Sarasota Democrats Stand for Academic Freedom and in Support of Young Adults Under Attack

With his move to target higher education with prohibitions, threats and hostile takeovers, Gov. Ron DeSantis has crossed a red line against free speech. The day a Congressional committee wrapped up its investigation into the Jan. 6, 2020 insurrection, the governor announced a conservative takeover attempt of the board of the Sarasota-based New College of Florida. Thursday last week, he appointed six new members to the 13-member board, including Christopher Rufo, the right-wing activist who originated the Orwellian campaign against critical race theory, and Jason Speir, founder of a private Christian school in Manatee County that teaches creationism while taking taxpayer-funded vouchers.

In December, the Office of the Governor required all public universities in Florida to report “expenditures of state resources on programs and initiatives related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and critical race theory.” Never mind that a federal judge blocked the Stop Woke Act, which underlies the governor’s efforts to reshape higher education, calling it “positively dystopian”.

The governor’s announcement coincided with a campaign on right-wing social media accusing New College of “woke” practices, turning specific teachers and students into targets of outrage.

“The extremists couldn’t take Capitol Hill by force, so now the governor is making a political show of storming a small liberal arts college in Sarasota instead,” said Sarasota County Democratic Party Chair Daniel Kuether. “In the name of freedom, Ron DeSantis is eradicating diversity, equity and inclusion. What he is really doing is intimidating, bullying, prohibiting, censoring, and banning. He would like to turn Florida into a sunny clone of Russia, but we will do everything we can to stop him.”

The governor’s education commissioner said in a statement he hopes New College will be reshaped “along the lines of a Hillsdale of the south”. Hillsdale is a private, Christian college in Michigan that has a low profile in the academic and scientific community but enjoys a high profile in right-wing politics. A vice president of Hillsdale College has been implicated during the Jan. 6 hearings in efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

The governor is putting at risk a 63-year history of academic excellence and open debate at New College. Offering students an approach to learning that grants them an unusual degree of freedom and responsibility, the college has produced generations of innovative graduates. They include serial entrepreneurs, corporate executives, an anti-Castro Congressman, a Republican National Committee member, a Federal Reserve chair, notable natural scientists and computer programmers, as well as many physicians, journalists, and educators eager and able to think outside the box.

One recent graduate is Derek Black, the scion of a white supremacist family and godson of longtime Klan leader David Duke. Black says he originally picked New College because it was among the “whitest” campuses in Florida. His presence caused fear and backlash among many students when it became known. However, the college endorsed his right to remain and pursue an education. While in Sarasota, Black changed his mind about his racist ideology; interaction with fellow students played a major role in this.

The Democratic Public Education Caucus is calling on everyone to join the annual Sarasota legislative delegation meeting on Thursday, 1:30-5 pm, at the Sarasota County Administration building (1660 Ringling Blvd., downtown Sarasota), to ask Sen. Gruters and Reps. Buchanan, McFarland and Grant to stop the anti-science takeover of New College.