Nowhere is the War for Higher Education Hotter than in the Sunshine State
I recently made a visit to New College Florida (NCF), which is Florida’s Honors College. NCF is a small liberal arts college located in Sarasota. The student-to-faculty ratio is about 6:1 with an overall student population size capping out at just seven hundred students. Why has this small public liberal arts college recently made the mainline media headlines? One reason is the recent decisions made by Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis. DeSantis appointed six new trustees to the board at NCF in early January. In the same month, the board decided to terminate the employment of NCF’s president Patricia Okker, who was given a one-year personal development leave of absence, with the opportunity to return next year as a full-time English professor at the college.
The six new trustees are largely composed of conservative attorneys, education professionals, and writers. Among the new trustees are names that the readers of American Reformer will be familiar with, such as: Mark Bauerlein, Christopher Rufo, and Eddie Spier. Governor DeSantis’s appointment of these men has enraged both the college’s students and the faculty. The trustee’s selection of interim president Richard Corcoran has also stirred up much angst among the majority of students at NCF, as well as some Sarasota residents.
My first impression of the school once I arrived was the beauty of its campus. That impression quickly changed when the tour began. My two tour guides were very friendly and cordial, however, there was an overwhelming tension that I felt during the tour. My suspicion was, due to my mode of dress and speech, they could tell I wasn’t one of them. This is speculative, but once I had expressed to my tour guides my intended major and interests, they could have guessed that I may be one of Governor DeSantis’s guinea pigs for this new conservative project. My guides proceeded to take me to the STEM building, where the theme in the building was “Women in Stem.” Once, I had made my way through campus to the student dorms, the amount of iconography present was startling. LGBTQ flags, transgender flags, and signs saying “Support Roe v. Wade,” “F*** Chris Rufo,” and “Defend Educational Freedom.”
There was no sense of decorum on campus. Some of the students had questioned my decision to wear a suit on the visit, which was common before the 1960s age of liberation. During the tour it felt as if I was encroaching on the dark and satanic mills of liberalism, simply waiting to be devoured. Chris Rufo was right to point out, there is a culture problem at NCF. I was at the front line of this culture war. The liberal culture amongst the students and faculty is pervasive. As I am not a currently enrolled student at NCF, I cannot speak to how this culture influences the academic standards at NCF. However, I did get a glimpse of some of the academic standards when I observed a class that afternoon. The professor was very nice. He had his idiosyncrasies, but nothing disturbing. What I noticed immediately when I entered the classroom, was writing on the board that read “STAY WOKE.”
The title of the class I sat in on was called, “The Age of Imperialism,” which covered the function and nature of the colonial powers. The lecture began. I was impressed with the professor’s proficiency in world history and the colonial and post-war period more specifically. The professor mentioned thinkers such as Alexis De Tocqueville and the irreconcilable contradiction of Tocqueville’s endorsement of freedom and his simultaneous support of French colonialism. I disagreed with his conclusion, but this did not seem terribly radical for a college classroom. As I looked at the environment of the classroom and at the students, a lot of them were wearing sandals, athletic shorts, and graphic tees. Sure, call me a snob for saying student attire on university campuses should be business casual. As G. Bruce Boyer has pointed out, we’ve lost much more than elegance, with the advent of the casual revolution. General decorum, etiquette, and moral seriousness are some of the things we’ve lost, and all those virtues were lacking at NCF. One of the students had his feet propped up on the table, in front of him while he was listening to the lecture. The overall environment of the classroom and the school more generally, was very casual—maybe a little too casual. A group of top consultants asked a group of NCF students what words could describe the culture at NCF. The words used were, “politically correct,” “druggies,” and “weirdos.” I can confirm that this description rightly diagnoses the culture at NCF.
Overall, NCF felt like an echochamber. I was encroaching upon a civil war between administrators and faculty, a war that will at least continue for the next several years. With the abolition of NCF’s DEI office, this should at least level the playing field for administrators to make some needed reforms in the school’s curriculum. What is ironic about everything that is going on at NCF, and Florida’s education system generally, is these are the standard procedures of democracy. Governor DeSantis is called to express the democratic will of the people of Florida, especially in the public institutions that are taxpayer-funded. Democracy, the democratic process, and freedom of expression are all words ingrained in the liberal lexicon. However, when the democratic will of the people of Florida is expressed by the taking over of civic and public institutions, we hear from the perennial script of liberalism. Oppression, fascism, and authoritarianism are all accusations that have been hurled at the administrators and DeSantis for these democratic educational reforms.
Sarasota and Manatee County are strongly conservative districts, and the people of Sarasota want their will to be expressed in the institutions that they fund. This is a war that has just begun. While I’m encouraged by some of the reforms made by Governor DeSantis and the trustees, it will take a long time to purge the old leaven corrupting the student body at NCF. As someone who is a conservative Christian, my experience visiting NCF did not entice me to transfer there. My current institution is in shambles, and I’m looking for a school to call my own. I do believe NCF’s future is bright, I do hope and pray it becomes a bulwark and model of a classical liberal arts education. Much has been written on this American Reformer about Christian colleges in the negative world; negative world is more apparent and advancing rapidly in public universities. The intended goal of the board of trustees is for NCF to be a model that other conservative states can follow and emulate. Governor DeSantis’s political strategy behind the takeover of NCF, should also inspire conservatives to renew their concept of the exercise of governmental power. The liberal right has long frowned upon the exercise of power to suppress the abuses of economic oligarchs and has long overlooked the takeover of the public universities by the left. What is needed in the conservative movement, to inspire educational and civic reforms is a party of the state. DeSantis’s model of government goes against the sensibilities of what has been codified as dogma by the liberal right. I’m excited and anticipate seeing the changes that will be made by the interim president, Richard Corcoran, and the new appointed trustees. However, in the meantime, the culture war continues at NCF.
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