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At New College of Florida, Richard Corcoran is now in and diversity initiatives are out

Man in a suit sits at a table. A water bottle and laptop are in front of him.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Richard Corcoran thanked Gov. Ron DeSantis during his first public remarks as New College's interim president.

The Republican former state House speaker and education commissioner, who also served on the state Board of Governors that oversees Florida’s university system, was named to the role, in part, by seven new conservative trustees.

About three hundred people attended a rally before the New College of Florida Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday.

The small liberal arts college in Sarasota whose student enrollment is approximately 700 has been the focus of Gov. Ron DeSantis' efforts to create a more conservative education model for Florida's public colleges and universities.

On Jan. 6, DeSantis announced an overhaul of New College's Board of Trustees, appointing six new members. A seventh member was later added by the state Board of Governors, giving the board a conservative majority.

During the rally, Lianna Paton, a freshman and member of the school’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Student Alliance addressed the gathering.

“You can’t get rid of diversity in a classroom unless you want to silence students of color,” she said of the New College board’s intention to eliminate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs. “You can’t get rid of equity in a classroom unless you want to erase students of color and you can’t get rid of inclusion in a classroom unless you want to suppress students of color.”

New College Rally5_Daylina_022823.jpg
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Armed with homemade signs, hundreds of New College students, parents, and concerned community members rallied on Feb. 28, 2023 before the Board of Trustees meeting.

Chai Leffler, a third-year student studying urban studies and Chinese, said he struggled with his sexuality growing up.

“I’ve lived in Sarasota for over 16 years," he told the crowd. "That’s something that cannot be said about our new president or our Board of Trustee members. What that really means is that I understand the impact of New College on our local community.

"In high school, I went to a local queer youth center in Sarasota where I met New College students for the first time. Immediately these students welcomed me into an environment that accepted me unconditionally for who I was.”

Once the board meeting began, 49 people signed up to speak. All of them were critical of the board or of Corcoran.

Rev. John Dorhauer is President of the United Church of Christ, which provided some of the initial funding for New College before it eventually became a state institution. He was one of many angry voices to address the board during public comment.

"When Martin Luther King said that the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice, he did so to warn us of sycophants like you, to inspire the kind of resistance that we see erupting on this campus right now, and to remind those who have been victimized by your brutality that...the long arc of history will grind you into dust," he said.

New College Board of trustees
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Once the New College of Florida board meeting began, 49 people signed up to speak. All of them were critical of the board or of interim president Richard Corcoran.

A major topic at Tuesday's meeting was whether to abolish the school's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs.

The board ultimately eliminated what amounted to a small number of initiatives.

At the first meeting of the board in January, Christopher Rufo, an ally and appointee of DeSantis, made a motion to direct staff to draft a policy and present recommendations on how to eliminate DEI programs based on a brief he authored entitled, “Abolish DEI Bureaucracies and Restore Colorblind Equality in Public Universities.”

DeSantis vowed to defund these initiatives on the same day his hand-picked trustees convened at New College for the first time and fired then president Patricia Okker.

After Tuesday's presentation, Trustee Grace Keenan, the board's student representative, said they had spent more time finding out what DEI policies New College had than time invested in enacting an actual policy at the school.

Students rally and hold signs
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Hundreds of New College of Florida students, parents, and community members rallied before a Board of Trustees meeting on Feb. 28, 2023 that voted to eliminate the office handling diversity issues.

"From my understanding, one fourth of one office on campus has a position related to DEI,” she said. “We do almost no mandatory DEI training and the ones that are mandatory, it's only one hour of training. The only recently added DEI statement that faculty have is the only DEI statement required, and we have no identity-based quotas. So this is not a very impressive DEI bureaucracy."

Rufo conceded that such a bureaucracy at New College was small, but said that it was a matter of principle that the board go on record as opposing DEI initiatives.

"Even if these changes are not as great as at something like a University of Florida or a larger public institution, they are essential to say that we are taking this mandate seriously,” he said. “We are going to put these principles into action and we're ready to make the decisions not to be judging people on the basis of group identity, but on their individual merit."

According to the recommendations presented, the four full-time employees in the office will be offered other positions at the school.

The changes to New College’s DEI initiatives come as Gov. DeSantis has backed legislation (HB 999) that would bar state colleges and universities from promoting, supporting or maintaining programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion or “critical race theory rhetoric.”

The bill is filed for the legislative session that will start March 7.

Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.

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.