As the New College of Florida board of trustees prepares to meet Tuesday, two of the six new members recently appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis have taken to social media with plans for a swift and striking overhaul of the small Sarasota school.
On Twitter and the online platform Substack, Jason “Eddie” Speir and Christopher Rufo have suggested that a demotion may be in store for New College president Patricia Okker, who was hired in 2021.
Speir, the founder of a Christian high school in Bradenton, told his subscribers on Substack that he intends to explore changing Okker’s status to interim president and implementing a hiring freeze. He said he planned a series of motions, including one to seek legal opinions on whether the board could declare a “financial emergency” in order to employ a policy of “terminating all contracts for faculty, staff and administration and immediately rehiring those faculty, staff and administration who fit in the new financial and business model.”
He also proposed exploring the option of getting rid of faculty tenure.
Rufo, a conservative activist who has consulted with DeSantis on policies including the Stop WOKE Act, said earlier this month on Twitter that the new trustees planned to “restructure the administration” at New College.
And, while he also tweeted that he “had a productive call” with Okker and had “full confidence” in her leadership, that tweet is no longer viewable. Instead, Rufo has since tweeted about “weak leadership” at the school and stated that “we’re in charge now.”
He accused Okker and the New College provost of trying to stop a campus appearance by him and Speir last Wednesday after Speir received a threatening message. The two administrators cited safety concerns — for Speir and Rufo as well as faculty, staff and students attending the events.
But Rufo tweeted, “We’re going to be reconsidering leadership here because what I saw demonstrated here was cowardice, not leadership.”
The trustees’ agenda on Tuesday includes an item titled “President Okker’s Employment Agreement,” with no accompanying explanation.
At New College’s Foundation board meeting last week, Okker said she had “productive” conversations with the six DeSantis-appointed trustees and she intended to continue working with them.
Chris Kinsley, the school’s vice president for finance and administration, responded Monday to Speir’s online comments about the school’s fiscal status, saying in an email to the Tampa Bay Times: “The college is not facing a financial emergency.”
He said he planned to share more at a future trustees’ meeting.
According to a December audit report, the college’s financial standing has shifted downward over the last year. Net assets dropped by $3.4 million for a year-end balance of $31.2 million. But the school has sufficient reserves, Kinsley said.
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“The board of trustees has worked closely with the finance staff to ensure the college has a balanced budget and appropriate liquid reserves,” Matt Lepinsky, the board’s faculty member, added in an email. “I am confident that the college can meet its current financial obligations.”
Rufo also tweeted he believed diversity, equity and inclusion departments are “political bureaucracies that push a pernicious racialist ideology” and “a complete waste of money” — language he did not use in the session on campus when the university’s chief diversity officer asked if she’d still have her job.
His statement contained echoes of the DeSantis administration’s position on so-called “DEI” departments. Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez said last week the state planned to “curb” diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at public colleges and universities. That followed a request from the governor’s budget office for all higher education spending on those initiatives.
The board of governors, which oversees the state’s 12 public universities and is mostly made up of members selected by the governor, last week appointed an additional New College trustee, Ryan Anderson.
“What we have with these new appointees is a handful of out-of-state carpetbaggers who have been appointed by the governor, who have no interest in the state, who have no interest in the institution of New College,” said Andrew Gothard, president of United Faculty of Florida, the statewide faculty union.
“They don’t care about the students, they don’t care about the faculty and they clearly don’t understand how Florida contract law works,” he said.
The board of trustees would need to prove a number of things to declare a financial emergency at New College, mainly that the institution can’t meet its debts or pay faculty, Gothard argued.
Even if they could prove it, he said, they would have to meet with collective bargaining leaders and be able to prove the only way for the university to end the financial emergency would be to change their agreements.
Amy Reid, director of New College’s gender studies program, said she was concerned about the proposal to review all curricula, particularly given the fields of study trustees have made statements about.
“Each faculty member coordinates with colleagues to determine the offerings for their programs,” she said. “This allows faculty to respond nimbly to respond to new developments in our fields. At some colleges and universities it can take two years for a new course to be added to the curriculum.”
Gothard, the faculty union leader, said he would wait to see what happens Tuesday.
“All of these ideas that we’re hearing repeatedly show that these people do not know how to run an institution,” he said, also noting that Speir and Rufo represent just a portion of the 13-member board.
The board will meet from 3-5 p.m. on campus. A student protest is planned before then.
Divya Kumar and Ian Hodgson cover higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.
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