Christopher Rufo, center, an outspoken figure and one of six new trustees for New College of Florida, is escorted by police through a crowd of protesters at New College of Florida in Sarasota moments after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation on Monday making major changes to higher education in the state. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

SARASOTA — Gov. RON DESANTIS on Monday signed three bills that will bring major changes to Florida’s colleges and universities, staging the moment at a school that has come to be the centerpiece of his campaign to remold higher education.

During a ceremony at New College of Florida, he was flanked by supporters including Christopher Rufo, an activist known for his opposition to critical race theory and one of six trustees DeSantis appointed to the New College board in January.

DeSantis signed SB 266, which restricts certain topics from being taught in general education courses, the lower-level classes that all students must take for their degrees. It also expands the hiring and firing powers of university boards and presidents, limits protections for tenured faculty members and prohibits spending related to diversity, equity and inclusion programs beyond what is required by accreditors.

Regarding the restricted topics, the measure borrows language from last year’s Individual Freedom Act, also known as the Stop Woke Act. It targets “theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political and economic inequities.”

While those ideas will be kept out of general education courses on Florida campuses, they could be allowed in higher-level or elective courses, subject to review by the Board of Governors for universities or the State Board of Education for colleges.

DeSantis also signed SB 240, which supports workforce education, and HB 931, prohibiting schools from requiring students and staff to fill out diversity statements — described as “woke litmus tests” by the governor’s office.

Standing at the New College visitors’ center, behind a lectern with the label “Florida The Education State,” the governor mentioned a group of protesters outside the building who grew louder as he spoke. He joked that he was disappointed with the size of the protest and was “hoping for more” from the Sarasota school.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis displays legislation he signed on Monday, May 15, 2023, that affects Florida’s state colleges universities, at New College of Florida in Sarasota. The measures will restrict what can be taught in many courses, limit what the state spends on diversity programs, alter school hiring practices and erode protections for tenured faculty. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Rufo, who has advised DeSantis on education policy and has been one of the New College board’s more outspoken members, was met by supporters who jostled to take photos with him as he left the event. Outside, about 50 protesters peppered him with insults, calling him a fascist, before police officers escorted him away in a vehicle.

It’s a bad day for higher education,” lamented New College alum Jono Miller, a former adjunct professor at the school who spoke in an interview later. “It’s going to be so devastating for the whole university system.”

Amy Reid, a professor of French and director of New College’s gender studies program, said the signing event was sprung on faculty without warning during finals week. She said she fears the legislation will amplify an already chilling climate on campuses across the state.

“What we know is that faculty are leaving Florida in droves, and universities throughout the system will have difficulty hiring and retaining qualified teachers in all fields,” Reid said.

Before signing the bills, DeSantis hailed the state’s efforts to bring more regulation to higher education.

”It’s our view that, when the taxpayers are funding these institutions, that we as Floridians — and we as taxpayers — have every right to insist that they are following a mission that is consistent with the best interest of our people in our state,” said the governor, who is expected to soon mount a campaign for president in 2024. “You don’t just get to take taxpayer dollars and do whatever the heck you want to do and think that that’s somehow OK.”

Referring to the Black Lives Matter movement, he called diversity, equity and inclusion a relatively new concept that took off “Post BLM rioting” in 2020 and labeled it “a veneer to impose an ideological agenda.” It’s better described as “discrimination, exclusion and indoctrination,” DeSantis said to applause.

He said he hoped the state’s higher education system will move toward more “employable majors” and away from “niche subjects” like critical race theory.

”Florida’s getting out of that game,” he said. “If you want to do things like gender ideology, go to Berkeley,” he said, referring to the University of California, Berkeley. “For us with our tax dollars, we want to be focused on the classical mission of what a university is supposed to be.”

DeSantis said SB 266 will allow university presidents to run their institutions instead of “a cabal of faculty.” He said he would allocate $30 million to the Hamilton Center, a civics institute at the University of Florida.

The budget also allocates $8 million to the center for civics at Florida State University, $5 million to another center at Florida International University and $100 million to recruit and retain faculty across the state system.

In addition to its other provisions, HB 931 establishes an office of public policy events within each state university to organize events on campus representing a range of viewpoints.

SB 240, meanwhile, will support Florida’s goal of becoming No. 1 for workforce education, DeSantis said. The bill would expand apprenticeship programs and require districts to offer work-based learning to high school students.

The governor added that he wanted to ensure that students don’t feel pressured to end up in debt for a degree in “zombie studies,” a term he uses often when speaking of higher education.

Also joining DeSantis was Richard Corcoran, the interim president at New College who formerly served as Florida’s education commissioner. Corcoran spoke of the school’s transformation in the weeks since he arrived, saying he had recruited high quality faculty and planned to enroll a record incoming class this fall.

New College, he said, is “the Lebron James” of higher education.

Protesters on campus had a decidedly different view.

Protesters gather at the New College of Florida campus in Sarasota on Monday, May 15, 2023, moments after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed three higher education bills that were approved during the 2023 legislative session. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“It’s not some kind of, ‘Oh Florida is a little kooky,’” said second-year student Adom Neizer-Ashun. “This is f—ing fascism…. Everything here (DeSantis) is doing is completely strategic.”

Ash Havel, who just finished her first year at New College, said she plans to transfer out of state but added that most of her peers don’t have the financial means to do the same.

Devyn Gallagher, another first-year student, is leaving too. “I came for a comforting, safe environment,” Gallagher said. “I didn’t come here for a political show.”

Advocacy groups and politicians who have followed DeSantis’ efforts to transform higher education this year also lined up to criticize Monday’s bill signing.

The American Association of University Professors said SB 266 “cements the decline of Florida’s higher education system by enshrining into law culture-war-inspired censorship.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression called the legislation unconstitutional. “Prohibiting ideas in the name of freedom is not freedom at all,” the group said.

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.