By Sara Youngblood Gregory
The news hit me hard. I was scrolling through Instagram in January while relaxing in bed with my wife. My feed was suddenly flooded with news from former classmates from New College of Florida. New College, a small liberal arts college in my hometown of Sarasota, Florida, was being taken over by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis.
On January 6th, 2023 (eerily overlapping with the two-year anniversary of the January 6th Insurrection), DeSantis appointed six new members to the New College Board of Trustees. The list includes Chris Rufo, the GOP crony often credited with the moral crusade against critical race theory, and Matthew Spalding, the dean of Hillsdale College — sometimes known as “Trump University.” Shortly after, the board ousted New College President Patricia Okker, who publicly defended the school’s curriculum and ethos. Conservative ally and former state education commissioner Richard Corcoran was quickly appointed interim president. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune has described Corcoran as “an eager participant in the governor’s education culture war battles.” He also demands a near-million-dollar salary for his efforts.
Founded in the heyday of 1960s counter-culture movements, New College was always meant to be weird. The school is tiny, with under 700 students, and the campus is crammed between busy state roads, towering Banyan trees, and the warm waters of the Sarasota Bay. There, misfits are welcome. Many of the state’s queer and trans high schoolers flock to New College for the promise of social acceptance. There’s a distinct mix of an urgency for social justice, leftist organizing, and radical thinking — all wrapped up in a hippie-ish, “take it easy” attitude. New College students are the type to plan a well-executed, wide-reaching protest in Florida’s capital of Tallahassee, and then show up barefoot.
The oddball atmosphere is supported by an intense academic rigor where students work with professors to negotiate their curriculum. In some cases, students design their own courses. All students produce a 100-page thesis in their final year of study.
In a deeply red state, New College is one of the few affordable options for many students seeking a misfit-minded environment. In-state tuition is less than $7,000 a year, and there are opportunities for fully covered tuition through Florida’s Bright Future Scholarships.
I graduated from New College in 2018. I was drawn to the school for its reputation. I genuinely wanted to learn and avoid Greek-life-ridden state schools. It was also financially accessible for me. The first out lesbian I ever met was at New College. She was a professor of Gender Studies who blew my mind and would later sponsor my thesis. I met much-needed challenges to my beliefs and upbringing in that environment. The school gave also me the space and freedom to finally explore my gender identity. A visiting professor was the first to spot my love for writing and set me on my path to journalism, via radical queer and lesbian-feminist literary publishing. Later, years after I graduated, it was through the tight-knit community of alumni that I met my wife. And the professor who set me on my path? She officiated our wedding.
When I first saw the news, my phone blew up with notifications and Have you seen this yet’s shortly after. I wasn’t entirely surprised that DeSantis had finally set his sights on my little alma mater. He’d been drawing battle lines in education for years. Or rather, a particular kind of education. Specifically, the knowledge that challenges white supremacist heteropatriarchy, and apparently, his feelings.
Perhaps most alarming is House Bill 999, which the New York Times called the “death knell for higher education in Florida.” HB 999 proposes state oversight on all public post-secondary schools (particularly around “identity politics”). It will also limit faculty and student speech in and out of the classroom. As Professor Amna Khalid put it, HB 999 “will turn Florida colleges and universities into state propaganda factories and intellectual wastelands.” Countless other bills are in motion and laws already in effect: “Don’t Say Gay,” the so-called “STOP Woke” Act, and a ban against African American studies.
Earlier this week, DeSantis signed SB 266 which bans Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives at public Florida universities. Just yesterday, DeSantis also signed a slew of anti-LGBTQ+ bills that ban gender-affirming care, prevent the use of preferred pronouns in schools, and an anti-drag bill that may even affect even pride events. In particular, SB 254 threatens to take children receiving gender-affirming care away from their families. Needless to say, many people living in Florida are terrified, myself included.
As I watched New College enter national debates on the ongoing “war on wokeness,” I knew something was missing. The New College takeover wasn’t just about social justice culture or the state’s wider public education curriculum — it was personal. The takeover, in my mind, is tangled up in New College’s well-earned reputation as an incubator for queer and trans scholars, activists, and organizers. Put simply? The takeover is an attempt to stop generations of emerging queer and trans activists from ever existing.
New College’s connection to activism is no secret: X González, a queer gun control activist who rose to prominence after the 2018 Parkland Shooting, chose to attend New College. Former heir-apparent to David Duke and the white nationalist movement, Derik Black was de-radicalized during his time at New College. He credits the school’s curriculum and culture with his transformation.
New College visiting professor Debarati Biswas (she/her), whose scholarship focuses on Africana Studies, gender, sexuality, and settler colonialism, says the targeting of New College can be seen as a retaliation against students like González who have the audacity to speak back to power.
“Activism is people wanting to make this world better. We want a better world that works for everybody, not just the tiny section represented by our board of trustees: white, Christian, male, heteronormative, and hetero-patriarchal,” Biswas tells me. “We became the ground zero of [DeSantis’] because we do not have the enormous resources to fight back. They have attacked us because they know they can create a culture of fear and silence.” And that will send a message to everyone — scholars, students, and activists alike.
Later, I spoke to Professor Amy Reid, Ph.D., the Director of Gender Studies at New College (she/her), about what students learn and the expectations that students should apply that knowledge to better the world around them. Already, she says, censorship is an issue. Email announcements about International Women’s Day and Feminist Fridays (casual, faculty-sponsored conversations about feminism) are blocked from being sent, due to their “lack of pertinence to the audience, policy violations, or incomplete information,” says Reid.
Chalking campus walkways (a deeply-rooted New College custom) with information about student events, gatherings, and things as benign as financial aid and exams, have also been banned. “Members of the campus police have sought to identify people who were seen chalking,” says Reid. “This is having a real chilling effect on students’ communication. [And] coupled with the limitations on email, it makes this place feel more fractured and frankly more under siege. I’m concerned about free speech.”
These may seem like small injustices — it’s just chalk after all, right? — but these are the sleepier, insidious changes that make way for more drastic harm. On March 10th, Yoleidy Rosario-Hernandez (ze/zir), the top diversity officer, was fired. That same day, the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence (New College’s DEI office) was abolished. In an interview with the Washington Post, ze addressed the firing, saying “I am in mourning because I see that the DEI is being attacked, not only at New College. I am the first casualty in many ways.” Additionally, Rosario-Hernandez, who is BIPOC and trans, says, “I definitely 100 percent think that I have been mistreated because of my identity. I am the only trans person in our team and I am the only one who got canned.”
For students still trying to attend classes and focus on exams, the uncertainty of what’s been happening — and what will happen next — is taking its toll. Gaby, a 19-year-old non-binary student (they/them), says many of their classmates have entered a “state of limbo,” where anxiety, burnout, and sleeplessness have become the norm. “It’s intense. [There are] a lot of emotions, mostly stress and unattended rage that don’t have an escape. We have people telling us we can’t be too radical or extreme, but then we have people telling us that chalk is radical, or that we can get arrested for peacefully protesting on campus.”
Gaby is no stranger to activism. They are a member of New College’s People of Color Union, Latinx Club, and copy editor for the student paper The Catalyst. They say the state’s interest in New College is an attempt to force young scholars, activists, and critical thinkers to fall into step with Florida’s wider political ideology. “[Conservative lawmakers] have this belief that institutions should follow the beliefs of the state. It makes no sense. And it goes into even deeper issues of freedom of speech and First Amendment rights, which is very scary and screams the F word.” F, Gaby clarifies, as in fascism.
And it’s true — as Black history scholar Khalil Gibran Muhammad noted in an interview with Democracy Now!: “Florida is a laboratory of fascism.” And the test subjects are always the state’s most vulnerable.
I don’t know what’s going to happen to New College. I don’t know if I’m one of the last few people lucky enough to graduate from the school’s Gender Studies program or cut my teeth on the intersectional, trans scholarship that I’ve carried with me well into adulthood. No one I spoke to had answers, either. We all felt, and named, the tightening grip of the “F word” closing in on us. As DeSantis seems to gear up for a 2024 presidential run, I feel sure the tides of revitalized fascism will soon be lapping at the feet of every educational institution.
Sara Youngblood Gregory (she/they) is a non-binary lesbian journalist and writer. She is the author of THE POLYAMORY WORKBOOK and a former staff writer for POPSUGAR. She covers sex, queerness, disability, culture, and wellness. Her work has been featured in Vice, Teen Vogue, HuffPost, Bustle, DAME, Cosmo, Jezebel, and many others.
Sara serves on the board of the lesbian literary and arts journal Sinister Wisdom. As a poet, Sara has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best New Voices. She’s also attended the Kenyon Review Workshop in 2019 and 2022, as well as a Winter Tangerine poetry workshop. Her chapbook RUN. is out now.