2 Trustees appointed by DeSantis appear at the New College. Here’s the thing.

SARASOTA — During an unusual visit Wednesday to the New College campus in Florida, two of the six people appointed to the school board by Gov. Ron DeSantis this month told staff and students , whose mission is to save what they describe as an institution failing and in need of a turnaround.

Conservative journalist and commentator Christopher Rufo calls himself a “radical solution to the crisis”. Accompanying him was Jason “Eddie” Speer, founder and principal of a private Christian high school in Bradenton.

Their presence prompted a range of responses, from those who took issue with the new trustees’ characterization of the new college to those who said they saw an opportunity for the school to improve under new leadership. It was a prelude to Tuesday, when the school’s newly restructured board of trustees will hold its first meeting, now with several strong conservative voices.

In his opening remarks to faculty, Rufo expressed concern about what he said were declining school performance and enrollment.

Christopher Rufo
Christopher Rufo [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“We are all here because there is a serious problem,” Rufo said, adding that lawmakers had long been frustrated with the school and even considered dissolving the new academy.

He outlined four core issues, including the school’s “echo chamber” culture and efforts to attract and retain students. He believes the school’s “special focus on social justice” has led to declining enrollment.

The New College admits nearly 75 percent of applicants, according to federal data. “Most liberal arts colleges try to keep that number under 20 percent,” Rufo said. “You’ll more or less accept anyone who applies.”

Last year, fewer than 80 percent of admitted students made it to college, and 20 percent dropped out or transferred in their first year, he said.

He also raised concerns about the college’s graduation rate, which lags most other public universities in the state, and its relatively low employment rate and alumni earnings one year after graduation.

Rufo alleges that New College students and staff have said they have been intimidated and ostracized because of their race or political views.

Speer echoed those concerns, saying he would face threats of violence if he attended the day’s event.

Jason "Eddie" Spire
Jason “Eddie” Speer [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“We’re about to be shut down and unable to have a conversation … because I’ve been threatened,” Speer said. “I was not respected when I came here.”

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During a question-and-answer session with faculty, the conversation ranged from funding and leadership to concerns over Rufo and Speir’s previous statements about the school’s “woke up” culture.

Rufo asked the audience to raise their hands if they agreed that New College has serious problems.

“You are the problem,” one member shouted.

Donal O’Shea, who will serve as dean of the new college until 2021, asked the new trustees if they had ideas for raising funds for residence hall improvements and deferred maintenance.

Rufo agrees that it is difficult for small campuses to compete with larger public schools with “beautiful fiberglass” buildings. Funding, however, will not come until the school makes the changes that state leadership deems necessary.

“When we show that we’re going in that direction and understand the mission …. I think the coffers will open,” Speer said.

“We’re building a series of relationships with lawmakers and governors who have made it very clear and empowered us (to) turn things around,” he added. “They will do everything in their power to support that.”

Other faculty members expressed concern about the duo’s previous statements about the queer and LGBTQ community.

Elizabeth Bates, a psychology technician at the New School, confronted Rufo about her previous comments linking queer and trans people with pedophilia – claims Rufo said he “completely disagreed with”.

O’Shea said afterwards that he felt the two trustees were open and that he was encouraged by the meeting.

Culturally, he said, he doesn’t think the New School has the problems they describe. The number of conservative students on campus is small, but they are outspoken, he said. Part of the reason for their low numbers is the small size of the college, he said.

But he said students were intellectually curious, and he disagreed with descriptions of the campus as “quirky” or academically unserious.

At a separate meeting for students on Wednesday, many raised pointed questions about Rufo’s credentials and their security.

Asked how the trustees will maintain enrollment when many current students are frustrated with their options, Speer said he hopes students will be patient.

“You can decide, ‘I don’t like this place anymore,’ and leave,” Speer said, “but I really want you to stay and watch this game.”

Fourth-year student Dylan Hogan said he is lucky to be graduating soon.

He said the meeting “was in line with my expectations, if not less”. “No one is blind to what these trustees think. It’s just a clarification.”

Drama professor Diego Villada wore a sombrero vueltiao and a progressive flag on his shoulder in solidarity with LGBTQ students.

Diego Villada, Assistant Professor of Drama and Performance Studies in the Humanities at the New School, addresses Jason, the school's two new trustees "Eddie" Speir and Christopher Rufo, Wednesday, January 25, 2023.
On Wednesday, January 25, 2023, Diego Villada, Assistant Professor of Drama and Performance Studies in the Humanities at the New School, addressed the school’s two new trustees, Jason “Eddie” Speir and Christopher Rufo. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“When I read about you in the media, you looked crazy,” Villada told Rufo and Speir. “Standing here, I think I understand what you said.”

He said he believed the men were sincere, but asked how they measured academic decline and “suffocating orthodoxy”. Rufo gave an example of wanting to watch a Christian student debate with a non-Christian student.

“In the trenches, this is happening,” Villada said.

Villada, who is Colombian, remembered the phrase “dar la cara,” which roughly translates to “show your face.”

“You’re showing your face,” he said. “You’re here, you’re talking to us, you’re letting us talk, and that’s something I’m grateful for.”

Divya Kumar and Ian Hodgson report on higher education for the Tampa Bay Times with Open Campus.

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