SARASOTA — A little over a week earlier, the Sudakoff Center at New College had been filled with tension and angst.
Following a year of tumultuous change, one of the university’s trustees had proposed slashing the gender studies program. Members of the public jeered the interim president. Some were escorted out by police.
But on Sunday morning, the building was filled with shouts of a different sort.
“We’re excited you’re here,” orientation volunteers called out, smiling as they greeted incoming students and their families. Parents snapped photos and toted comforter sets across campus.
“There’s definitely a little bit of apprehension, but I’m hopeful,” said Marilib Maloy, whose daughter decided to enroll at the university because of its nontraditional structure.
She said she hoped the recent controversies surrounding the school were just “media fodder.”
New College has found itself under a national spotlight after Gov. Ron DeSantis recast its board of trustees with six new appointees in January. The new board fired its president, eliminated its diversity, equity and inclusion department, denied some professors tenure and has expanded athletics programs.
The school is in the final phases of a search for a new, full-time president. Richard Corcoran, the former state education commissioner, has led it on an interim basis and is among the finalists.
The changes at New College have been met with protests and lawsuits. On Friday, DeSantis praised the success of the college. He pointed to what he said was record enrollment and the “replacement of far-left faculty with new professors aligned with the university’s mission.”
“The New College Board of Trustees is succeeding in its mission to eliminate indoctrination and re-focus higher education on its classical mission,” he said in a statement.
New students, embarking on a seven-day orientation, were more focused on their personal studies and fitting in than Florida’s battles over education policy.
Angelo Morelli, who arrived from Miami, plansto study computer science.
“I’m 50/50 about the whole DeSantis thing,” he said. “They’re getting more money than ever before.”
He shared some concerns about the culture of the college. “I don’t want the environment to get screwed up,” he said.
Paige Franciotti said her biggest hope for the semester isto make friends. She was the only one from her high school in Fort Myers to come to the school, which she picked for its small size. Her parents wore matching blue shirts emblazoned with big letters: NCF Mom and NCF Dad.
Samantha Champlain, who committed to New College before the overhaul, was moving into a hotel off-campus after some dorms were closed for mold issues. At first, she said, she was “extremely upset.” The person she was supposed to room with unenrolled. But after arriving, she said, she was impressed by the quality of the hotel rooms and optimistic she could move to campus later.
“I’m hopeful for the future because I’ve seen New College go through strife before,” Champlain said. She is interested in learning linguistics and physics. “I’m very invested in trying to make sure it retains some of the culture it’s had.”
Bernadette Estrada-Brown clapped as she walked into her new dorm room Sunday. She looked over the bathroom and refrigerator. She wondered if she could lower the bed. A 48-year-old transfer student, Estrada-Brown plans to study English with a focus in global leadership.
She was drawn, in part, to new scholarships at New College. “I’m just hoping the college stays accredited,” she said, and that it holds onto its academic freedom.
“She’s living a dream that’s passed us and has come full circle,” her husband, Frank Brown, said. “We all have dreams of going to college. But then life happens. Twenty years go past.”
Among those greeting the new students was Jono Miller, president of NCF Freedom, a nonprofit group of alumni, students and faculty opposed to recent changes at New College.
He wonders how the school will navigate a wave of faculty departures. But for a day, he happily watched new students wheel stuffed animals and floor lamps across campus.
“I met my wife 53 years ago at orientation at New College,” he said. “It’s an important day in a lot of people’s lives. We can argue about stuff later.”
Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.