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By Michelle Goldberg
SARASOTA, Fla. — When I first met Matthew Lepinski, the faculty chair of New College of Florida, he was willing to give the right-wingers sent to remake his embattled progressive public school a chance.
This was in January, a few weeks after Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida appointed six activist conservatives, including the culture war strategist Chris Rufo, to New College’s board of trustees. Rufo, the ideological entrepreneur who made critical race theory a Republican boogeyman, was open about his ambition to turn the quirky, L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly liberal arts school into a public version of Hillsdale, a conservative Christian college in Michigan with close ties to both DeSantis and Donald Trump. He hoped the transformation would be proof of concept for his dream: a conservative takeover of higher education across the country.
So when Rufo and another new trustee, Eddie Speir, the co-founder of a private Christian school called Inspiration Academy, arrived at New College for meetings with students and faculty, they were received with skepticism and hostility. But Lepinski, a computer science professor and the faculty representative on the board of trustees, was hopeful that they might figure out a way to work together, and he urged the school community to hear them out.
In the ensuing months, there was concern among Lepinski’s colleagues that he wasn’t doing enough to stand up to their new overlords. “Some of us had been a little frustrated with his willingness to try and play nice,” Amy Reid, a French professor and the head of New College’s gender studies program, told me. But Lepinski believed in dialogue and compromise. “I thought maybe there was a path forward with this board where we could focus on the things that unite us instead of the things that divide us,” he said.
That’s why it was so striking when, at the end of a combative three-hour meeting on Wednesday in which the trustees rejected five tenure applications, Lepinski quit. He’s not just leaving the board, but New College altogether. “I can no longer see a way that I can be effective here, given the current board of trustees,” he said at an impromptu news conference afterward.
When I spoke to Rufo in early January, he said that New College would look very different in the following 120 days. Nearly four months later, that hasn’t entirely come to pass, but it’s clear where things are headed.
The new trustees fired the school’s president, replacing her with Richard Corcoran, the Republican former speaker of the Florida House. They fired its chief diversity officer and dismantled the diversity, equity and inclusion office. As I was writing this on Friday, several people sent me photographs of gender-neutral signage scraped off school bathrooms.
But day-to-day, students, parents, and professors told me, life at New College has been pretty much the same. Faculty have mostly been left alone to do their jobs. Corcoran, several professors said, was rarely on campus. Sam Sharf, who chose New College in part because she feels safe there as a trans woman, said that classroom discussions in her Politics of the African Diaspora and Alternatives to Capitalism classes haven’t changed, though she’s constantly aware that such subjects might soon be taboo, and is planning to transfer.
Whatever New College’s administration does, this will likely be the last year classes like the ones Sharf is taking are offered, because a bill making its way through the Florida Legislature requires the review of curriculums “based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States.” The sense of dread on campus, however, goes beyond what’s happening in Tallahassee.
Eliana Salzhauer, whose 17-year-old son is a New College economics student, compared the seemingly inexorable transformation of the school to Twitter under Elon Musk: It looked the same at first, even as it gradually degraded into a completely different experience. “They are turning a top-rated academic institution into a third-rate athletic facility,” she said.
Salzhauer was referring, in part, to the hiring of Mariano Jimenez, who previously worked at Speir’s Inspiration Academy, as athletic director and head baseball coach, even though there’s no baseball diamond on campus. In the past, New College hasn’t had traditional sports teams, but the administration is now recruiting student athletes, and Corcoran has said he wants to establish fraternities and sororities, likely creating a culture clash with New College’s artsy queer kids, activists and autodidacts. Before Wednesday’s board meeting, about 75 people held a protest outside. “We’re Nerds & Geeks, not Jocks & Greeks,” said one sign.
For many, the board of trustees meeting was the clearest sign yet that this is the last semester of New College as they know it. The pivot point was the trustees’ decision to override the typical tenure process. New College hired a large number of new faculty five years ago, and this year was the first that any of them could apply for tenure. Seven did, each going through the requisite hurdles, including getting a sign-off from New College’s former president. In the past, trustee approval had been a ceremonial matter, and tenure candidates would bring family and friends to celebrate.
Corcoran, however, had asked all the professors up for tenure this year to withdraw their applications because of the tumult at the school. Two of the seven agreed. The rest — three of them professors in the hard sciences — held out for the board’s vote. This was widely seen as a referendum not just on the individual candidates, but on faculty independence.
Fifty-four people registered to speak at the meeting. All but one of them either implored the trustees to grant the professors tenure or lambasted them for their designs on the school. Parents were particularly impassioned; many of them had been profoundly relieved to find an affordable school where their eccentric kids could thrive. Some tried to speak the language of conservatism: “You’re violating my parental rights regarding our school choice,” said Pam Pare, the mother of a biology major. One student, a second-year wrapped in a pink and blue trans flag, was escorted out of the meeting after cursing at Corcoran, but most tried to earnestly and calmly convey how much the professors up for tenure had taught them.
It was all futile. A majority of the trustees voted down each of the candidates in turn as the crowd chanted, “Shame on you!” That’s when Lepinski quit, walking out of the room to cheers.
The trustees framed their objections in terms of timing; the professors were applying after five years at New College instead of the more customary six, and would have the opportunity to reapply the next year. But, given Rufo’s plans, this explanation seemed like a pretext for an administration that wants to bring in its own, ideologically aligned faculty. And once denied tenure, it wasn’t clear how many of the professors were going to stick around to try again.
“Some faculty members have started to leave already, and obviously some students are thinking about what their future looks like,” Lepinski said right after quitting. A few days later, we spoke again. “There’s a grieving process for the New College that was, which is passing away,” he said. “I really loved the New College that was, but I am at peace that it’s gone now.”
Rufo couldn’t attend Wednesday’s meeting in person, because he’d been delayed coming home from Hungary, where he had a fellowship at a right-wing think tank closely tied to Viktor Orban’s government. (This seemed fitting, since Orban’s Hungary created the template for Rufo and Desantis’s educational crusade.) Instead, he Zoomed in, his face projected on a movie screen behind the other trustees.
After Lepinski quit, Rufo tweeted that “any faculty that prefer the old system of unfettered left-wing activism and a rubber-stamp board are free to self-select out.” Turnover, he added, “is to be expected — even welcomed. But we are making rapid, significant progress.” He and his allies haven’t built anything new at New College yet. They are succeeding, however, in tearing something down.
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