Just three years ago, state Sen. Joe Gruters described New College of Florida in Sarasota as a “beacon of shining success.” The superlatives from the Sarasota senator were justified. For 2022-23, New College was ranked the No. 5 public liberal arts college in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, right behind the Naval, Army and Air Force academies and the Virginia Military Institute.
New College also places high in various value rankings, including making the top 10 “best buy” public college by Fiske Guide to Colleges. And it’s the top public college in the nation for the percentage of its graduates who go on to earn doctorates.
Against this record of glowing success as an academic institution — modeling the foundational democratic principles of individual achievement, equal opportunity and academic freedom — Gov. Ron DeSantis has nominated trustees who are openly hostile to the very core of those achievements.
These nominees were selected to transform New College into a clone of Michigan’s Hillsdale College, an ultra-conservative, Christian school that’s unrecognizable to Sarasota and to Florida.
As an organization whose mission is to empower voters and defend democracy, the League of Women Voters of Florida, Sarasota County and Manatee County join those who value academic freedom, diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education by urging the Florida Senate to oppose these nominees to the New College Board of Trustees.
When the idea of merging New College with Florida State University was proposed several years ago — based in part upon concerns about “sustainability” as an independent public school — Sen. Gruters argued for a careful, deliberate process.
He correctly believed that such a decision would affect “the lives of students, faculty, our community, and Florida’s ability to maintain a top-tier higher education reputation on the global stage.” Ultimately the decision was made to preserve the independent status of New College, and it continues to stand on its own in terms of meaningful achievements of its graduates.
These prerequisites for favoring or opposing a major proposal that will impact Florida taxpayers are directly aligned with the League’s approach when determining whether to take a position on an issue. The League advocates on issues that are determined to be important to its members only after careful study and analysis. Engaging with the community and seeking input from community interests and stakeholders is vital to this process.
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Nothing less should be the standard on an issue as important to Floridians as the philosophy and mission of the preeminent public college funded by Florida tax dollars.
Has there been rigorous study, analysis and consultation ahead of the proposal to radically change the direction and focus of New College? What is the basis upon which the governor argues that such a change is needed to preserve New College’s “sustainability?”
What are the true motives of the governor, whose own higher education was achieved at liberal arts institutions like Yale and Harvard, in nominating to the governing board individuals with openly hostile views to New College’s academic and cultural ideals and achievements?
Florida already has attracted national attention because of efforts by the Legislature and Gov. DeSantis to squelch free speech and curtail academic freedom throughout public education in Florida with anti-gay, anti-woke and anti-history laws. Last year the University of Florida president forbade several of its preeminent professors from testifying in court about the state of Florida’s new voter suppression laws. That attempt to sensor and discipline was called out by the League and stopped by a federal judge.
Now, the governor has targeted a jewel of the state university system by selecting individuals known to be hostile to those principles in the name of conservative education.
Politics is the realm for argument and persuasion to various points of view, be they liberal or conservative, progressive or traditional. Many state government administrations have presided over Florida’s public universities and colleges that occupy enviable positions in national and international rankings. Many of these administrations have been led by conservative Republicans. Yet until now, none of them has exhibited open hostility to the academic, social and creative growth of our New College students.
Academic freedom and the ability to question and debate different theories and concepts is the basis of a good education and the foundation of a strong democracy. Well-educated citizens who have heard all sides of an argument make for informed and engaged voters. The League whole heartedly supports these open debates which will be threatened and stopped by the newly appointed board.
The nation is watching this hostile takeover of public education in Florida. The members of the Florida Senate have the ability — and the duty — to demand a reasonable approach to the governance of the Florida public university system.
The League of Women Voters of Florida, Sarasota County and Manatee County urge our representatives in the Florida Senate to remember the words of Sen. Gruters and oppose the radical changes promised by the nominees in the absence of careful analysis and stakeholder engagement, without which years of academic and individual excellence may be lost.
Cecile Scoon is president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. Linda Thompson is president of the League of Women Voters, Sarasota County. Alice Newlon is president of the League of Women Voters, Manatee County.