Protesters raged as conservative trustees installed by Gov. Ron DeSantis at a tiny Florida public liberal arts college successfully voted to abolish the school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives during a fiery meeting Tuesday.
The school, New College of Florida, is known as one of the top public liberal art schools in the country, and also as a safe haven for LBGTQ+ students in the state.
But the disintegration of the school’s small DEI office is the latest domino to fall in the governor’s efforts to transform public education in the state—leaving many students and alumni worried that New College is a staging ground for a larger push to limit freedom of speech in education by right-wing politicians nationwide.
“I think the shuttering of our DEI office is a major symbolic blow to our campus,” Professor Amy Reid, director of the Gender Studies Program, told The Daily Beast on Thursday. Reid also noted she was at least happy to see employees be moved, rather than fired.
“But I am concerned about what it means that they are officializing a ban on diversity, equity, and inclusion, which should not be controversial topics,” she said.
Through the passing of sweeping laws, support of ultra-conservative K-12 school board members, and rejecting advanced placement course curriculums in African American Studies, DeSantis has been making move after move to squelch discussions of race and gender in all levels of Florida schooling.
When he turned his gaze to New College in January and appointed multiple board members to the small college, many of the student body, staff, and alumni were caught by surprise.
The six new trustees, all either Republican-allied academics or DeSantis cronies, included Christopher Rufo, an outspoken architect of the right-wing’s fight against Critical Race Theory, a university-level academic framework that acknowledges structural racism in American society.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first featuring interim president Richard Corcoran, a DeSantis ally installed by the new trustees after they booted previous president Patricia Okker.
Students, faculty, and even priests took the mic during the public comment portion of the meeting to fiercely criticize the actions the board had taken so far.
Rev. John Dorhauer, president of the United Church of Christ, which helped fund New College in 1960, was especially condemning of the new trustees.
“The long arc of history will grind you into dust,” he declared during public comment. “And [students] will win this battle and you will be remembered for the sycophants you are.”
Other opponents of the new trustees dressed in red robes that evoked The Handmaid’s Tale—a book about a dystopian Christian theocracy that enslaves women—while reading fiery tirades against efforts to change the school.
The room also began to chant “Shame on you!” at trustees.
Later, Rufo helped lead the charge towards a vote abolishing what even he admitted was a small DEI effort by the university.
“Then there should be very little resistance to eliminating it, Rufo shot back after he was challenged by student trustee Grace Keenan, who attracted raucous applause from the crowd when she confronted Rufo on the size of the school’s DEI initiatives.
The moves, according to research by Bradley Thiessen, the school’s chief of staff, would save the cash-strapped school $250,000.
Rufo quickly turned to Twitter to celebrate the end of diversity initiatives—causing ire even among staff.
“To have one board member crowing on Twitter during the meeting about the demise of DEI is inappropriate,” Reid said.