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Changes lead to friction, lawsuits at Florida College targeted by DeSantis

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As the fall semester began at New College of Florida, a small public school known for being proudly unconventional until Gov. Ron DeSantis began renovating it this year, new students were easy to spot.

Many were recruited athletes, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the school’s new mascot, a muscular, flexible banyan tree. They stood out among returning students, many of whom roamed campus barefoot or with hair dyed bright colors.

“Will these people accept us being weird like we are? said Emma Curtis, a 21-year-old fourth-year student, expressing a concern shared by others.

The influx of athletes is just one of the sweeping changes at New College since Mr. DeSantis and his allies pledged in January to transform the liberal arts institution, known as “public honors college” in Florida, a bastion of conservatism. More than a third of last year’s teachers, about three dozen, are gone. The same goes for about 125 students who chose not to return.

At a school that last year had about 700 students total, the freshman class of 338 is the largest ever; it also has a higher proportion of black, Hispanic and male students than previous ones, according to the administration. More than 200 students were moved from on-campus residences to off-campus hotels to make room for recruited athletes and other new students.

Pronounced climate change has given rise to a series of legal challenges. Alumni, faculty and students filed lawsuits, alleging free speech violations that they said amounted to academic censorship. The U.S. Department of Education is investigating a complaint that the new New College discriminated on the basis of disability. A former student accused the new leadership in a separate federal complaint of discriminating against LGBTQ students by creating a hostile environment that drove some of them away.

The board, controlled by DeSantis allies, and interim Chairman Richard Corcoran dismiss the criticism as a few malcontents and consider the overhaul a success. State lawmakers sent about $50 million to the school this year, a huge jump from recent years. New students were offered scholarships and newly designated laptops. The moldy dormitories were closed. And the school created an athletics department, intending to field six teams.

“What was really missing more than anything else at New College was leadership,” Mr. Corcoran, a former speaker of the Florida House and state education commissioner, said in an interview. “We were able to do something that hadn’t been accomplished in 63 years at the college, which was increase enrollment. We did this at a time of total upheaval and negative publicity.

Much of Mr. DeSantis’ criticism of New College before the overhaul centered on what he called “woke indoctrination” on college campuses. One of the first acts of the new leadership was to eliminate the college’s diversity office; shortly after, the head of diversity and the university librarian, both members of the LGBTQ community, were fired.

The board’s faculty representative resigned after five professors were denied tenure because of what Mr. Corcoran called a shift toward “a more traditional liberal arts institution.” Some new administrators hired into high positions did not have college educations, but rather ties to Republican state politics.

“The school board was not looking to make reasonable changes at a reasonable pace,” said Matthew Lepinski, a computer science teacher who resigned from the school board and then the school. “They wanted to make changes so quickly that they didn’t care what they broke.”

The reconfigured board of trustees voted to abolish New College’s gender studies program, which one administrator called “more of an ideological movement” than an academic discipline. The school’s only full-time gender studies professor resigned, writing in his resignation letter that Florida was “the state where learning goes to die.”

Gone are gender-neutral bathrooms, hallway artwork that in some cases featured nudity, and student murals completed in February and expected to remain for several years. Student orientation officials had to remove Black Lives Matter and Pride pins from their polo shirts. This week, a student government election pitted a returning student against a new student supported by a new campus chapter of the conservative organization Turning Point USA.

Dan Duprez, a former admissions officer at New College, said he was troubled by the tactics used to boost the incoming class, noting that the grade point averages and standardized test scores of incoming students were lower than those of freshman classes previous ones. He remembers a colleague showing him an admissions essay that was a screenshot of cell phone notes, “riddled with incorrect spelling and grammar, basically saying, ‘I just want to play ball.’ ‘ »

“This person was then accepted,” Mr. Duprez said.

Administrators say they had little time to recruit the large incoming class they wanted. Many top athletes had already committed to other schools, and critics say New College heavily recruited students from Christian schools. Mr. DeSantis said he wanted New College to model itself after Hillsdale College, a private Christian institution in Michigan.

Mariano Jimenez Jr., the athletic director and baseball coach, who worked at a private Christian high school, said the school used academic counselors to keep athletes on track, as others regularly do schools: “We are going to show that these athletes will be held to a high standard.

Several athletes refused to speak to a journalist. The college declined a request to make the athletes available for interviews.

One who agreed to a brief interview, Tyrone Smith, a 20-year-old basketball player, said he transferred from the University of South Florida in part because of New College’s academics. “The teachers know your name,” he said.

Friction over the arrival of athletes grew after many of them were assigned to apartment-style dorms, displacing older students. Other dorms have been deemed unsafe because of mold, which Corcoran said should have been addressed by previous administrations. Many students ended up in three nearby hotels.

Atticus Dickson, a 19-year-old religious studies student assigned to live in a Hyatt Place, described the inconvenience of having to take a shuttle or hitchhike just to get to class: “My job is on campus and I stay on place. campus late.

There were other sources of uncertainty. Annie Dong, a 21-year-old fourth-year art and psychology student, said the culture is no longer as positive and welcoming.

“The community has changed,” she said. “There’s also anxiety just being on campus. »

Parents and students reported that classes were canceled shortly before the start of the semester, a claim Mr. Corcoran denied despite the upheaval within the faculty. Visiting teachers have been hired for this school year.

“I was doing an internship in an organic chemistry laboratory,” explained Olivia Paré, a 20-year-old biology student who was entering her third year and transferred. “The professor I was doing this with was denied tenure, and that was the final straw for me.”

More than 30 students transferred to Hampshire College, a private liberal arts school in Amherst, Massachusetts, which offered to match the tuition of New College students.

One of them, Libby Harrity, 20, withdrew from New College as part of a deal to drop misdemeanor battery charges against her. Christopher Rufo, an administrator appointed by Mr. DeSantis, had accused her of spitting on him during a protest on campus in May. (Ms Harrity denied her version of events.)

Ms Harrity – who got a tattoo of New College’s original old mascot, a pair of empty parentheses denoting a mathematical concept known as the null set – said she was grateful for the equivalent of the fee school in Hampshire, although accommodation and return travel will be more expensive. .

“I’m hurt,” she said of leaving New College. “They came in and took everything that made him good and charming and took out as much of it as possible.”

Ms. Curtis, an art and psychology major, has remained at New College, although she plans to drop her psychology concentration. The dorm she expected to live in was closed, leaving her scrambling to find alternative housing on campus. She was one of six students whose murals — hers depicted sandhill cranes — were repainted without notice, which she said sent a painful message: “We don’t want your work here.” »

She let her pink dye fade and her mullet grow out before returning to school — for fear, she says, that administrators and new students would judge her. She tries to finish her art classes and graduate as soon as possible.

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nytimes

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