Fighting for the Freedom to Learn at New College of Florida

What’s happening to a small Sunshine State college casts a menacing shadow.
By Juliana Paré-Blagoev

At the 2023 AAUP Summer Institute, a session facilitator asked us to share what we had discussed in our small group breakouts. I began, “I’m here for the first time and am the newly elected president of the Hopkins AAUP chapter.” Polite smiles back. “I am also here, though, because I am an alum of New College of Florida.” Attendees gave a collective deeply sympathetic groan, I gestured my thanks, and they burst into applause.

That was the easiest, and the hardest, applause I’ve ever earned. It was easy to state where I had gone to college. It was hard to accept that my unique alma mater had become ground zero in a concentrated attack on the autonomy of higher education and that its students (including my niece), staff, and faculty were at risk of becoming collateral damage.

As Jeremy Young, program director of PEN America’s Freedom to Learn initiative, has argued, the authoritarian takeover of New College is a test case, and replication of the model for other colleges is part of the plan. As an alum, I can say that the college’s supporters are working to respond with a take-back playbook. It is our test case, and we hope it will be replicable if, sadly, that becomes necessary. The “we” in this case includes hundreds of alumni as well as students, current and past faculty, parents of students and alumni, and concerned community members, including many strong supporters among the authors of literally hundreds of media pieces about the attack on New College that have been published worldwide. Our playbook is an evolving document: we are continually refining our response and incorporating ideas from the many people who choose not to be bystanders and who reach out or respond to our requests.

Florida’s Honors College

New College of Florida is a small, public liberal arts college in Sarasota, Florida, with fewer than seven hundred students. It has produced proportionately more graduates who go on to earn a doctorate than any other public college in America and, at ninth in the country among all institutions, it ranks above Harvard in per capita doctoral degree attainment. In 2022, U.S. News & World Report ranked it fifth among public institutions in the “national liberal arts colleges” category. Daily Beast editor Malcolm Jones and other alumni who have written recently about NCF add helpful context for those interested in knowing more about the college’s potential to engage and transform its students.

Founded in 1960, NCF has experienced multiple existential crises, weathering each one and carrying on as an institution guided by deep commitment to giving students freedom to craft—and be responsible for—their own pathways to learning. It attracted an unusual and self-motivated student body—often students who were passionate about their education and didn’t fit easily into mainstream norms. When Florida governor Ron DeSantis announced on January 6, 2023, that he had appointed a new slate of trustees charged with transforming New College into the “Hillsdale of the South,” many in the alumni community thought this would be a challenge that—once again—the college could weather with only the usual amount of trouble.

As we continue the struggle some seven months later, it is clear that the damage has been both more rapid and far more severe than anyone anticipated. More than a third of the faculty members have left, scores of students have decided to transfer out, many courses that seniors will need to graduate have been canceled or had “TBA” listed for the teacher just days before the start of classes. On August 10, the trustees voted to abolish the college’s small but vibrant program in gender studies—one of the oldest interdisciplinary programs at NCF, founded in 1995—forcing the resignation of the only full-time faculty member in the field. Alongside the problem of decimated course offerings, returning students discovered that their dorm rooms have been reassigned to incoming student athletes while they, and incoming students who are not athletes, are scattered into hotel rooms off campus. Incoming student athletes will have rooms but not much else: some seventy baseball players (twice as many as there are on the University of Florida’s Division 1 team) have been recruited even though New College has no appropriate sports facilities. Don Moynihan described the mismanagement well in a Substack newsletter.

The new administration, largely composed of individuals with no higher education experience who are earning sky-high salaries, is intent on remaking the college: a tightly restricted curriculum centered on “correct” canonical texts. There is a right way to think, they believe, and the new New College will be designed to stamp it on the minds of its students. We are fighting not only because this is a radical reversal of NCF’s mission statement cited in the 2022–23 faculty handbook but also because it’s simply the right thing to do—the students still on campus need help, and principles of free inquiry are fundamental to higher education. (Note that without a formal review process or any official announcement, a new mission statement had been posted on the NCF website as of August 2023).

Hope Comes from Action

New College alumni, students, parents, current and former faculty members, and former staff are collectively producing and curating hundreds of community-building, information-sharing, campaign-planning messages across multiple platforms—and we’ve been doing it nearly every day since January 6. We hold regular meetings for our “save New College” community in which we provide updates, build solidarity, hatch ideas, and generate energy and determination.

Here are some of the developments that continue to give us hope:

  • a growing collection of op-eds by alumni, faculty, and other New College supporters calling out the “terror-forming” (that is, transforming through terror) of the campus and its community;
  • scholarly contributions addressing the authoritarian dangers to the US higher education system highlighted by the attack on New College;
  • rallies organized by parents, students, and alumni to protest harms done by the new administration;
  • regular food pantry donations by parents to support students who routinely experience food insecurity;
  • new research and activism focused on collaborations between alumni and other “Save New College” community members;
  • the launch of AltLiberalArts, which “is building an online institute to support the academic freedom of faculty and students following the hostile takeover of New College of Florida”;
  • the filing of detailed complaints to the Department of Education and to the regional accrediting agencies; and
  • strong organizations formed to resist the takeover and fight the larger fight for the freedom to learn.

One of those new organizations is Novo Collegian Alliance, which champions efforts by current students like the alternative commencement ceremony held in May. Another organization, NCF Freedom, filed a federal First Amendment lawsuit against the State of Florida over Senate Bill 266, which codifies many elements of the attack on public higher education (you can listen to a story about the lawsuit from recent New College graduate and former student newspaper editor Sophia Brown).

There are also wider forces at work: the New College Chapter of the United Faculty of Florida filed a different lawsuit challenging provisions of SB 266 that violate faculty members’ constitutional rights to arbitration in labor disputes—including the denial of tenure. We are buoyed by the ongoing commitment of organizations like the Elders for Social Justice, which is pushing to address authoritarianism. Inspired by what has been happening at New College, and aware that the playbook there is also being used at the K–12 level, members of this group are preparing to support the school boards in their own communities across the country. We are grateful that PEN America has announced support for New College and that an AAUP special committee has produced a preliminary report that focuses in part on New College and will soon issue a final report. It is chilling that many of the elements of the takeover at NCF were also previously in evidence in the AAUP’s special report on political interference in the University of North Carolina system. Other recent activities in North Carolina are of deep concern to our community and should be on everyone’s radar. What is happening at New College won’t stay at New College.

Through resisting, we have come to value more deeply the freedom of learning that is under direct attack not only at New College and other higher education institutions but also in the K–12 public education system. The freedom to learn is fundamental to other freedoms we hold dear: academic freedom, free speech, freedom of the press, the freedom to assemble, and the freedom to exercise but not impose a religion. All these freedoms are undergirded by the core value that we must be free to learn. Why assemble if not to learn? Why have academic freedom if not to support our students’ learning and to contribute new knowledge through our research? Why have a free press if not to learn from what is reported? Resisting this takeover is hard, but the decision to keep fighting is easy because we have no choice. The alternative—the abolition of a true freedom to learn—is impossible to bear.

Juliana Paré-Blagoev, a graduate of New College of Florida, is associate professor in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, where she is president of the AAUP chapter.