Students Set New College's Culture

Under The Hood

Photo Courtesy New College of Florida Facebook page.

The appointment of right-wing pundits, most from out-of-state, to New College’s Board of Trustees certainly earned some bad reviews. In local and national media, the efforts of Gov. Ron DeSantis appears an act of unapologetic aggression, on “woke” culture if not very value of a liberal arts education altogether. With the appointment of Ryan Anderson, the State University System Board of Governors delivered the Governor an assist and now a majority on the trustee board.

But I must admit that through it all, I remain skeptical of actual long-term consequences. DeSantis can name as many Fox News regulars to the board of a local college as he wants, but he can’t reprogram its students. Many who don’t know all that much about New College, perhaps including DeSantis, fail to understand students set the tone on the campus more than any of Florida’s traditional colleges and universities.

Don’t mistake this as characterizing the new trustees as toothless. Placing discussion of New College President Patricia Okker’s employment on the agenda for Tuesday’s Board of Trustees meeting, the first time gathering of the body under this new make-up, shows eagerness from the bulls to start breaking the China. New trustee Chris Rufo at a town hall this week voiced willingness to fire administration just for considering cancelling a forum over death threats.

But Okker started less than two years ago. She neither created nor fostered the campus culture those attending New College love and those who fear different ideas hate. She seems fated for unfair scapegoating and mistreatment. That said, even her removal and replacement with a different president won’t change why students chose to go to New College.

That, more likely, was the special academic structure built around individualized curricula. New College students craft academic contracts with sponsors and build their studies around chosen areas of concentration. The school famously doesn’t award traditional grades, yet remains notoriously rigorous.

All this could change, but that would take years. The statute establishing New College as the honors college of the State of Florida requires the school “provide programs of study that allow students to design their educational experiences as much as possible in accordance with their individual interests, values, and abilities.”

To change that requires an act of the Legislature. Considering every state lawmaker representing the region endorsed the Governor’s push to “change the model” for New College, I suppose this too can change. But will students already on a customized academic track be forced off it?

Doubtful. To do that might well prompt lawsuits for such an educational bait-and-switch. Certainly, students would have little incentive to remain in Sarasota if their agency to complete their degree as planned were shirked out mid-academic year. And mind you, if students do leave, it exacerbates existing struggles to reach enrollment goals.

I’ve certainly heard this is really a long game. Trustees can remake the curriculum and await some supposed mass of right-wing teenagers dying to relocate to Sarasota and study in this chaotic transition instead of going to Hillsdale College, Liberty College or established institutions willfully fostering a socially conservative culture. It also counts on people who see New College as a cult of wokeness now believing DeSantis’ appointees will turn it into a rightist utopia before fall term. If no one comes? The recruitment disappointments of recent years become a crisis.

All this also requires driving off faculty as well. It counts on those who love New College today giving up and abandoning it to make way for a social experiment by people most of them likely don’t respect.

I just don’t see it.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ MEDIA.

Photo Courtesy New College of Florida Facebook page.

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