Dispatches from the present
The New College in Sarasota, Florida, is a public liberal arts college with a low faculty-to-student ratio, a robust independent study program, no grades and a large population of female, queer and nonbinary students. In January, New College became the latest culture-war battleground as Governor Ron DeSantis began enacting a plan to overhaul the administration and fight back against “wokeness” in higher education. The school, the governor’s spokesman said, had been “completely captured by a political ideology that puts trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning.” DeSantis replaced six board members, and then the school’s president, with political allies, and announced legislation to revise tenure policy11. Separately, on March 29th, the Florida Board of Governors approved a regulation stating that higher-education faculty must undergo a post-tenure review every five years. The Board of Governors also appointed a seventh politically aligned member to the board of New College in January, effectively giving DeSantis the majority he had sought. and restrict the curriculum. Board members have criticized the fact that two-thirds of the student population are female and are seeking to recruit more Christian, conservative students.
Nicolas Delon, a tenured professor of philosophy and environmental studies, joined the faculty in 2018. He was hired along with twenty or so other new faculty members as part of an attempt to expand interdisciplinary exchange and increase enrollment to 1,200. (It’s currently about seven hundred.) When Delon arrived, campus was bustling with the new faculty and the promise of growth. But with the decline in enrollment nationally, the pandemic, infrastructural issues with the campus and mental health issues among students, New College’s enrollment and retention rates have continued to drop over the past five years. In what follows, Delon discusses the latest changes to the college administration and the faculty response to DeSantis’s plan.
Up till now, we’ve had a lot of freedom in how we approach our classes and our curriculum. Even though we have faculty governance, and faculty are supposed to be quite heavily involved in shaping the direction of the school, there’s still basically complete freedom, within the boundaries of doing your job well. Complete freedom in what I want to teach and how I teach it. I’m going to miss that.
Like everyone, I learned about the changes through an email from our president, who introduced the new trustees. That was January 6th. Everybody started looking at the news. And there were already a few pieces out there describing the changes. It caught almost everybody off guard. In retrospect you could have seen it coming because we were struggling, we were very vulnerable. And people were already worried because we were not hitting our targets along all of the so-called performance metrics, which determine our budget. So it’s not a complete surprise that the governor picked on us to test his ideas and plans. But still, it started as a huge scramble, like, what’s next? What is this about? Is this just for show? What’s going to happen to the president? Are they going to fire us all?
In the two hours leading up to the meeting when it was announced President [Patricia] Okker would be fired, we learned from rumors and leaks in the press that they had basically already secured her successor, [Richard] Corcoran. Until then, we thought the board didn’t have the supermajority needed to replace her. Then throughout the meeting, we understood that no, they had the plan laid out for weeks, if not months.
We have seven or eight tenure-track candidates coming up for tenure this year. Everyone has a positive recommendation for tenure. The next step is supposed to be the Board of Trustees, which in April will approve or deny tenure. Traditionally, the Board of Trustees just rubber-stamps the tenure based on the recommendations that are made. Now, recently, President Corcoran has met with the president of our union to recommend that the candidates withdraw their files before it’s too late. My interpretation is that Corcoran suspects there’s probably a non-negligible proportion of the trustees who want to make an example out of those people and deny them tenure. The trustees as a whole, Corcoran and DeSantis want to turn our institution into something different. And in order to do that, they need to hire new faculty. The best way for them to hire new faculty is to get rid of the faculty who they can fire without breaching contract. So that means firing the tenure-track faculty.
They can’t fire tenured faculty like me without breach of contract, but our collective bargaining agreement is not eternal—it’s up for renegotiation in June 2024. And with DeSantis’s higher-education bill, which is basically trying to overhaul tenure, there’s a possibility that it will be very easy for the president to fire many of us even with tenure. He has said they have currently no plans to fire tenured faculty. But should we trust him?
The most likely thing to happen is that they’re going to impose some changes on the curriculum. It’s not clear exactly what form and with what faculty input, but they’re getting rid of gender studies and critical race theory—they have said that publicly many times. The law, HB 999, is hopelessly vague. There’s so many things that could fall under the umbrella of gender studies and critical race theory, and we don’t know what programs, classes or parts of a given syllabus are likely to be illegal if it passes. We don’t know if that will mean we will have to submit our syllabi to the provost or the president or the board, or what authority they will have.
I’m a philosopher, and this semester I’m teaching a combination of a fairly classical course in political philosophy with some more contemporary/applied topics. Part of my syllabus would, I think, be deemed controversial by the new trustees and new president. Before the break, we discussed Martin Luther King and nonviolent resistance and social change, which seems like the kind of thing that should be allowed, but now I’m not so sure. This week, we’re going to talk about feminism and liberalism, and prison abolition and policing later in the semester. There’s no side I’m taking. I’m just going to put up what I think are the good arguments, and I’ll hear out the students who have counterarguments. But if I had to teach political philosophy again, under the new administration, I’m no longer sure I would write the same syllabus.
The new trustees see us as a unified block ideologically and politically, which we are not. We have a clearly liberal bent, like any higher-ed institution in the U.S. And perhaps we are slightly more left-leaning than average, but not by so much. There’s a lot of disagreement among faculty. Many of my liberal colleagues are fairly moderate. It seems like many of the trustees are just not interested in trying to learn about who we are, what we do and what’s good about what we do.
We’re worried that they might just end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I think it would be good to have more classes on conservative thought, and if they want to have more classes on Western civilization, they should go for it. But I don’t think those things should replace the things we do, which have been consistently praised by students. We have issues with enrollment and retention, sure. But there’s just no meaningful evidence to me that the issue has to do with academics. The issue is we have decrepit dorms, and not enough mental health support or food options or sense of community on campus.
The situation has been very stressful and disruptive for our students. Especially the first- and second-years—they don’t know what the college they signed up for is going to be like next year. Many of them just don’t know if their majors are still going to be here when they plan on graduating, so they’re considering transferring or dropping out.
In January, we thought, “Well, why New College? We’re so small, we don’t have that much of an impact.” And then we realized why—we’re basically a test case in a lab. And DeSantis wants to know whether it works with us. There’s a looming concern that Florida’s higher ed, research and teaching-wise, in the future, will be wildly different. If DeSantis ends up in D.C. in 2024, who knows what other states are going to do? As the slogan goes, your campus could be next.