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New College of Florida trustees move to end gender studies major

Amy Reid, the faculty representative on the New College of Florida board of trustees, listens during the board’s meeting on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Sarasota. Reid also heads the school’s gender studies program. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]

The New College of Florida board of trustees voted during a heated meeting Thursday to begin the process of eliminating gender studies as a major at the Sarasota school.

The decision, opposed by three board members, concluded an already tense day during which the trustees interviewed candidates to be the school’s next president. At one point as the board met, four members of the public were escorted out by police.

The outbursts were an outgrowth of tensions that have simmered since January, when Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed six new trustees to the New College board with a mandate to dramatically change the school’s mission and culture.

One of those board members, conservative activist Christopher Rufo, proposed an addition to the agenda toward the end of Thursday’s meeting.

The gender studies program, he said from a projected Zoom screen, is “wildly contradictory” to the board’s mission to “revive a classical liberal arts agenda.”

He made a motion to “direct the president’s proper steps” to look into eliminating the almost 30-year-old program as a major — or an “area of concentration” as the school calls it — beginning with students enrolling in 2024.

The New College general counsel advised that the university would need to comply with state regulations and collective bargaining agreements before making a final decision. So it is unclear whether a second vote will be taken before the program is removed.

Student trustee Grace Keenan asked that Rufo’s request be amended so the proposal could be added to a formal agenda. The step would allow public comment on a move that was sure to cause heightened emotions.

Faculty trustee Amy Reid, who is the director of the gender studies program, said she began to hear rumors about Rufo’s proposal late Saturday. She said she believed other trustees had been informed earlier individually, violating the spirit of Florida’s open meetings law.

Rufo said he was “vigorously opposed” to slowing the process.

“We need to move very quickly,” he said, adding he was “less inclined to extend goodwill” to Reid and Keenan after they accused him of violating state law.

Earlier in the meeting, the board voted to approve a new business plan for the university, which included revamping the curriculum to focus on “logos,” or word, and “techne,” or skill, the Greek etymology for the word “technology.”

Students will take four “logos” classes, four “techne” classes, and three classes from either. Two logos classes must address “Enduring Human Questions” and two techne classes would address “Data and the Digital World.” Students will also participate in “first-year experiences,” about Homer’s “Odyssey” and data.

Gender studies is “more of an ideological movement and academic discipline,” said trustee Matthew Spalding, a dean at Hillsdale College, a small conservative school in southern Michigan. He said faculty could continue teaching about gender within disciplines like history, psychology and biology, but the program, he said, should not be a major.

“It is a clear outlier,” he said. “It should not be there.”

The gender studies program at New College was founded in 1995 and has existed as a major since 2014. It has one full-time faculty member, hired in 2018.

Dozens of others teach gender studies courses, with their primary appointments in other disciplines, including chemistry, anthropology, religion and creative writing. The program graduates two to eight students each year. Last year, over 40 students enrolled in Introduction to Gender Studies, Reid said.

The program also supports student research, hosts “Feminist Friday” brown bags and sponsors workshops and talks.

“When students ask me about the future of gender studies at New College, I generally reply ‘I am here,’“ Reid said. “And today I’ll add with a nod to Michele Lalande, the poet of Quebec’s “Revolution Tranquille,” ‘I am not alone.’” Rufo could be seen chuckling over Zoom as Reid, who is also a French professor, spoke.

“The best universities, when they have programs that do not fit in with the mission — that are not closely hewn to the scholarly intentions of the university — make the hard calls to discontinue those programs,” Rufo said.

Reid, Keenan and board vice chairperson Ron Christaldi voted against the move to end the major.

New College Interim President Richard Corcoran said he agreed with the substance of the proposal and would follow the board’s directive.

Corcoran, along with two other candidates to be the school’s permanent president, were interviewed by trustees earlier in the day. The livestreamed meeting was closed to the public in a building cordoned off by police tape.

In addition to Corcoran, the other candidates are Tyler Fisher, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida, and Robert Gervasi, who has served as president of other small schools including Ohio Dominican and Quincy universities.

Both attended Thursday’s trustees meeting, an event that Gervasi called “fascinating.”

“I can’t say I’ve been surprised,” he said after the meeting. “I mean, it is unfortunate there’s clearly conflict — and there’s clearly passion and there’s an opportunity to find a way to bring all those most passionate elements into a common dialogue.”

Fisher, a fellow at the UCF’s honors college who helps students apply for international scholarships, said the decision to disband the gender studies program but still teach courses in other disciplines was a “tough subject,” but that he wouldn’t want to see it rushed.

He said of the meeting overall: “When you have that level of tension, it shows that people see there’s something worth fighting for here.”

The three candidates for president will interact with the campus community in more public forums on dates to be determined.

Divya Kumar is a higher education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

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