New College controversial new trustees meet faculty in packed session

The session kicked off after a reported death threat.
Published: Jan. 25, 2023 at 5:21 PM EST
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SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - Faculty and staff at New College of Florida got their first glimpse Wednesday at what the future of the liberal arts college may look like.

Two newly appointed -- and politically conservative -- members of the school’s board of trustees met with faculty for the first time for two question-and-answer sessions that were, at times, contentious.

Jason “Eddie” Speir and Christopher Rufo sat on the stage of the college’s Mildred Sainer Music and Arts Pavilion Wednesday, offering a frank assessment of what they feel they’ve been brought in to accomplish.

Rufo is a senior fellow for the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, a writer and activist. He is a noted opponent of critical race theory and DeSantis supporter. He was with DeSantis when he signed the Parental Rights in Education Act, called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its critics.

His comments raised alarm bells after his appointment, saying he wanted to eliminate equity, diversity, and inclusion language, create “a new core curriculum” and overhaul the school’s administration and academic departments in the first few months of his term.

He criticized the current administration Wednesday, saying it has “established ... a kind of social justice-oriented orthodoxy that has created an echo chamber that has prevented a lot of debates,” accusing liberal activists of “weaponizing that ideology.”

Speir, the co-founder of Inspiration Academy, a Christian charter school in Bradenton, sparred with the faculty in the audience with his criticism of what he called the prevailing atmosphere of “wokeness” at New College. He defined “wokeness” in religious terms, “a shared set of beliefs that group of people have ... is that fair?” he asked the audience, which began booing. “I think outside, looking in, that’s what it looks like.”

After the first session, Speir told ABC7 he thought the interaction went well. “I think it went fantastic,” he said.

A death treat against Speir received earlier in the day nearly derailed the event. Speir called the threat a byproduct of the “woke” culture at New College. “We were in danger of not having this discussion because of the problematic culture that’s here, of fear and intimidation. We’ve got to fight through this and actually look each other in the eye and connect.”

Rufo said threats would not deter him. “No one should feel intimidated. They tried to shut this down. We’re not going to back down. We’ve demonstrated that we’re willing to listen.”

Faculty in the audience also expressed cautious optimism with what they heard. “I am at least somewhat encouraged by the dialogue we’ve had here,” said history professor David Harvey. Acknowledging the financial pressures the college has been facing, there is an urgency in finding solutions. “We have, I think, a limited window to turn things around. We’re only going to be able to do that if we work together.”

Dr. Donal O’Shea, the former president of New College, attended the session. He said the trustees’ appointments came as a surprise. “”It was a shock at first.”

But looking past Speir’s and Rufo’s writings and Twitter feeds, “It did seem like there was an opportunity. I though it was a real opportunity.” O’Shea said.

O’Shea noted the rhetoric was softer Wednesday. “Today, he (Rufo) wasn’t talking about curriculum or changes in the first 120 days,’ he said. “He is quite familiar with the liberal arts, which is the New College curriculum. I was really quite encouraged by what he said today.”

The New College community has expressed concern the new trustees will alter the distinctive character of the school. One of the 12 schools in the state university system, New College is designated as the state’s honors college. It routinely earns top national rankings from the likes of U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, Kiplinger’s and The Princeton Review, its website says.

It also has an extremely low student-to-faculty ratio -- 6:1 -- with an average class size of 11.

But it’s size is also a problem. For years, the college has struggled to increase enrollment and raise funds to maintain its current campus. Dorms, designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei, have fallen into disrepair. It’s administration buildings were once the mansions on the Ringling family, built in the 1920s and need constant maintenance.

O’Shea said the college must deal with those realities. “This is a stressful time for the college. We do need new facilities. Students are most interested in getting a really strong education .. but the college has to be there in order to promise that.”

Rufo said the new trustees’ tough love may be just what’s needed. “I’ll be candid with you,’’ he told the audience. “This is a crisis situation. I wouldn’t be here if there were not a significant problem.

“We have to demonstrate a certain strength, and a certain resolve and a certain severity, because we’re challenging severe problems.”

Rufo said people may not like his professional life -- “I’m in the media business. I’m an activist,” he said. “I’m highly educated. I’m a reasonable person.”

Rufo said trustees are there to provide an overall direction for New College. “We’re not going to tell you how to teach classes. You guys are masters,” he said.

Will New College be better off on the long run with the new trustees? “We’ll have to see,” said O’Shea.