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DeSantis appointees to New College of Florida lay out their visions to faculty and students

Man in cowboy hat speaks listens to man in suit speaking.
Cathy Carter
/
WUSF Public Media
Diego Villada, left, New College of Florida assistant professor of theater and performing studies, speaks with new board of trustee member Christopher Rufo after the first of two public town halls in Sarasota on Jan. 25, 2023.

New conservative board members Christopher Rufo and Eddie Speir got a mixed reaction during their campus visit Wednesday.

Two New College of Florida board of trustee members who were recently appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis laid out their visions for the school at a pair of town hall meetings in Sarasota Wednesday.

Christopher Rufo and Eddie Speir — who are known for their conservative activism on social media — urged attendees to engage in what they called "civil discourse."

The two men often speak about what they call "woke" ideology, a catch-all term favored by conservatives to describe what they consider liberal ideals.

Rufo — a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank — said he's helping DeSantis dismantle diversity, equity and inclusion policies at Florida's public colleges and universities.

Speir, the founder of Bradenton Christian School, has suggested creating a committee to study what he calls "aspects of wokeness."

But at the first of the public meetings Wednesday, both men pledged to work with faculty and New College administrators to treat everyone with respect.

Diego Villada, an assistant professor of theater studies at New College, said he left the meeting feeling somewhat relieved.

"I am only cautious that zealotry will be over independent thought and independent academic freedoms,” Villada said. “And I hope that they do what they said they're going to do in terms of open conversation, open dialogue and that everybody is welcome at the table."

But Tracy Fero, a parent of a New College freshman, said she did not feel any better after Rufo's assurances.

"Absolutely not,” Fero said. “He's a great speaker. You know what, I am too. I can stand here and get you guys engaged in a grocery store line and you'll like me just as much as we all liked him in there. We can all chameleon ourselves to whatever it is that certain individuals we're speaking to needs to hear."

Man in baseball cap and glasses and woman wearing black and white dress speak with blonde woman in blue shirt and white shorts
Tracy Fero, the parent of a New College student, speaks with reorters after the first of two public meetings Wednesday.

Before speaking to a morning crowd of about 200 people, Rufo said DeSantis gave the new appointees a mandate to reform New College.

"The situation has to be very serious if someone like me becomes a trustee of a public university,” Rufo said. “We are in a serious condition here. The people that have been running the show have been in denial for many years.

"The threat even of abolishing the university, dissolving it and redirecting its assets elsewhere in to the public university system didn't seem to be enough, and so that's why I'm here," he said of a 2020 effort by some Florida lawmakers to merge New College with Florida State University.

In his public remarks, Rufo cited the school's low admission and financial struggles as issues to resolve. But he also criticized what he called the college's "culture problem of social justice orthodoxy."

Rufo has helped craft public policy across the country, including Florida's Parental Rights in Education law, which critics call the "Don't Say Gay" law.

The first meeting of the New College board of trustees with its six new members is scheduled for next week.

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.