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Ron DeSantis Gets To Work Dismantling 'College'
Early in January, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed a majority of rightwing allies to the board of the New College of Florida, a groovy little liberal arts college (and Florida's official honors college) in Sarasota that got its start in the 1960s as a private institution that proudly defied segregation, then later became part of the state university system, and is kind of a funky hippie place like The Evergreen State U in Washington or Reed College in Oregon. No letter grades; instead, teachers and students write up a plan for a semester's learning and at the end of the class they discuss how it went and whether the student "passed" or not. Students are encouraged to design their own courses of study and to make the college experience meaningful to them.
New College has a reputation for free thinking and letting every freak flag fly, and in recent years it's also become something of a haven for LGBTQ+ students, too. It's a place where gender studies classes have high enrollment and the knitting club is named — we are not making this up — "Anarchy Deathsticks."
So of course, DeSantis targeted it for an ideological makeover, since most of his political schtick is about eliminating "wokeness" and pursuing full culture war against every level of education, because he thinks that will get him elected president. DeSantis appointed a boatload of far-right foes of education to the New College board, including venomous professional shit-stirrer Christopher Rufo, the Seattle-based propagandist who did more than anyone else to drive the moral panic over "critical race theory" and then helped spearhead theongoing panic over LGBTQ+ folks .
Rufo promised — using all the allusions to medieval siege warfare he could — that the board's mission would be to "demonstrate that the public universities, which have been corrupted by woke nihilism, can be recaptured, restructured, and reformed." DeSantis staff said the goal was to transform New College into a Southern equivalent of Hillsdale College, the Michigan private fundamentalist college that's so far-right that it refuses to take federal funds of any kind, lest it be told it can't discriminate all it wants.
Yesterday, the new board held its first meeting, and they may as well have brought along a guillotine. The board promptly voted to oust New College President Patricia Okker, and to replace her with a DeSantis ally, former Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, as interim president. Corcoran, who is completely on board with DeSantis's war on education, won't officially take over until March, so until then, the position will be filled by Okker's chief of staff, Bradley Thiessen, unless he turns out to be too "woke" as well.
In a fairly heartbreaking liveblog, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports on the doomed attempts by students and by Okker to protest the new rightwing agenda. Student body president Grace Keenan suggested the board keep Okker on long enough to get to know her, to which Rufo replied that new leadership was needed. Okker briefly spoke, saying that the vision she and New College faculty had "created together is not the vision I have been given as a mandate here, and that is a hard reality."
Okker said she couldn't go along with "new mandate" at New College. "This is a hostile takeover."
Okker was interrupted by board member Ron Christaldi, who motioned to terminate her employment contract. That was seconded, and then Okker began to speak again.
“I believe a president needs to stand behind her words when she asks donors to contribute," Okker said. "You cannot ask me to go forward and argue that we are indoctrinating students here," referring to Gov. Ron DeSantis' frequent talking point that Florida universities were indoctrinating students in "woke" points of view.
Okker was interrupted a second time to vote on the motion, which passed.
Once she was fired, Okker was allowed to finish her remarks; the Herald-Tribune notes that several people in the crowd were crying, and that when she finished, "the overflow room burst into applause."
No problem, if the students and faculty don't like it, they too can and will be replaced. New College will be made into a "traditional liberal arts college" with an entirely revised structure, mission statement, and curriculum. Even before the board meeting, new board member Eddie Spier, the president of a private high school in Florida called "Inspiration Academy" (and one of the few new board members actually from Florida), had written of his desire to hire a new general counsel for the college, and then — if they can legally get away with it — to
declare a financial emergency and employ a zero-based budgeting policy of terminating all contracts for faculty, staff and administration and immediately rehiring those faculty, staff and administration who fit in the new financial and business model.
In other words, keeping anyone who takes a loyalty oath to the new regime.
At yesterday's meeting, another DeSantis appointee, Hillsdale constitutional government professor Matthew Spalding, repeated the same lie that many other DeSantis administration CHUDs have, insisting that all the board wants is to "return" New College to a "traditional" model of education that it never, not even once, pursued, after it had been "corrupted" by all that wokeness that's actually been its focus from its founding in 1960.
Some have said these recent appointments amount to a partisan takeover of the college. This is not correct. It’s not a takeover — it’s a renewal.
Yeah, it's a takeover, and it's only going to get uglier.
To celebrate the destruction of a nice little hippie school in Sarasota, DeSantis also took the opportunity Tuesday to outline other changes he wants to impose on all of Florida's colleges and universities, like dismantling all diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs and firing their staff, as well as effectively getting rid of tenure by allowing college presidents and boards of trustees — mostly DeSantis loyalists now — to review tenured faculty members' status at any time, so they can be fired. He asserted at a presser that "The most significant deadweight cost at universities is typically unproductive tenured faculty."
DeSantis also plans to require state universities to shift their emphases to research that will actually get students jobs, because nobody wants to hire people with degrees in "Zombie Studies," which is apparently a laugh line that his audiences really love.
At yesterday's meeting, Rufo introduced a motion to immediately end New College's Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence and fire its four employees, but the board members were persuaded to hold off for a little while once current college staff made clear the office also provides student with financial education and does other jobs that presumably don't make white bigots too mad.
As for those useless parents and students who loved New College as it was, their sad devotion to the old regime was handily dismissed by one of the new board members, Mark Bauerlein, an emeritus professor of English at Emory:
The campus needs a deep culture change. You sat up here, you called us racists, sexists, bigots, outsiders. We are now in a position of authority in the college. And the accusations are telling us that something is wrong here.
Now bend the knee and reap the whirlwind.
As yet, the new board of trustees hasn't said anything about expelling all current New College students. Pray it does not alter the deal further.
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