Small Florida College Worries about Government Involvement

08 April 2023

Willem Aspinall is a 19-year-old student at New College of Florida. He grew up near Chicago.

He called his school, near the small city of Sarasota, "a little bubble." The term bubble means a safe or protected area.

New College of Florida is a public liberal arts college that is an independent school in the State University System of Florida.

Notes written by students describing what they love about New College of Florida are stuck to a poster during a protest ahead of a meeting of the school's board of trustees, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, in Sarasota, Fla. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Notes written by students describing what they love about New College of Florida are stuck to a poster during a protest ahead of a meeting of the school's board of trustees, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, in Sarasota, Fla. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

The state recently changed the college's leadership group, known as the board of trustees, removed the president and closed the office of diversity and equity. After that, Aspinall said the bubble "has kind of been burst."

Recapture the school

No plans have been written down yet, but the school's new leaders promised changes within 120 days. One of the new trustees is Christopher Rufo, who often writes about higher education and is critical of New College. He said his group is out to "recapture" the college. Some current students will leave, and the college aims to accept new ones who will be, in his words, "mission-aligned." The board will change the school's study programs.

The changes are part of what some people call "a war on woke" by the state's Governor Ron DeSantis and his allies. Dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster says "woke" is a term that describes a person's attentiveness to issues of racial and social justice. But some people and groups, especially conservatives in the U.S., now use the word to attack and express their opposition to those who are "woke."

DeSantis is seen as a possible Republican Party candidate for the presidency in 2024. Earlier this year, he called for new legislation that would change higher education for colleges and universities in Florida.

DeSantis says he wants legislation that will generally require classes to be based on educational ideas rather than political ideas. He says he wants students to finish with degrees that lead to high-paying jobs. And he wants to ban public schools from supporting programs that put forward "divisive" ideas.

In addition, the Florida governor wants boards of trustees to have the power to reconsider a professor's job guarantee, called tenure, at any time. And he is calling for university presidents to have power over the hiring process.

A different kind of school

New College is different from many large universities in Florida. With only 700 students, it has more in common with small liberal arts colleges in New England than the University of Florida, which has nearly 35,000 students.

Many students create their own study programs with the help of teachers. The students say they feel welcome to be themselves. As a result, New College brings in students who did not like being in other places. Some did not go to traditional high schools but learned at home.

The professors know all their students by name. Most classes only have about 10 students.

Elizabeth Leininger is a science professor. "It is one of the most unique places, I think, that exists in American higher education," she said. But with the leadership change, she said she is concerned one of her classes called Sex, Gender, Mind and Brain might be canceled.

"I would have to think very carefully about how I am going to teach that class now," Leininger added. "There is very much a policing of ideas." So, she uses her personal email to discuss her concerns.

Olivia Pare studies biology at the school. She said: "I am here to learn. I am not here to be more ‘woke.'"

"Like, my professors are more stressed. There's just a lot more stress and anxiety in my education than I feel like is necessary. I just want to get my degree in peace, you know?"

Pare noted that students are no longer talking about science in her classes, they are talking about whether their professors will be permitted to keep teaching at New College of Florida.

Because it is small and open, the school is good for students like Lola White. White is both autistic and has ADHD, which makes it hard for her to center her attention on tasks such as schoolwork. But at New College, she has been happy for the first time.

"I felt like I could connect to the people here. The kids are accepting – of anyone. There is no judgment," she said. White said when she was having problems with her schoolwork, people offered help. She said she is going to stay at the school for the time being although some of her friends are leaving.

Changes coming

New College is not without its problems. Some buildings are old and need to be repaired. In some recent years, the school had fewer students than it would have liked. Other students said they would not mind going to school with classmates who have different opinions.

Some people at the school are already noticing that small things are different. For example, professors have been instructed to change the information they give at the end of an email. It can only include their name, job description, the school's address, and their phone number.

An event for students thinking about coming to the school was canceled with little notice. And cleaning workers washed off messages written on the side of a bridge on campus. Some of the messages were critical of DeSantis and the new board members.

Aspinall, who talked about the bubble of New College, now worries that the new leaders will "take a school that does not indoctrinate students and turn it into one that does."

I'm Dan Friedell. And I'm Dorothy Gundy

Dan Friedell adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on a report by the Associated Press.


Words in This Story

bubble –n. a small, enclosed space often seen in soapy water

diversity –adj. the state of having many different kinds of people together in a group

equity –n. a word that can relate to the idea of fairness or equality

degree –n. an official document given to someone who successfully completes studies at a college

divisive –adj. causing people to disagree and to separate into groups

tenure –n. a university job guarantee saying that a professor will have their position for most of their career

stressed –adj. to feel tense or troubled

anxiety –n. a feeling of fear and nervousness about what might happen

unique –adj. not like anything else

autistic –adj. a disorder that causes a person to have problems forming relationships and communicating with others