​People gather to defend academic freedom at the New College of Florida in Sarasota on February 28, 2023.

People gather to defend academic freedom at the New College of Florida in Sarasota on February 28, 2023.

(Photo: Florida Rep. Anna Eskamani/Twitter)

New College of Florida Students and Faculty Protest DeSantis' Right-Wing Assault on Education

"The long arc of history will grind you into dust," one critic told the school's board of trustees, "and you will be remembered for the sycophants that you are."

Roughly 300 students and faculty at the New College of Florida, along with their supporters, gathered before a board of trustees meeting on Tuesday to demonstrate against Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' takeover of the small public liberal arts college and his broader attack on public education.

"In January, DeSantis replaced six of the 13 members on the college's board of trustees with conservative allies, including Christopher Rufo, who has fueled the fight against critical race theory," CNNreported Tuesday. "The new board forced out the college's president and appointed DeSantis ally Richard Corcoran as interim president. Corcoran will earn a base salary of $699,000."

Members of campus have expressed fears that recently appointed right-wing leaders will stamp out academic freedom and further marginalize students of color and LGBTQ+ students. They have not sat idly by amid DeSantis' assault, holding several protests since the far-right governor—and presumed 2024 presidential contender—restructured the board.

During Tuesday's protest, people chanted, "Defy DeSantis, defy fascism."

Florida Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-47) observed that while affluent families may be able to afford out-of-state college tuition, "the rest of us are gonna be stuck with this bullshit."

"Please understand the economics of this," she continued. "We're already seeing the best and brightest faculty and students leave Florida."

Rev. John Dorhauer, leader of the church that helped found New College, meanwhile, condemned DeSantis' willingness to "sacrifice" the well-being of students "for his aspirations to serve as president of the United States whose right-wing, religious, and Republican wings are growing more fascist and more extreme every day."

Last Thursday, New College students joined thousands of their peers at universities and high schools across Florida for statewide walkouts and teach-ins—called "Stand for Freedom" and organized by the Florida College Democrats along with the Dream Defenders—to voice opposition to the GOP's onslaught of repressive and censorious education policies.

"A lot of us are hurting right now," Chai Leffler, a junior studying Chinese and urban studies at New College, told CNN on Tuesday.

The school in Sarasota has always encouraged "free academic thought," Leffler said, but now DeSantis and his Republican allies are attempting to dictate what can be taught and studied.

"I don't think politicians should really be the ones making that decision," Leffler added. "And I really don't think that's an unpopular opinion."

At Tuesday's rally, organizers planned to unveil a "student and faculty bill of rights" reaffirming the need for free critical inquiry that doesn't whitewash the injustices of the past or the inequalities of the present.

Last week's walkouts and this week's follow-up action at New College came after Florida Rep. Alex Andrade (R-2) unveiled House Bill 999, which threatens to turn many of DeSantis' reactionary ideas about public higher education into law.

The legislation, introduced last Tuesday, seeks to defund all diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at state colleges and universities and eliminate majors and minors in critical race theory, gender studies, or "any derivative major or minor of these belief systems." If enacted, the bill would put boards of trustees in charge of all faculty hiring and allow them to review a professor's tenure "at any time," and it would also establish new general education requirements and impose other changes.

"House Bill 999 is indeed a focused continuation of DeSantis' assault against academic freedom," The New Republic's Prem Thakker wrote Friday. "But it is also a broader test: about how much power an aspirational fascist state executive can openly accumulate in America."

Ominously, Rufo—a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and one of the six members of New College's board of trustees recently hand-picked by DeSantis—has praised the bill, tweeting that it "would be the most ambitious reform to higher education in a half-century."

Dorhauer, for his part, told the board on Tuesday that "the long arc of history will grind you into dust and they [the students] will win this battle and you will be remembered for the sycophants that you are."

Progressive advocates have warned that if implemented, the DeSantis-backed changes could adversely affect the ability of Florida's higher education institutions to recruit faculty and retain students, with current or prospective graduate researchers potentially choosing to enroll in programs in states that value academic freedom.

“The consequences for students are enormous," Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, toldCNN earlier this month. "They are denied the opportunity to learn and grow, students are denied the opportunity to hear important perspectives. That's the real tragedy."

The Florida GOP's crusade against public school students and teachers is being waged at all levels, from kindergarten through graduate school.

Last March, DeSantis signed House Bill 1557, a K-12 measure that critics refer to as the "Don't Say Gay" Act, into law. Since then, more than three dozen copycat bills, some of them even more restrictive, have been introduced in 20 Republican-controlled states.

In addition, DeSantis rejected a new high school Advanced Placement African-American studies course last month, prompting a lawsuit from students.

Ahead of last Thursday's walkouts and teach-ins, Carlo Lopez, a junior at Plantation High School in Broward County, said, "I think this walkout is important because we are showing the world that we are not afraid of DeSantis, and we are very much against him."

"We are taking a stand against his racially motivated actions, showing that we will not continue to be silenced and allow our history to be censored right in front of us," Lopez added. "DeSantis is a racist who is putting considerable effort into suppressing the voices of minorities, the very people that helped shape the United States to be where it's at today."

Nailah Summers, co-executive director of the Dream Defenders, noted that "Ron DeSantis has been on a rampage."

"He's banning books and flags in classrooms everywhere. He's making sure our history isn't getting taught. He's getting rid of teachers, professors, and faculty that look like us and support us," Summers lamented. "He's made it harder to protest, harder to vote, and harder to live in Florida."

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a leading scholar of fascism, warned Sunday that if elected president, DeSantis would make life harder for the vast majority of people throughout the United States.

"Ron DeSantis will destroy our democracy with deadly precision," Ben-Ghiat tweeted alongside a video of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) endorsing him. "I cannot emphasize how dangerous he is."

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