When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed six conservative trustees to the board of New College of Florida—his latest chess move in his war on education—the roughly 650 students studying there were caught by surprise.
The tiny school, best known for ranking as the fifth best public school in the country and pumping out Fulbright scholars, suddenly found itself at the center of the country’s culture war, and the latest target in DeSantis’ march towards the presidency.
Almost immediately, students who disagreed with the proposed changes and pledged to fight back felt the heat of a well-funded, well-organized takeover, and the sudden spotlight of the right-wing movement, all while still going to class.
But they have now found help as well—in the form of an army of alumni determined to support students at their alma mater and fight back against what they believe is an attack on New College’s educational freedom.
“A few alumni and I were on a text thread talking about it, then started a Slack thread, then started having meetings over Zoom, and talking about what was happening,” New College alumnus Julia Daniel, a professional community organizer, told The Daily Beast. This growing army quickly got in touch with students they saw “rising up, fighting back.”
“We really wanted to figure out how we can resource them,” she said.
And the movement has grown. From helping students manage media requests, to raising over $120,000, to pondering legislative and legal strategies, or even just sending pizza to campus, a group of hundreds have teamed up over social media channels and weekly town hall meetings to pool their strengths and go to battle with Florida’s highest powers.
“This is a very personal story for all of us,” New College alumnus and University of Oxford Associate Professor S. Eben Kirksey told The Daily Beast. “And, you know, we’re all wanting to give back to this place that really made us who we are.”
Yet, the students and alumni face a formidable foe—and one that has not only won important battles already in the war to change the small-yet-storied college, but other areas of the state’s education as well.
New College was founded in 1960 as a private college. Later it was folded into the state school system, and finally became an independent state school in 2001, when it was coined the “Honors College for the State of Florida,” according to the school’s website. But the notoriously progressive school has fallen squarely into DeSantis’ crosshairs as part of his attempt to pull the state’s education system far to the right with laws like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and “Stay W.O.K.E Act” (mired in court), which severely limit teachers’ ability to instruct on topics of race, gender, and diversity.
K-12 teachers have even physically covered up shelves of books they aren’t sure comply with new laws, and books as seemingly innocuous as baseball star Roberto Clemente’s children’s book, which references racism, were removed amid another pending review.
Days after DeSantis appointed new trustees as part of what he called an effort to “restructure” New College in the face of student “indoctrination,” he rejected a newly piloted Advanced Placement course in African-American Studies in high schools, claiming the syllabus—built with input from preeminent scholars and thinkers—“lacks educational value.”
Once trustees were appointed by DeSantis last month, James Uthmeier, the governor’s chief of staff, declared the government’s plans to turn New College into an ultra-conservative Christian “Hillsdale of the South” in an interview with The Daily Caller. And since then, appointees have moved quickly on their aims.
“Everybody was just kind of like, I think taken by surprise by a very well-funded, well-coordinated, hostile takeover,” said Nirvan Mullik, a New College alumnus. “And this had been planned for a long time and the school was chosen, you know, because they're a small, seemingly defenseless college.”
The trustees include a Trump-allied professor, an editor for the far-right Claremont Institute, and Christopher Rufo, one of the key figures behind the misleading right-wing backlash against Critical Race Theory—a long-established academic framework that acknowledges systemic racism.
This month, new trustee Eddie Speir declared his wishes to fire the president as well as all faculty. And last week, one of those goals was achieved when New College president Patricia Okker was ousted.
Once gone—despite fierce student and alumni-supported protests during the board meeting—she was replaced with DeSantis ally Richard Corcoran, who was given a salary bump to the tune of $699,000, more than twice what Okker was paid.
Daniel, once a NCF sociology major, told The Daily Beast that since she got the first text message, she has barely had a moment’s rest.
“I haven’t had a lot of time off because outside of work and just on Zoom calls or on phone calls with students or other alumni trying to strategize and think about what the next move is, and then also... we’re in some grief because this is a hard thing to grapple with emotionally, too. Because an institution we love is under attack,” she said.
Nirvan Mullik, who grew up in Indian Harbor Beach and is now a filmmaker in California, helped set up a GoFundMe that has raised over $120,000 and is governed by what he said is an “ad-hoc committee of alumni and students.” He said his life has been “consumed with volunteering.”
“You know, New College has a lot of great lawyers, and they started self organizing and looking at legal issues and policy issues. We have like a bunch of people who do communications and media and strategy … everybody just started organizing into these self-organized channels, which is very New College, right? Like, it's a bunch of independent learners who set up their own curriculum and go do what they want to do.”
The Slack group of which Daniel and others are a part has grown to include hundreds of alumni wanting to help. The group has called for a weekly town hall meeting to coordinate efforts.
The handful of alumni interviewed by The Daily Beast said that their main aim was to support students in their own protests and their public counter-campaign to DeSantis’ takeover, and to counter what they consider false narratives about the rigor of their school.
They mentioned offering legal, legislative, and organizing support, and helping manage communication strategy, while letting students’ wishes and voices come first. “Making sure we’re lighting up student voices across the different groups that DeSantis is attacking,” said Daniel.
Daniel explained that she was especially proud when alumni gathered to bolster student efforts to protest and garner media attention after appointments were confirmed and new trustees attended their first public meeting.
Kirksey said that DeSantis’ narrative of indoctrination at the school is “misplaced,” and that New College is not, as the governor might insist, “broken.” He has not only been coordinating the alumni’s remote town hall meetings, he said, but also speaking to legislators, fact-checking claims made about the school, and stressing the value of its unique, Oxford-like self-directed studies.
“I study things like critical race theory, queer theory, and postcolonial theory,” he told The Daily Beast. “We also have people who went on to chair the Federal Reserve of New York. So the stories that they're telling about this place being broken, I think, are really out of sync with reality.”
Shannon O’Malley, a marketing consultant who graduated from New College in 2001, sees the effort to change her school, as well as DeSantis’ other radical changes to the education system, as something out of her own career’s playbook.
“He’s just priming the pump—he’s doing a lot of stuff that is going to appeal to what was Trump’s base. He’s stealing the most racist, sexist people and getting those voters. He’s getting all this press before he says on the record that he’s gonna run.”
O’Malley fears it’s the first testing ground of a growing right-wing plan to alter other states’ public education systems as well.
She, and other alumni interviewed by The Daily Beast, wonder as they try to slow down changes to their beloved school, whether the trustees and politicians are ready to face not only student and alumni pushback, but both Florida’s Sunshine Laws and even good old plain, boring bureaucracy as well.
“New College is just one notch on his belt, one PR notch on his belt. Like, ‘Look what I did, I ruined that snowflake lefty college,’ right? But, like, to actually do it, to actually change the curriculum and erase the mission and replace it with something new, there’s a lot of, like, bureaucracy and work and hiring and firing and all kinds of things that’s going to have to go on to do that,” she said.
The DeSantis administration did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast on Friday. In the meantime, alumni say they will keep up the fight.
“We’re up against a man who wants… to make headlines for himself to try to gain power and run for president, and he doesn’t mind his students being his political pawns,” said Mullik. “The political pawns are going to fight back.”