the office was disbanded, told the California governor that Florida’s actions in the education realm would likely become widespread.

“I am the first, but there’s going to be so much more damage that we need to just be ‘hashtag’ woke about,” Rosario-Hernandez said. Ifwe’re dumbing down the education and the quality, our kids are going to have such a long-term effect as to how we are as a nation. And that’s something we all need to be concerned about.”

Sociology professor Sarah Hernandez said she visited Argentina and Chile for a conference some years ago and learned sociology was banned from being taught there for several years under a dictatorship. Now, she said, she facesFlorida laws that will ban teaching theories that are basic to sociology.

“Where do I live?” Hernandez asked. “We left South America, we left Central America, and we are in this country facing challenges that are very similar to that which people were escaping.”

Newsom, a member of the University of California system’s board of regents, later said he recognized the importance of free expression and pluralism but that academic freedom and critical thinking had to be at the forefront.

“We’re not immune from this agenda coming to California higher education,” he said. “Academia needs to stand up more forcefully and push back against this. This is not inconsequential.”

Niko Jackson, a second-year student, said he was grateful the California governor was willing to listen.

“Honestly, it’s a bit of a reality check that this truly is a national news issue,” Jackson said. “It feels like the Republican Party has all of this support. … And then we just have this ragtag team of really awesome students and awesome people who don’t have a lot of political power to fight back.”

Divya Kumar covers 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.