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Tiny public college known for ‘free thinkers’ is latest target for DeSantis

Audience members cheered for Patricia Okker, the outgoing president of New College of Florida, after Governor Ron DeSantis removed six of the school's 13 trustees, replacing them with allies holding strongly conservative views, on Jan. 31.TODD ANDERSON/NYT

SARASOTA, Fla. — After her son began attending New College of Florida, Dr. Sonia Howman felt a pang of fear about the future of the small, little-known public liberal arts school on the shores of Sarasota Bay.

Her son, who identifies as LGBTQ and had been bullied in high school, had found “a tiny place of safety in this increasingly hostile state,” she said. “I kept praying that DeSantis would never find out about it. But he did.”

A plan by Governor Ron DeSantis to transform New College, which is known as progressive and describes itself as “a community of free thinkers,” into a beacon of conservatism has left students, parents, and faculty members at the tight-knit school reeling over what they see as a political assault on their academic freedom. DeSantis’ education commissioner has expressed a desire to remake the school in the image of Hillsdale College, a small Christian school in Michigan that has been active in conservative politics.

Over 25 tumultuous days last month, the Republican governor removed six of the college’s 13 trustees, replacing them with allies holding strongly conservative views. The new board then forced out the college’s president, a career educator, and named DeSantis’ former education commissioner, a career politician, as her replacement. On Monday, the board signed off on paying its selection a salary of $699,000 a year, more than double what his predecessor earned.


DeSantis, who is widely thought to have White House aspirations, has made ideological attacks on public education central to his politics. His administration banned instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation through third grade, limited what schools can teach about racism, rejected math textbooks, and prohibited an Advanced Placement course in African American studies for high school students.

“You knew it would eventually spiral to higher education,” said Sam Sharf, a second-year New College student. “But I didn’t anticipate it would happen this fast.”


On Jan. 31, when the college’s president was ousted, DeSantis unveiled higher education policies — to further weaken faculty tenure protections, eliminate diversity and equity programs, and mandate Western civilization courses — that for many deepened a chill that had already taken hold across Florida’s public colleges and universities. The state has made it harder for faculty members to retain tenure, asked students and faculty to fill out a survey about their political leanings, and requested information about resources for transgender students.

But the changes may come most abruptly at New College, which has roughly 700 students. One of the new trustees, Christopher Rufo, said in early January that the school’s academic departments “are going to look very different in the next 120 days.”

The denizens of the quiet campus are feeling a pervasive sense of uncertainty. Should they stay, or flee? Will the type of student drawn to New College fundamentally change? Will junior faculty members get the tenure they are up for? Will the new board or president fire the staff en masse, as one of the new trustees suggested should happen?

“Everything that’s been happening has been very disruptive,” said Elizabeth C. Leininger, an associate biology professor, noting that the spring semester began the day before the Jan. 31 board meeting. “It’s kind of like when we get a hurricane here in Florida, and everyone’s preoccupied.”

That New College faces challenges is indisputable. Its enrollment had been dipping until last year. Its dorms are moldy, its labs dated. There are few activities outside the classroom. In reviews posted on, a college ranking site, current and former students have criticized decrepit facilities, lack of structure, and, in some cases, what they described as an obsession among students with identity politics.


The college performs poorly in state metrics — such as the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in high-demand fields and the percentage of graduates making at least $30,000 a year after graduation — designed for huge universities with economies of scale that the school just does not have.

Still, unsupported claims by DeSantis and his allies that New College’s students are being indoctrinated by far-left professors have offended students, faculty, parents, and alumni, who feel misrepresented. Many said the school welcomed young people who might not fit elsewhere — intensely bookish kids, bullied kids, kids with disabilities, queer kids — and required them to be driven.

That attracts a self-selecting group of young adults, many of them undeniably progressive and LGBTQ, who feel drawn to the existing student body, said students, parents, alumni, and faculty. But that does not mean what is taught in classes necessarily aligns with students’ views, they added.

Joshua Epstein, 17, who is on schedule to graduate next year after amassing college credits while in high school, said that if anything, he had become more conservative at New College. He credited professors who teach many points of view and encourage students to make their own judgments. He switched his major from political science to quantitative economics and hoped to become a corporate lawyer or an investment banker.


“The painting of this school as a liberal university with all students who are socialist radicals is just not true,” he said.

At New College, students complete a thesis to graduate. Class sizes average 10 students. Students do not receive grades but either pass or fail, with a narrative evaluation. Many students devote themselves to independent study programs. The school boasts an impressive rate of alumni who go to graduate school, receive prestigious fellowships, and make high salaries a decade after graduation. Annual tuition for Florida residents is about $7,000.

DeSantis blamed the school’s embrace of diversity and equity programs, which he argues serve as “an ideological filter,” for its failure to attract more students.

“That’s part of the reason I think it hasn’t been successful and the enrollment is down so much,” he said hours before the Jan. 31 board meeting. “I’ve talked to people who live in Sarasota and didn’t know what New College was.”

He has promised $15 million for new faculty and scholarships, which could be transformative, several current and former faculty members said. But they and others wondered why the state had never invested that sort of money in New College before.

On Friday, the faculty voted to release a statement saying that they “reject all attempts to politicize our support of every member of our community.”


New College has been underfunded since state lawmakers made it independent in 2001, according to several current and former faculty members, alumni, and a former trustee. Before that, it had been part of the University of South Florida for 26 years.

The coronavirus pandemic further hurt New College’s enrollment. In 2021, after a six-month national search, trustees hired Patricia Okker, a former University of Missouri dean, as president. Charged with turning the school around, chiefly by growing the student body but also by improving fund-raising, the school’s national reputation, and its diversity and equity programs, she helped increase enrollment in 2022.

But that mattered little to save her job.