Jul 26, 2023 - Education

New College of Florida wants $2 million for "cancel culture" center, struggles to fill vacancies

A tan building with a sign that reads NEW COLLEGE OF FLORIDA FOUNDED 1960

A view of New College of Florida in Sarasota. Photo: Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post via Getty Images

A center to combat "cancel culture" in higher education is in the works for New College of Florida.

Driving the news: A majority of the Board of Trustees voted in July to advance a $2 million budget request to the Florida Legislature to fund the New College Freedom Institute.

  • The center would combat what interim president Richard Corcoran called "a tremendous cancel culture" in higher education.

Why it matters: It would add to a long list of changes at the Sarasota liberal arts college about six months into Gov. Ron DeSantis' takeover of the school.

Flashback: In January, DeSantis appointed six conservative board members who characterized the school as being captured by liberal ideology and in need of saving. That led to protests by students, faculty and alumni, who pushed back against that notion.

  • The board ousted then president Patricia Okker, who wrote in a recent op-ed that the college "had become the epicenter of a debate about the future of academic freedom, shared governance, freedom of expression, and diversity, equity, and inclusion."
  • The board also voted to eliminate the college's Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence amid DeSantis' crusade against campus DEI initiatives.

Zoom in: The Freedom Institute's aim is to "promote freedom of inquiry and champion tolerance of civil discourse among those of opposing views," according to the budget request. The institute would be housed in existing facilities on campus.

  • The majority of the funding request – $1,755,000 – would go toward hiring scholars to develop curriculum and teach courses.
  • Among the other goals of the institute are hosting events to "discuss the challenges to free speech principles," and mentoring "next-generation leaders who have worked to promote freedom of speech and inquiry."

Meanwhile, college officials are working to fill 36 open faculty positions in time for the fall semester that begins Aug. 28, the News Service of Florida reported. The vacancies account for about a third of the college's full-time faculty members, which provost Brad Thiessen said at a separate board meeting this month was a "ridiculously high" level of turnover.

  • Biologist Liz Leininger told the Tampa Bay Times she began looking for a job the day the appointments were announced. Leininger now works as chairperson of neuroscience at St. Mary's College of Maryland, a public honors college.
  • "I felt a little guilty to be leaving," she told the Times. "I want to support New College students, but I told them, 'I can support you even from afar.'"

Plus: Students have faced their own obstacles, from losing out on classes because of the faculty turnover to dorms plagued by mold issues.

  • Some students have transferred, citing the ongoing turmoil and unwelcome change in campus culture. Among them was Blaise Paine, who wrote an op-ed about transferring to Hampshire College in Massachusetts.
  • "Come September, I will have moved 1,000 miles away from the state I have called my home for as long as I can remember," Paine wrote. "I have shed tears over what has been taken from me, and what has and will be taken from those I leave behind."
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