They Were Loving College. Then Ron DeSantis Got Involved.
When Gov. Ron DeSantis and his war on “woke” education took aim at the New College of Florida on Friday, Sam Sharf was surfing with friends an hour down the coast.Which is to say the 22-year-old sophomore was blissfully unaware that the small public liberal arts school she attended was the latest target in what
When Gov. Ron DeSantis and his war on “woke” education took aim at the New College of Florida on Friday, Sam Sharf was surfing with friends an hour down the coast.
Which is to say the 22-year-old sophomore was blissfully unaware that the small public liberal arts school she attended was the latest target in what could be the governor’s hate-fueled march to a Republican presidential nomination.
That day, DeSantis announced the appointment of six new board members at the small Sarasota college, many of whom were ultra-conservative political players and academics. Sharf, a trans woman, said that she returned to shore—and her phone—to find it had blown up with messages from people telling her the news.
“I got really sad and then just, like, laid down,” she told The Daily Beast.
Among the appointees on Friday were Charles R. Kesler, a professor and editor for a publication of the far-right Claremont Institute; Mark Bauerlein, a Trump-allied Emory University professor; and Matthew Spalding, a professor at conservative Christian University Hillsdale College in Michigan.
“It is our hope that New College of Florida will become Florida’s classical college… more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the South,” DeSantis chief of staff James Uthmeier told the right-wing Daily Caller, laying out their plan.
But what immediately caught Sharf’s eye were tweets by incoming board member Christopher Rufo, who only days before had declared that “Gov. DeSantis is going to lay siege to university ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ programs.” In addition to being perhaps the key figure behind the bogus right-wing backlash to mostly nonexistent use of “critical race theory” in schools, Rufo has also been an avid opponent of what he calls “radical gender theory” in education. And among other appeals that form part of his admittedly ruthless political playbook, he has issued callouts on Twitter for “documents, PDFs, audio-video, and training materials related to gender, grooming, and trans ideology in schools.”
Grooming, is, of course, the stuff of obsession among right-wing parents and activists across the country, who seem to falsely believe that they alone are worried about sexual predators and children—and that LGBTQ acceptance invites criminality.
Now, several students interviewed by The Daily Beast who see New College as a safe space for learning are vowing to protect it amid fears that as the small college becomes a big target for a conservative culture war, it will attract racist, sexist, and anti-LGBTQ attacks and even a potential for violence.
“It made me really sad,” Sharf told The Beast. “But then I began contemplating how, like, we as a student body… reject this and try and do our best to fight back and defend our space.”
A spokesperson for DeSantis—whose office has said the appointments are subject to confirmation by the state’s GOP-controlled Senate—did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Armen Tooloee, chief of staff for Rufo, said in an email that he was not available for comment. A spokesperson for the college did not respond to a request for comment except to pass along a statement from the school president, Dr. Patricia Okker, who said she sent a “warm welcome” to the new trustees, and that the college “has a long history of embracing change, all while being true to our mission of academic excellence.”
The New College of Florida is home to about 650 students and is ranked as the country’s #5 public liberal arts school, according to U.S. News & World Report. Alumni have gone on to win a Fields Medal in mathematics, among other honors.
Jack Sobel, 21, told The Daily Beast that he had arrived at the small liberal arts college because he was looking for a small school that was “far away from home,” and found a rigorous, personalized education. He, too, expressed anger at being caught up in an explicitly political campaign against alleged progressive orthodoxy in schools.
“You know, for all this talk of freeing people from indoctrination, we should start should start, first and foremost, with making sure that the students who already attend that school don’t get indoctrinated,” Sobel, who helped start a Twitter account for students who want to push back against the governor’s aims, told The Daily Beast. “I certainly don’t believe that this is saving New College the way Ron DeSantis and his allies are framing it.”
The political science senior said he was proud of the school, which he claimed had one of the highest rates of Ph.D candidates and voter registration in the country.
For Sharf, it is also a place where she feels a trans student can be accepted as they are—and that a “loving atmosphere” is particularly important to defend.
“For a lot of trans students, this is the only place they have where they can be themselves and be celebrated,” she said. “And they want to take that away from from us, and we can’t allow that.”
“People should never be reacting to a news story about a personnel change in their school with asking if they are safe at the school,” he said.
New College is just the latest mark in a long, concerted campaign by DeSantis to push Florida education to the right. In recent years, he has worked alongside extremists such as school-board packers Moms for Liberty to change the face of K-12 education in the state. He also passed the state’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay” bill and (court-blocked) “Stop W.O.K.E. Act”—Rufo attended the signing—which tie teachers’ and employers’ hands when it comes to discussing issues of gender identity, race, and diversity, among other vital topics.
Recently, his administration also requested data from public colleges when it came to the resources they dedicate to diversity, equity, and inclusion, according to the Washington Post.
Blair Sapp, a New College alum who used to work with the board of trustees as part of the student government (and who now works in D.C. as a campaign strategist at the progressive group America Votes) was disturbed by Rufo’s tweets and what he saw as a clearly hateful agenda behind the appointments.
He said that he remembers when conservative board members would push for more changes on the margins—such as better job placement for students—rather than fundamental restructuring of the school’s values. While his ability to immediately make massive changes was unclear, Rufo told the New York Times he would be carrying out a “a top-down restructuring” and that the college’s programs would “look very different in the next 120 days.”
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“I shifted from initially just saying, like, ‘Oh, this guy’s a bigot and has an agenda,’ to ‘Oh, no, this is actually a more concerted effort.’’ Sapp specifically referred to at least one trustee being affiliated with the Claremont Institute, a think tank that, as the Post reported, has stood behind John Eastman, perhaps the single most important legal player in far-right Stop the Steal madness.
“They just think they’re gonna walk over this college,” Sapp later added, but, he said, they’re wrong.
While multiple students interviewed by The Beast alluded to upcoming organizing to stop any radical changes to their learning environment, none would yet share what their plans were. Nonetheless, they all pledged to fight.
“Our safety is at risk,” Sharf told The Beast. “And we’re very concerned about the potential consequences of our school—our small school—becoming a battleground for the greater conservative culture war, which can mean violence and people who show up here to intimidate us and start violence.”
She added, “We will do our best to keep the peace here and keep our place safe.”