The New College of Florida’s reshaped board of trustees voted Tuesday to abolish diversity, equity and inclusion programs at the school after a heated public comment session – events that follow Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to move the college in a conservative direction.
The vote will eliminate the college’s Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence which, according to its website, provides a number of services including improving retention for students and staff of all identities, supporting cultural events, helping secure job opportunities for students, and addressing campus police-community relations issues. The office has four full-time staff members, three of whom will be reassigned to other jobs on campus, trustees say.
Students and others expressed strenuous opposition to the new direction before the vote at the Sarasota institution, both at the meeting and at a rally.
“Shame on you!” a crowd including students, parents and alumni chanted toward the trustees as the public comment portion of the meeting closed before the board’s vote.
In January, DeSantis replaced six of the 13 members on the college’s board of trustees with conservative allies, including Christopher Rufo, who has fueled the fight against critical race theory and pushed to end diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, known as DEI. The new board forced out the college’s president and appointed DeSantis ally Richard Corcoran as interim president.
Tuesday’s vote also came after DeSantis said last month that he intends to defund all DEI programs at state colleges and universities in Florida. These policies and programs are created to promote representation for people who have historically faced discrimination because of their race, ethnicity, disability, gender, religion or sexual orientation.
Dozens of parents, students and alumni spoke out against Florida’s conservative takeover of New College at Tuesday’s meeting.
Several speakers approached the microphone during the public comment session, most expressing outrage at DeSantis’ decision to handpick trustees who agree with his vision.
The college had offered an environment where members of the LGBTQ community can freely express themselves, students say. Student Sam Sharf said during public comments that the new leadership was launching a “hostile takeover” of the school and has neglected students’ concerns.
“Regardless of your attempts to suppress our educational freedom we will continue to learn the subjects that you want to ban,” Sharf said. “We reject the social inequalities that your ideology defends.”
At the meeting, Rufo said race shouldn’t be a consideration for the school. “It treats people differently on the basis of their skin color,” Rufo said.
The meeting came after hundreds of people rallied on campus Tuesday, holding signs with phrases such as “protect diversity, equity and inclusion” and “stand up for students.”
The school community has been up in arms for weeks, with many students saying they fear the college will no longer be a safe place for the LGBTQ community or other marginalized groups. Several protests have been held on campus since the leadership changes happened, including a walkout by students last week.
“A lot of us are hurting right now,” said third-year student Chai Leffler, who is studying Chinese and urban studies at the college.
Leffler said New College of Florida has always been a school that has encouraged “free academic thought.” Lawmakers, he said, are trying to strip away that freedom by telling students what they can and can’t study.
“I don’t think politicians should really be the ones making that decision,” Leffler told CNN. “And I really don’t think that’s an unpopular opinion.”
DeSantis’ office insists that the New College of Florida has seen declining enrollment and focuses too heavily on DEI, critical race theory and gender ideology.
Tuesday’s meeting followed the introduction of a bill in the Florida House that mirrors DeSantis’ ideas for an overhaul of higher education.
The bill, filed by a Republican lawmaker last week, would put board of trustee members in charge of faculty hiring; defund diversity, equity and inclusion programs; eliminate majors or minors related to critical race theory or gender studies; and authorize boards of trustees to review tenure of faculty.
The bill was praised by Rufo, who said on Twitter that it restores the “principle of colorblind equality in higher ed.” Rufo is a senior fellow and director of the initiative on critical race theory at the conservative Manhattan Institute.
“This would be the most ambitious reform to higher education in a half-century,” Rufo tweeted. “Gov. DeSantis is channeling the sentiment of the voters, who have demanded that taxpayer dollars stop subsidizing left-wing racialist ideology and partisan political activism. Democracy returns.”
Some students and advocates say they believe DeSantis has proposed sweeping changes to Florida’s colleges and universities for political gain because he is expected to run for president in 2024.
But they fear the lasting impacts could be Florida colleges struggling to retain students and recruit faculty.
People pursuing graduate degrees might opt for schools in other states that support academic freedom, Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, told CNN earlier this month.
“The consequences for students are enormous,” Mulvey said. “They are denied the opportunity to learn and grow, students are denied the opportunity to hear important perspectives. That’s the real tragedy.”
CNN’s Leyla Santiago and Denise Royal contributed to this report.