New College of Florida leaders voted Tuesday to eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion “bureaucracies” at the Sarasota honors college, the State University System’s smallest campus.
The school’s board of trustees — including six conservative members appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in January — banned mandatory diversity trainings and ended “political coercion” in the form of diversity statements. They also prohibited “identity-based preferences” in admissions, hiring and promotions.
The school will disband the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence, which is responsible for diversity initiatives. The office’s four staff members will be moved to other new or unfilled administrative positions, saving the school an estimated $250,000 per year.
It was the first trustees meeting for Richard Corcoran, the former education commissioner and Florida House speaker who became New College’s interim president on Monday.
The vote came as DeSantis and Republican lawmakers are pushing to remove diversity, equity and inclusion offices throughout the state college and university systems. Legislators have already begun to file bills to accomplish that aim during the session that begins Tuesday.
“It’s disheartening that they’re making decisions without getting to know who we are or who they’re impacting,” said Yoleidy Rosario-Hernandez, the school’s chief diversity officer. “It’s clear they haven’t taken the time to learn what our office does.”
The school’s new policy will not affect the funding of academic instruction, research or student organizations, said Bradley Theissen, a top New College official who briefly served as interim president before Corcoran arrived. The school’s general counsel will be responsible for overseeing diversity initiatives required by the state, as well as the school’s compliance with federal nondiscrimination laws.
“The objective (was) to remove the parts (of school policy and trainings) that we find to be discriminatory,” said trustee Matthew Spalding, a fellow at the conservative think tank the Claremont Institute.
State regulations already bar schools from considering race, color, national origin, disability, religion or sex in admissions decisions, and New College does not have identity-based quotas for employment. New College produces a state-mandated equity report each year, which sets nonbinding goals for diversity among students and faculty.
Matthew Lepinski, who represents the faculty on the board, opposed eliminating the diversity office, saying, “We’re solving a problem that isn’t serious or doesn’t really exist.”
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Supporters of the proposal said that the existence of diversity statements in job applications was evidence enough of a problem.
“The terms diversity, equity and inclusion carry a lot of political ideological content,” said trustee Mark Bauerlein, another DeSantis appointee. He added that diversity statements required in job applications were “a serious infringement on academic freedom.”
The board specified that further work would need to be done by Corcoran to ensure that some of the programming done by the diversity, equity and inclusion office will remain. But the elimination of that office means losing an essential resource for faculty, said theater professor Diego Villada.
When he arrived at the university in 2017, he said he needed help adjusting to a new generation of students with different values and expectations than he was used to.
He forgot to use students’ preferred pronouns or names, and he didn’t know how to address missteps or misunderstandings in a constructive way. The school’s office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence helped guide him and “helps professors to understand students that are different from them,” Villada said.
The newly revamped board voted 10-3 in favor of the two measures, with student trustee Grace Keenan, Lepinski and former chairperson Mary Ruiz opposed.
Before the meeting, protesters chanted outside the building and chalk-marked messages for the new appointees: “No bigots on our board,” “Our education is not your political stunt” and “Let us learn.” State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said student-led opposition is building across the state.
Some of it flowed into the meeting, where 49 people — from 1970s alumni to parents and current students — spoke to the trustees and Corcoran.
Sarah Engels, a 44-year-old Air Force veteran, pointed out that diversity, equity and inclusion offices help people like her who have served in the military. She said she felt like a casualty in the “war on woke.”
At the end of the public comment section, chants of “shame on you” rang through the auditorium, with some pointing at members of the board.
Also Tuesday, board members addressed a wrinkle that developed late last week over Corcoran’s contract, which will pay him a base salary of $699,000, plus more than $200,000 in added benefits. Most of that amount was intended to come from the New College Foundation, but the foundation’s finance chairperson noted that most of its funds are earmarked for other expenses.
The revelation raised questions about the foundation’s ability to help with Corcoran’s salary, but trustees said Tuesday they expected foundation members to “cooperate.”
Ian Hodgson is an education data reporter and Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.