Fears for college at centre of DeSantis’ war on ‘woke’
Who will replace the 36 professors that taught at the college but have either not had their contracts renewed, have been fired, or have left because of profound disagreements with the new administration that has vowed to steer the college away from its tradition of free-thinking liberalism?
Where will students like Joshua Epstein be living? The administration cancelled the dorm assignment system that gave seniors like Epstein the pick of dorms and roommates and is distributing the best dorms to the 100 newly recruited student athletes.
The athletes were recruited, in part to replace the scores of students who accepted NCF’s recommendation that if they did not like the changes, they should transfer to other colleges. How will this group, hitherto absent from the college that Epstein and others have proudly called ‘nerdy’, affect the ethos of the campus? And what impact will the loss of staff have?
“The administration hasn’t told us who [among the staff] has left,” said Epstein. We read articles about professors leaving. At this point we really don’t know more than checking the course offerings to see if maybe a course we were going to take is no longer on that list.
“So far it doesn’t look like any of my classes or my advisors have been affected. But the economics department is small. And it does tend to be that the professors [there] are a little more on the conservative side or the middle,” he said.
“Some of the professors in other disciplines are more directly under threat from the administration because of the subject they teach [for example, history or sociology]. It’s a more hostile environment for them than it is for someone just teaching economics,” said Epstein, one of the founders of DEFY (Defending Education Freedom for Youth) created last spring to fight against the restructuring of the college along conservative lines.
Epstein was also one of the student attendees at the Get Engaged: Student Action & Youth Leadership Conference organised by Bard College and the Open Society University Network Civic Engagement Initiative held in Budapest, Hungary between 27 June and 4 July.
‘Druggies’ and ‘weirdos’
The changes that have upended New College began in January when Governor Ron DeSantis fired six members of the college’s board of governors and replaced them with people like Christopher Rufo, who made his name on Fox News attacking critical race theory (CRT) in the runup to the 2020 election, giving President Donald J Trump a cudgel with which to beat the Democrats.
According to the conservative publication National Review, at a 25 January 2023 meeting on NCF’s campus, Rufo said that a consultant’s report listed ‘politically correct’, ‘druggies’ and ‘weirdos’ as the best terms to describe NCF.
According to Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education programs at PEN America, Rufo’s ties to authoritarians like Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán are manifest.
“He [Rufo] spent part of last April,” Young told University World News in an interview the following month, “in Hungary talking with the people who carried out those attacks about directly exporting those attacks [on liberal education] to the United States.”
The board then fired the college’s president, Dr Patricia Okker, and replaced her on an interim basis with Richard Corcoran. As former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and Florida education commissioner and as president of NCF, Corcoran has supported the ban on the teaching of CRT and has endorsed the restructuring of tenure to make it easier to fire tenured professors and the abolition of diversity, equity and inclusion offices and programmes in the state’s public universities.
As president of NCF, Corcoran is a foot soldier in DeSantis’ self-declared “war on woke”, which forms a major part of the governor’s platform in his run for the 2024 Republican nomination for president.
The board’s model for New College is a small, evangelical Christian college in rural Michigan. Hillsdale College has close ties to former president Donald J Trump and is known for its ‘patriotic curriculum’. One of the new trustees overseeing the changes to NCF is the dean of the Van Andel Graduate School of Government at Hillsdale’s Washington DC campus, constitutional law professor Matthew Spalding.
In an interview with New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg (9 January), Rufo acknowledged that there would be pushback from the faculty: “We anticipate that this is going to be a process that involves conflict.”
On 26 July, at a meeting of the American Legislative Council in Orlando, DeSantis assured members of the right-wing think tank that provides Republican state legislators with model laws to, for example, ban CRT, that New College has seen a “flood of applications” to fill the vacant positions.
“The media will say, ‘Oh, some of these professors are leaving, like, New College,” the governor continued, in an idiom not expected of a graduate of Harvard Law School. “Like, isn’t that bad? Is that a brain drain?’ Well, you know, if you’re a professor in, like, you know, Marxist studies, that’s not a loss for Florida if you’re going on, and trust me, I’m totally good with that.”
One of DeSantis’ most trenchant critics, English professor Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, dismissed DeSantis’ insouciance and charged that the governor’s appointees are trampling on constitutional rights and academic freedom and are undercutting the education offered at NCF.
“The inability of New College’s administration to recruit and retain qualified faculty is a direct result of the anti-freedom, anti-democracy activities of the local board of trustees and interim president. These so-called leaders believe that partisan bullying and division are somehow going to draw national experts and competitive students to this institution,” he said.
“Well, as higher education professionals, we deal in facts, not beliefs, and the facts are clear – New College will drown in the sea of political extremism and culture wars unless and until the adults in the room right the ship and show the country, and the world, that academic freedom, tenure, and the constitutional rights of all New College community members, regardless of personal politics, will be respected by those in positions of authority.
“Until then, we can expect the situation at New College will only grow worse with time, an outcome that will harm Florida’s families for generations to come.”
The Novo Collegian Alliance (an NCF alumni/stakeholder group) and NCF Freedom (founded by alumni following DeSantis’ announcement that he was appointing new members to the college’s board of trustees) have filed a complaint with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), the accrediting organisation for NCF, claiming that the college’s governance structure is being violated by Corcoran because he has made policy without the proper oversight of the board of trustees.
In a Facebook post at 6 pm on 31 July – which NCF alum Nirvan Mullick, a founder of DEFY, who after graduation went on to a successful career in Hollywood, shared – Brian Cody of the NCA wrote, in part: “This is the first in a series of complaints, and this complaint specifically focuses on the breakdown of the policy-setting role of the Board of Trustees, with the college interim president setting policy without board approval or oversight.
“Universities need proper policy-setting boards and appropriate oversight to function well and for students to have reasonable confidence and trust that the school will deliver on its educational promises. We will update the New College community as additional complaints are submitted.”
Dr Kelli Randall, vice-president of academic affairs at Livingstone College and the SACSCOC accreditation liaison, was unable to comment on the complaint. She told University World News that it is the responsibility of the 77-member board of trustees of SACSCOC to monitor matters of non-compliance. “New College of Florida has not violated or called into question any non-compliance as it pertains to the SACSCOC principles of accreditation,” she said.
Among the professors who will not be at NCF to welcome students at the end of the month is Professor Liz Leininger, a neuroethologist who will start teaching at St Mary’s College in St Mary’s City, Maryland in a few weeks and who began looking to leave the college after the changes were made to the board of trustees.
“All the legislation surrounding higher education in Florida is chilling and terrifying,” she told Joseph Contreras, whose article “‘I’m not wanted’: Florida universities hit by brain drain as academics flee”, was published on 30 July in The Guardian.
“Imagine scientists who are studying climate change, imagine an executive branch [of the state government] that denies climate change – they could use these laws to intimidate or dismiss those scientists.”
It is unclear whether the five NCF professors who were denied tenure in a series of unprecedented board decisions at the end of April will be back in the classroom this fall.
They include Rebecca Black and Lin Jiang, both of whom teach organic chemistry; Nassima Neggaz, who teaches the history of religion (with a focus on Islam); Gerardo Toro-Farmer, who teaches coastal and marine science; and Hugo Viera-Vargas, who teaches Caribbean and Latin American studies and music.
Concerns over quality
Epstein and Mullick told University World News they were concerned about the fact that the student athletes the administration has recruited have lower grade point averages (GPA) and lower scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT, which, along with the ACT, American College Test, serves as a proxy for a national college admissions test in the United States) than do previous intakes.
According to journalist Steven Walker, writing in USA Today on 27 July, on average, the student athlete’s GPA is 3.16, or 2.43 percentage points lower than the 3.7 GPA for other students. Student athletes scored 92 points lower (1,147 vs 1,239) on the SAT; since the SAT is graded out of 1,800, the student athletes’ score was 5.1% lower than other students.
Nathan March, a NCF spokesman, told Walker that “test scores fluctuate from year to year, and any drop in scores this year is not indicative of an overall decline in admissions standards”.
Epstein is unconvinced and is concerned about whether the introduction of student athletics will lead to a devaluing of his degree when he graduates.
“We know from the statistics that the students are going to be less impressive than they have been. When you’ve put three or four years of your life into getting this degree and you know that this degree is worth whatever people think the school is worth, it’s worrying,” he said.
“When you have the new students at the college who are far less impressive than the students that have been there, I fear that when I enter the job market people are going to look at the degree with much less respect than they typically would have. They’re going to ask questions about the education that I got. They are going to ask: ‘What does it mean to be a New College graduate?’,” said Epstein, who plans on going to law school next year.
While Mullick is adamantly opposed to the introduction of organised athletics – and especially, to the US$10,000 grant each athlete is being given above and beyond any other financial aid to come to NCF – he thinks that other students might end up having empathy for these students who are likely to have difficulties coping academically.
“It’s going to be a challenge for all these students to keep up with the course load, faculty and academic expectations,” he said.
Impact on ethos
Mullick and Epstein are also concerned about how the changes to the student body will impact NCF’s ethos.
Epstein drew a stark line between the student athletes – many of whom will not be the top athletes from their high schools because recruiting did not get underway until late in the spring – and the stereotypical NCF student, like himself.
“It’s been a very nerdy school [until now]. It’s the kids who were bullied in high school, the kids who are reading science textbooks at lunch,” he said
“I think it’s also important to note,” Mullick said, “that amongst the students there’s concern about the kind of fraternity culture that they [the administration] are trying to promote and generate. It’s not something that the school has ever had or, you know, that the students have ever voiced a desire to have.”
How student athletics will actually work is far from clear. For one thing, NCF does not have the athletic facilities needed. Nor has it yet been accepted into the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. Nevertheless, NCF has signed off on employment contracts for coaches of baseball, softball, men’s and women’s basketball and women’s soccer. There are 10 more coaching positions advertised on the school’s website.
A new freedom institute
In addition to establishing student athletics, NCF is seeking to start the New College Freedom Institute (NCFI). The budgetary request for US$2 million to the Florida legislature is not without ambition. The NCFI “shall actively engage the college’s students, the greater Florida community and the world to promote freedom of inquiry and champion tolerance of civil discourse among those of opposing views”.
Given that in a case decided in November 2022, in which Chief Judge Mark E Walker of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida put an injunction on DeSantis’ Stop WOKE Act, lawyers for the University of South Florida Board said that “because university professors are public employees, they are simply the State’s mouthpieces in university classrooms” and, therefore, that the “State has an unfettered authority to limit what professors may say in class”, one might well wonder what the NCFI’s definition of “discourse among opposing views” is.
An answer of sorts can be found in the proposal’s first section, which lays out the purpose of the NCFI. The first sentence quotes from the American revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine, from Emma Lazarus’ poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract before referencing George Orwell: “These are the times that try men’s souls (Paine), wherein the masses, yearning to breathe free (Lazarus) were instead everywhere enchained (Rousseau) by a cabal of Orwellian thought police.”
In short, the NCFI is needed to counter “gestures [that] have ranged from subversive censorious silencing to barbarous mob militancy” – bureaucratic or academic language for what DeSantis and his followers routinely decry as ‘cancel culture’ of the left.
The professors DeSantis lumped together as Marxists that he would be happy to see out of NCF’s classrooms might very well wonder how his rhetoric and the firing of professors deemed ideologically incompatible with the NCF administration’s new vision square with the statement that “Florida has taken the lead to ‘encourage full and open discourse and the robust exchange of ideas and perspectives” and “serve as a beacon of free speech, free inquiry, and free debate”.
The legislature had not yet voted on the budgetary request.
The framing of slavery
In the middle of Epstein’s explanation of his concerns about how NCF’s reputation might decline, he said: “What does it mean to be a New College graduate? Does it mean that I got a good education? Or does it mean that I was taught that black people benefited from slavery?”
This last rhetorical question refers both to state-mandated changes, such as the ban on teaching CRT, and to the political firestorm set off last month by the section of Florida’s new high school social studies standards that deals with slavery, against which the events at NCF are playing out.
One of the Benchmark Clarifications of the curriculum reads: “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
As scholars and the Black Congressional Caucus in Washington heaped scorn on the notion that enslaved persons could ‘benefit’ from their status, DeSantis doubled down by saying, that teachers “are probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life”, which hardly quelled the furore.
When interviewed about the social studies curriculum and the governor’s statement, law professor Kenneth B Nunn – who, before his recent retirement from the University of Florida’s Levin Law School (Gainesville, Florida), was Emeritus Dr Patricia Hilliard-Nunn Memorial Racial Justice Term Professor – discussed their three category errors.
The first is the erasure of almost two-and-a-half centuries between when the first Africans were enslaved in the United States in 1619, and 1865 when the Union Army emancipated the slaves. During that time millions of slaves died in bondage.
The second error Nunn pointed out by focusing on DeSantis’ example of blacksmithing:
“If you know anything about West African culture, you know the centrality of iron work and blacksmithing, how blacksmiths were very prominent people in each of these different cultures that existed throughout West Africa and Central Africa. In fact, there is some evidence that iron working, smithy, may have originated there or, at least, it’s very, very old.”
Nor, Nunn added, is it correct to imply, as the guidelines do, that the enslaved Africans who were brought to the United States had to be taught to cultivate rice and cotton. Rather, they were brought here because they knew how to cultivate them. If anything, it was a technological transfer to the United States through the Africans instead of the Africans picking up skills.”
The third category error is the equation of slavery in Asia and Europe with African American slavery, according to the law professor who soon will be teaching at the nation’s most prestigious historically black university: Howard University in Washington DC.
“The problem is that the type of slavery that was implemented in the United States was completely different on two scores. One is that it was chattel slavery. It was a slavery that said the people who are put in the condition of slavery are not just a lower caste of people; they are not people. They were property [and, thus, could be bought, sold and, like real estate, used as collateral for loans].
“The second difference is that it was a racialised slavery. It wasn’t just that these Africans are handy because they know these skills and we will bring them over. It was that these people we brought over, they deserve to be enslaved because they are subhuman. So, we have the racial propaganda that developed out of slavery that we are still fighting today.”
Nunn was almost elegiac when he said that since 1994 Florida’s secondary education curriculum was unique in that it required the teaching of African American history in high schools. He was particularly scornful of the DeSantis-run department of education’s guidelines that listed George Washington, the nation’s first president, among the “key figures in the quest to end slavery as the nation was founded”.
He said: “Washington died a slave holder. It is a fact that he did write in his will that his slaves were to be manumitted. But only after his wife died.
“In other words, only after neither he nor his wife could get any more value out of the 400 or so people he had in bondage, he freed them. This certainly doesn’t make him a key figure in the quest to end slavery.
“Further, there’s the famous case of the slave Hercules who ran away. George Washington spared no expense hiring slave catchers, putting up notices in various papers up and down the East Coast trying to identify Hercules and get him back,” said Nunn.
Getting the left out of education
According to Nunn, while the high school guidelines do not directly bear on the crisis gripping NCF, the attitudes toward African Americans embodied in the guidelines will make it more difficult to recruit African American scholars to NCF just as the DeSantis government’s attack on CRT in universities made it all but impossible to recruit African American legal scholars to the Levin Law School.
“I know of a number of African American scholars who have left the law school here at the University of Florida for that reason,” he told University World News.
The guidelines and the changes at NCF are, he said, of a piece. In the former, the aim is to “paint slavery in a light as positive as possible, to absolve white people and Americans as a general rule of any moral responsibility for slavery”. The goal is all about “not engendering any kind of guilt or remorse or, you know, any kind of moral problem for white children who are in school, who might read things and feel bad about them”.
Far from being pedagogy, Nunn said, this contributes to the dearth of information about what was going on with African Americans anywhere “because the truth isn’t going to be taught”.
With the restructuring of NCF, he said, what we are seeing is the culmination of a right-wing attack on education that goes back to Ronald Reagan’s years as governor of California when he promised to clean up Berkeley.
“If you were part of the anti-war movement, sexual revolution, any kind of a hippie, involved with Black Power, what were you going to do when the movements ended? You could go work in a civil rights organisation that had funding or you could go into education, and a lot of people went into education.
“It’s not like people on the right didn’t notice that. They did. So, they have been wanting to get rid of the left in education for a long, long time. And I see the efforts that DeSantis is making in Florida as part of that. It’s a piece of what they want to do, to define higher education and get the left out of education,” he said.
“The question isn’t, of course, whether the left is educating students the way they ought to be educated, to be critical thinkers that are going to be able to be good citizens of our nation. That’s not the issue at all.”
Linking the social studies curriculum to the restructuring of NCF, he added: “the issue is that they want to make sure that they can use higher education to indoctrinate people into their worldview, and they don’t want anyone to criticise it”.
Limits on discourse
Jonathan Becker, vice-chancellor of the Open Society University Network, which is based at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York (100 miles north of New York City), agreed with Nunn that the changes DeSantis’ government is making to the social studies curriculum is linked to the wholesale changes at NCF.
“It’s clear that New College is the target on a university or higher educational level that is consistent with the assault on education on the primary and secondary level – whether that is the approach to the teaching about enslaved people or the effective end of the psychology Advanced Placement curriculum in Florida high schools,” he said. This curriculum was withdrawn by its author, the College Board, because Florida has banned the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Officials in Florida make claims about supporting open debate and discussion, said Becker, “but their actions, which consistently limit the scope of learning, target people with dissenting voices, diminish education.
“This is not liberal education. This is the imposition of limits on discourse. And the collateral damage are things like science education where there have been huge losses at New College.”
Becker added: “The decision to target New College students and encourage them to transfer is reprehensible and akin to what one saw in Hungary with Orbán, which, sadly, New College trustees seem to celebrate.”
An undeniable fact
On the day Nunn was interviewed in Florida, US Vice-President Kamala Harris responded to DeSantis’ challenge to debate him on Florida’s new history curriculum.
In part, the governor and presidential candidate said: “Over the past several weeks, the Biden Administration has repeatedly disparaged our state and misinformed Americans about our education system.
“Our state pushed forward nation-leading standalone African American History standards – one of the only states in the nation to require this level of learning about such an important subject. One would think the White House would applaud such boldness in teaching the unique and important story of African American History.”
Harris swatted away DeSantis’ offer to debate Florida's new history guidelines: “I will tell you, there is no roundtable, no lecture, no invitation we will accept to debate an undeniable fact: There were no redeeming qualities of slavery.”
* New College of Florida did not respond to an email asking for an interview.