For decades, New College of Florida appealed to creative students craving an alternative style of education designed to complement the arts, music and theater scene in Sarasota, with a self-guided curriculum not unlike some of the niche liberal arts schools of New England.
Then the small Sarasota school came into the sights of conservative Governor Ron DeSantis. As part of his culture war against so-called woke doctrine, DeSantis cleaned house at New College in January, appointing six new members to its board of trustees, including Christopher Rufo, one of the most vocal critics of critical race theory.
Now at least one small liberal arts school in Massachusetts, Hampshire College in Amherst, is offering refuge to disaffected New College students who want no part of their school’s transformation.
Hampshire president Ed Wingenbach said his school has reached out to student organizers at New College because the two colleges are “very similar institutions.” Both allow students to design their own courses of study based in liberal arts, receive narrative evaluations, he said, and pursue projects “to make an impact on the world.”
“With all of those elements are under threat [in Florida], it’s an opportunity where we can give a lifeline to the students who went to New College for an education that is quite similar to what Hampshire provides,” Wingenbach said in a phone interview. “It’s being taken away from them as part of a larger political agenda to tamp down on liberty and democracy.”
Other colleges, including Lesley University in Cambridge, and Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York, have also rolled out the welcome mat for New College students.
Hampshire, which currently enrolls about 500 students, including many who identify as queer or transgender, has room on its campus for more students. The college recently revamped its academic offerings after years of enrollment challenges prompted former leaders to consider merging with another institution in 2019. Outraged alumni, including documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, launched a fund-raising campaign to keep the college independent.
Hampshire’s outreach got a cool response from the new administration at New College.
“We are not sure how the Northeast colleges intend to lure away students who have come to Florida for our higher education excellence, coupled with our weather and the amazing location of Sarasota, Florida,” a New College spokesperson said in a statement to the Globe. “All of these invitations and stunts are for media attention, they are not truly meant in the best interest of the students.”
One student already transferred this year from New College, four more have submitted materials to transfer, and Hampshire has fielded about 20 inquiries from other New College students and from parents, Wingenbach said. The college, which opened in 1970, will match the cost of tuition at New College to ease the transition, he said. Hampshire charges $26,357 for tuition while New College charges Florida residents $6,916.
“What you’re seeing at New College is the most aggressive and physical effort to threaten higher education and the freedom of students, faculty, and staff in colleges to explore and examine the realities of the world and produce new knowledge,” Wingenbach said. “It’s not going to stop. Those of us who care about education as a source for social mobility, democratic citizenship, and creating a more just and equal world need to do what we can to push back.”
After DeSantis appointed new members to the college’s board in January, New College president Patricia Okker was fired and replaced with conservative ally Richard Corcoran. The board also abolished the school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion office. Okker said the changes amounted to a “hostile takeover.”
Student organizers have held protests and rallies to push back against changes to the college, which enrolls about 700 students, and DeSantis’ vision for public education.
DeSantis, who has banned certain math textbooks because he said they contained “woke ideology,” has won passage of several laws that have resulted in widespread book bans in school libraries and classrooms. He has also said he won’t allow a new AP African American studies course to be taught in Florida, and a separate bill introduced last month would prevent colleges and universities from funding any programs or activities that “espouse diversity, equity, or inclusion or Critical Race Theory rhetoric.”
Florida officials have said they envision New College looking more like Hillsdale College, a conservative, Christian campus in Michigan.
“It’s fair to say it feels like we’re living in a dystopian novel,” said Amy Reid, director of New College’s gender studies program. “There’s a lot of anxiety for students, as well as for faculty and staff. Because none of us have much of a sense of security here anymore.”
Sam Sharf, a second-year student at New College from Tampa, said she and many other students are exploring transfer options.
“People are recognizing that the situation is dire for academia in Florida,” Sharf said. “With the new announcements from Hampshire and other colleges, the options are making students happier, so they have backup plans and aren’t trapped. It’s also coming with a sense of sadness and dread, because some alumni and supporters view these announcements as the end of New College.”
Sharf, 22, started transitioning to female as a senior in high school and found a supportive environment at New College, which enrolls many LGBTQ students. She has helped organize student protests and said they plan to hold more “sit in” demonstrations where instructors will teach about topics shunned by DeSantis including Black studies, gender studies, and Jewish studies.
“A good way to describe [the campus culture] is, I’m not known as ‘trans Sam,’ I’m known as ‘chess Sam’ because I’m an avid chess player,” Sharf said. “You’re just a person [at New College,] and that’s all at risk.”
Another senior faculty member at New College who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said faculty members are plotting out-of-state exits.
Wingenbach said he hopes more colleges follow Hampshire’s lead and open their doors to New College students, faculty, and staff members.
“Western Massachusetts has its charms, not the least of which are being in a state where the governor and the state Legislature are not trying to forbid discussions of race, historical oppression, or coming up with prohibited topics that can’t be in textbooks,” Wingenbach said.
Some New College students are concerned that faculty and students leaving the state amounts to letting conservative politicians win.
“They want to replace the student body with a new conservative student body, and if everyone leaves because they’re afraid of that, then they’re going to accomplish that,” said Basil Pursley, a second-year student at New College. “I also completely understand, because for queer people and for people of color, it is a lot more dangerous and hostile” in Florida.