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What prompted a New England college to offer New College students a chance to transfer?

FILE - A student makes her way past the sign at New College of Florida, Jan. 20, 2023, in Sarasota, Fla. Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., announced in March 2023 that any students in good standing from New College of Florida, a Florida school under attack by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, can transfer there and pay the same amounts they are currently paying in tuition. The two academic institutions are both known for their progressive students and lack of grades. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)
Chris O'Meara
A student makes her way past the sign at New College of Florida, Jan. 20, 2023, in Sarasota. Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., announced in March 2023 ,that any students in good standing from New College of Florida can transfer there and pay the same amounts they are currently paying in tuition.

Hampshire College, a 700-student institution in Amherst, Massachusetts, has offered admission to students at Sarasota's New College and is matching their cost of tuition.

New College of Florida was once seen as an institution of free-thinking students, independent-minded faculty and a place where diversity, equity and inclusion were given campus aspects.

That all changed after Gov. Ron DeSantis began making a series of moves that critics called a conservative overhaul of the small, traditionally progressive college with about 800 students.

The changes began when DeSantis appointed six new trustees in January. The new officials immediately and radically transformed the state’s public honors college.

The school’s then-president, Patricia Okker, was replaced by former Republican speaker of the state House and DeSantis’ first Education commissioner, Richard Corcoran — getting a salary nearly $400,000 more than his predecessor — and the office at New College that handles diversity, equity, and inclusion programs was abolished.

THE OFFER: New England college offers New College students an avenue for education

Furthermore, in comments that put the "things are going to change" stamp on New College, one of the new trustees, right-wing activist Christopher Rufo, recently tweeted: “We will be shutting down low-performing, ideologically captured academic departments and hiring new faculty. The student body will be recomposed over time: some current students will self-select out, others will graduate; we’ll recruit new students who are mission-aligned.”

The new trustees eliminated New College’s Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence and most recently fired Yoleidy Rosario-Hernandez, the school's dean for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

Those changes sparked an uproar among New College students and faculty, which led to protests and prompted many to contemplate leaving.

Funding has taken a hit as well. USA Today reported this week that a former trustee at New College said 13 major donors told her they are canceling more than $29 million in planned contributions since the changes wrought by DeSantis, a huge financial blow to the small college.

  Hampshire College, a private, liberal arts college known for its progressive policies and innovative curriculum, tossed students at New College of Florida  a lifeline.
Hampshire College
Special to WGCU
Hampshire College, a private, liberal arts college known for its progressive policies and innovative curriculum, tossed students at New College of Florida a lifeline.

Enter Hampshire College of Amherst, Massachusetts.

The private, liberal arts college known for its progressive policies and innovative curriculum tossed a lifeline to students at the Sarasota-based college: all New College of Florida students in good standing could transfer. Those taking the offer would also get a match for their current cost of tuition.

In part, the college's offer said: “Hampshire College is proud to stand with students who crave a progressive education. Hampshire will provide a welcoming environment for all who want the freedom to study and act on the urgent challenges of our time, without ideological limits imposed by the state.”

Shared commitments

So, why would a college thousands of miles away in a different state make such an offer?

"Well, I think the simple answer to that is, you know, New College used to pursue a form of education that is very similar to Hampshire College. So we are both institutions that are committed to self-designed education, where students are responsible for the direction of their own learning," Hampshire College president Ed Wingenbach said. "We're both committed to authentic assessment through narrative evaluations. Students at Hampshire and New College, instead of grades, they get the kind of detailed feedback on their work that, you know, that you would get ... after you leave college, right, that help you improve."

Wingenbach said both colleges were committed to free, wide-ranging inquiry.

"Students who are designing their own courses of study can follow the questions and problems that interested them wherever they go," he said. "So we have, you know, intellectually and academically, we're very similar institutions. And we were part of a consortium, the Consortium of Innovative Environments and Learning "

In addition to Hampshire and New College, that consortium is composed of Bennington College in Vermont; Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington; University of Alabama New College in Tuscaloosa; Prescott College in Arizona; Quest University in Squamish, British Columbia; Rochester Institute of Technology School of Individualized Studies in New York; University of Hearst in Ontario; University of Redlands in California; Fairhaven College at Western Washington University in Bellingham; and Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

 Ed Wingenbach
Hampshire College
Special to WGCU
Ed Wingenbach is the president of Hampshire College in Massachusetts..

Wingenbach also said that students in the Hampshire College community share a set of value commitments common to those at New College.

"Particularly a commitment to creating space for people to explore their own identities and understand how power and depression operates in society, and to, you know, create a culture in which discussions of racism and white supremacy and gender identity and equity can be vibrant and meaningful, where people feel like they that they can participate in those conversations and maybe helped make the world a better place in a way that is really vibrant," he said.

It was that aspect that unfortunately put the target on New College, Wingenbach said.

"I think it's that part of what New College (did) well, more than the really important commitment to self-directed education, that made them a target," he said, adding that having an opportunity to support students who want to participate in that kind of a community education was important.

"We wanted to do whatever we could to make it possible," he said. "The shorter answer would be, we share a set of commitments intellectually and socially, about what the world should look like with the New College that currently exists. And want to make sure that students ... continue to pursue that kind of education."

And the offer has had an effect. "Yes, there's definitely interest," Wingenbach said, "pretty significant interest from students."

Around 20 inquiries have come in since the offer was made last week and one New College student had already transferred in time for the spring period, he said.

"Because I think they saw the writing on the wall what was happening at New College," he said. "And so, so we already had one student do that, even before we created the software."

A college dream crashes

Annika Fuller, 20, a sophomore at New College focusing on psychology and religious studies, dreamed of attending the Sarasota school for years.

"I've been wanting to go to New College since I was in seventh grade, like this has been the school that I've kind of dreamed about going to since I was in middle school. So to have it all just kind of come crashing down is super disappointing," she said. "Since it has been, you know, in my mind, I like to I very much like to plan out my life. So my plan is kind of, you know, going off track a little bit. So before all this happened, I never would have even dreamed of, of going to a different college. But I have to do what's best for my educational plan and my academic success."

She is seriously considering Hampshire College, attracted by the transfer offer but concerned about housing costs ... and the weather.

LISTEN: Gulf Coast Life talks to a current professor, student and alumnus

"It does give me pause, the weather, because I'm, you know, a born and raised Florida native. I'm not used to winters at all. We have pretty much the same temperature here, except in the summer when it gets so incredibly hot," she said. " And also, there was just this, I would have to inquire more with their admissions office about this, but I believe that they're only offering to match tuition and not room and board. So that would be very expensive as well. And, you know, as, as a Florida resident, I get Bright Futures and I have Florida Prepaid. So both of those things wouldn't really make a dent in any costs at an out-of-state school."

That challenge could keep the St. Petersburg native in her home state and looking at a private school such as Eckerd College.

"I was thinking about other colleges, specifically Eckerd College, which is a private school in St. Petersburg," she said. "So it is in Florida, and since it's private, it's not subject to the changes that public universities are being subjected to right now. Because even my brother goes to (Florida State University). Even there they're already starting to look at their diversity, equity, inclusion programs at such a big school as FSU. So it's happening. It's starting to happen everywhere in Florida."

New College of Florida students and supporters protest ahead of a meeting by the college's board of trustees, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, in Sarasota, Fla. The conservative-dominated board of trustees of Florida's public honors college was meeting Tuesday to take up a measure making wholesale changes in the school's diversity, equity and inclusion programs and offices. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Rebecca Blackwell
New College of Florida students and supporters protest ahead of a meeting by the college's board of trustees, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, in Sarasota.

For Annika, the changes that have occurred at New College and across Florida could also mean she might look for opportunities outside the state after she graduates.

"That's a really hard question. Because my mom was also born and raised in St. Petersburg. I love Florida. I mean, I can't really deal with cold winters, I spent a month in Berlin for our January term, and it was freezing. And I was just like, Oh, I miss, I miss Florida weather, so. But as a queer individual, it is super scary to be in a place where it's clear that the people in charge are not wanting to welcome you or protect you," she said.

She said she's been put into a position where she has to reevaluate her future.

"I'm planning on going to seminary school after graduating, after getting my bachelor's, to become a minister," Annika said. "So none of the seminary schools in my denomination are in Florida, so I will have to go out of state for that anyways. So I might just stay out of state, but I never really expected that to be my life. I always expected to eventually end up in Florida and stay here and be by my mom and the rest of my family because most of my family do live here. So it's really just changed the way I've I've viewed my future."

Hampshire isn't the only college interested in New College students like Annika. A top official at Binghamton University in New York said in a column in Tuesday's Miami Herald that his institution would be aggressively recruiting not just students, but also faculty from all Florida universities.

The 'woke' label

But as for any potential effect from Hampshire College's offer to New College students, or anyone slapping a "woke" label on the Amherst institution, Wingenbach wasn't concerned.

"I am not concerned about any backlash or being labeled as a woke college. I would say that, to the extent I understand how the word woke is being used as a term of insult, it seems to me any place that takes seriously the open discussion of the history of the United States and takes seriously the question of how is opportunity shaped and distributed within our society, and any place that tries to approach those questions with an ethos of wanting to make the world better and more equitable and more democratic, that that seems to be what woke means, as far as I can tell," he said. "And in that sense, you know, woke, seems to be compatible with democratic education generally, you know, the things that colleges and universities are supposed to be doing, helping people become critical thinkers, right, who can analyze the world and make decisions for themselves, the full range of of information. And, you know, ways to learn and so, so no, I'm not worried about that at all."

Wingenbach termed what happened at New College as an attack on the most meaningful ideals of higher education and called it a pretty terrible thing to do.

"To examine the realities of our society, and to try to, to advance democratic ideals have to make the United States, in particular, an ever more inclusive place, to actually live up to the ideals upon which this nation was founded. And we've spent, you know, 250 years, always trying to become better," he said. "And as we become better, we become different in ways that are challenging for people who, who benefited from the injustices of the past. And I think that that's, you know, to, to attack higher education generally. Because students who come to college end up taking seriously those very ideals that make the United States an amazing country, and try to make them real."

Wingenbach said Hampshire College's offer is more than just an offer but rather a way to take a meaningful stand that is more helpful then performative.

"But also, to draw some attention, because one of the things that I think we should know from history is that people don't stop, right?" he said. "They tell you what they're going to do, and then they do it. And then they do the next thing. And if you're, if you stand by and say, 'Well, that's, that's just New College, right? Or, well, that's just ... elementary school kids.' ... Where you can't talk about your, your authentic identity around if you're not a straight person. But, you know, that's, it doesn't stop there. right? It's gonna keep moving on, and moving to the next thing and moving to the next thing. And I think we need to be really clear about that."

Copyright 2023 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Michael Braun
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