Trustees face overwhelming opposition from students and community members.
49 people signed up for the New College of Florida board meeting. They were all critical of Richard Corcoran, interim president of New College of Florida, and the board.
DAYLINA MILLER/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA
On Tuesday, February 28, more than 300 people participated in a rally at the New College of Florida Board of Trustees meeting.
The small liberal arts college in Sarasota, whose student enrollment is approximately 700, has been the focus of Gov. Ron DeSantis' efforts to create a more conservative education model for Florida's public colleges and universities.
On Jan. 6, DeSantis announced an overhaul of New College's Board of Trustees, appointing six new members. A seventh member was later added by the state Board of Governors, giving the board a conservative majority.
During the rally, Lianna Paton, a freshman and member of the school's Asian American and Pacific Islander Student Alliance addressed the gathering.
'You can't get rid of diversity in a classroom unless you want to silence students of color,' she said of the New College board's intention to eliminate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs. 'You can't get rid of equity in a classroom unless you want to erase students of color, and you can't get rid of inclusion in a classroom unless you want to suppress students of color.'
Chai Leffler is a third-year student in urban studies and Chinese. He said that he had struggled with his sexuality as a child.
He told the crowd, "I've lived here in Sarasota since over 16 years." "That is something that can't be said about our new president and our Board of Trustee member. This simply means that I am aware of the impact that New College has on our community.
'In high school, I went to a local queer youth center in Sarasota where I met New College students for the first time. Immediately these students welcomed me into an environment that accepted me unconditionally for who I was.' Once the board meeting began, 49 people signed up to speak. All of them were critical of the board or of the new interim president, Richard Corcoran, former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.
Rev. John Dorhauer is president of the United Church of Christ, which provided some of the initial funding for New College before it eventually became a state institution. He was one of many angry voices to address the board during public comment.
'When Martin Luther King said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice, he did so to warn us of sycophants like you, to inspire the kind of resistance that we see erupting on this campus right now, and to remind those who have been victimized by your brutality that...the long arc of history will grind you into dust,' he said.
A major topic at the Feb. 28 meeting was whether to abolish the school's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs.
The board ultimately eliminated what amounted to a small number of initiatives.
At the first meeting of the board in January, Christopher Rufo, an ally and appointee of DeSantis, made a motion to direct staff to draft a policy and present recommendations on how to eliminate DEI programs based on a brief he authored entitled, 'Abolish DEI Bu-reaucracies and Restore Colorblind Equality in Public Universities.'
DeSantis vowed to defund these initiatives on the same day his hand-picked trustees convened at New College for the first time and fired then President Patricia Okker.
Hundreds of New College students, parents and concerned community members rallied in support of the institution on February 28th, armed with homemade signs.
DAYLINA MILLER/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA
Grace Keenan, the student representative on the board, stated that they spent more time researching the DEI policies New College had, than implementing a policy at the school.
She stated that 'from my understanding, one-fourth of one campus office has a DEI position'. We do not have any mandatory DEI training. The ones that are, it takes only one hour. Faculty have the latest DEI statement, which is also the only one that is required. We do not have any identity-based quotas. This is a not very impressive DEI bureaucracy.
Rufo conceded that such a bureaucracy at New College was small but said that it was a matter of principle that the board go on record as opposing DEI initiatives.
'Even if these changes are not as great as at something like a University of Florida or a larger public institution, they are essential to say that we are taking this mandate seriously,' he said. 'We are going to put these principles into action and we're ready to make the decisions not to be judging people on the basis of group identity, but on their individual merit.'
According to the recommendations presented, the four full-time employees in the office will be offered other positions at the school.
The changes to New College's DEI initiatives come as Gov. DeSantis has backed legislation (HB 999) that would bar state colleges and universities from promoting, supporting or maintaining programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion or 'critical race theory rhetoric.'
The bill is filed for the legislative session that will start March 7.
Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.