Editor’s Note: Sophia Brown is a senior at New College of Florida and editor of the school newspaper, The Catalyst. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
The freedoms of students in Florida have long been under fire during Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration, with his book banning, attacks on critical race theory and the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
But I still wasn’t entirely prepared for his attacks on academic freedom at New College of Florida, the liberal arts college in Sarasota, where I’ve been a student for the past four years.
As bad as things got in Florida, I and many of my classmates thought that surely his culture war policies wouldn’t reach our school, which has been something of a bubble of sanity and safety for queer students like me, as well as my transgender and BIPOC classmates. With any luck, DeSantis’ ginned-up culture wars will scuttle his presidential aspirations.
The governor is continuing to plow ahead with his takeover of New College. He has installed a new board of trustees and a new interim president. Last month, the board voted to abolish New College’s Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence. Our Dean of Diversity was fired a few days later. And just last week, it was announced that our provost has been replaced, as DeSantis continues to force his conservative values on a place where they’re not wanted.
Many students who have come to think of New College as a sanctuary, now feel as though they are no longer welcome here. Students feel as if they’re walking on eggshells – in part because the new conservative leadership has been incredibly vague about the next changes they will try to ram through.
Each time he has given a speech on campus, our interim president has spoken about the great things he wants to do for New College. But he also recently wrote in a letter to donors and alumni in which he said that the school is “dominated by a self-aggrandizing few who want to co-opt the education system to force their personal beliefs on other people’s children.”
This doesn’t augur well for its future as an academic and cultural oasis. Students are feeling burned out and afraid. Many of us are just trying to make it through what feels like it could be the last “normal” semester at the school we love so much.
When people ask me why I chose New College, my usual answer is that I always wanted to go to a small school (we have an enrollment of just 700 students) with a rigorous academic program. But there’s much more to it than that.
I went to a high school where students would wear shirts bearing the image of the Confederate flag. During my freshman year there, my classmates would draw swastikas on the corners of the papers on my desk when I wasn’t looking. I don’t think it was meant maliciously against me, but it showed the degree to which they had internalized and normalized hateful behavior. It was a high school that was tolerant enough to have a Gay Students’ Association, but intolerant enough that some kids would sign each other up as a prank.
New College was a departure from all of that. It has been a sanctuary that not only made me passionate about education in a way that high school never did, but that taught me that I don’t have to compromise who I am. As an LGBTQ student, I don’t need to leave my identity at the door in order to have the education I deserve. My full identity can sit in the classroom with me because it informs my education and interests in a way that I cannot sever from myself.
One of the trustees appointed by Gov. DeSantis, Christopher Rufo, gave a speech in January in which he described diversity, equity and inclusion efforts of the type that make New College such a tolerant community as “Orwellian” and said that they “manipulate” and “divide the world into oppressor and oppressed.”
In fact, the diversity efforts proudly practiced at New College were inherent to a quality education. A student’s academics are enriched when they are able to encounter a variety of people and viewpoints. Broadening our horizons is the point of pursuing higher education.
Anyone who reframes these concepts as deceitful or who wields them as a weapon in a culture war that the New College community did not ask to participate in, will never serve the best interests of students. In opposing diversity, equity and inclusion, DeSantis and the people he has put in place to run my school are agitating against the very thing that has made New College such a wonderful place to spend four years.
I’m now a senior and in my final weeks as a student at New College. It’s been a great time. I’m editor-in-chief of our student-run newspaper, the Catalyst, and have had a complete, well-rounded and rigorous academic experience. But who knows how much longer it will be allowed to continue?
The New College we knew, one of my friends recently said to me, is dead. I hope she’s wrong. I hope it can return one day to what it was: a college where students have access to an education free from interference by powerful individuals and entities that will never know our names and never really, truly cared – other than to score political points – about what we want to learn.