Karen Cyphers: New College’s culture is overdue for a reset

At the core, state money is invested in state schools to teach, train, and prepare students for careers and fulfilling lives.

Gov. Ron DeSantis recently appointed six conservatives to fill vacant seats on the 13-member Board of Trustees of New College, Florida’s smallest state university.

As one of the relatively small number of conservatives who graduated from New College, and one who enthusiastically supports its mission, I welcome this move. I believe it will help renew the school’s promise of being a place where independent, curious students from all backgrounds are exposed to diverse ideas, rigorous instruction, and robust opportunities to research, explore, and create.

It’s not just conservatives who share concerns about the direction New College has been going. In personal conversations, on alumni message boards, and even in discussions with new Board members, many community members privately acknowledge the school has a legitimate culture problem — but fear raising their voices.

Quiet cries for help, so to speak, have been issued for years. It seems Gov. DeSantis heard them.

New College’s culture is overdue for a reset

The social culture at New College, which for decades attracted students who sought fearless intellectual exploration, is at risk of becoming a hollow caricature of this mission.

The community is ideologically homogeneous at best — and at its worst, it is unwelcoming and punishing of those who hold alternative political or cultural views.

While it’s true that at many universities, students and faculty tend to lean “left,” being liberal at New College is all but assumed, practically a prerequisite for wanting to attend or making it through all four years.

While a student at New College, I observed classmates ostracize, intimidate, and punish others for holding certain religious and political beliefs.

Many alumni have stories of their own, though I didn’t find myself as a target until after graduation.

I had gone back to visit campus in 2006 while working for Charlie Crist’s Republican gubernatorial campaign, as I’d been told there was one “College Republican” who may want to engage with our efforts. So, I set out to meet him.

But when I arrived, it was not a welcome return. One staff member told me, not jokingly, “Your diploma should be revoked.”

Somewhat ironically, the names I was called by students on that visit 16 years ago are the same I’d likely be called by students today for opposing Crist’s 2022 Democratic candidacy.

The part that stood out, however, was not directed toward me at all. The conservative student I had gone to meet canceled at the last minute, citing fear that he’d face serious social and academic repercussions for his views.

This does not mean most New College community members then or now, would engage in punishing behavior toward others — I’m certain most wouldn’t. But it doesn’t take many to create a hostile culture when the loudest, angriest, or most extreme make others fear dissent, whichever direction the noise comes from.

Echo chambers are good for cults, not for colleges

Ideology is just one of the many types of diversity that matter, but I believe it especially matters on college campuses, where the exchange of ideas is central.

In the political science courses I teach at Florida State University, I make a point to invite guest lecturers and share content from experts who stand for various backgrounds, experiences and beliefs.

In fact, Florida law requires colleges to provide students with opportunities for synchronous debate, on the premise that thoughtful disagreement is central to a civil, democratic society and that exposure to people with divergent ideas can mitigate hatred or prejudice.

Author and economist Thomas Sowell thoughtfully laid out why the underrepresentation of conservative voices on college campuses matters, especially in the liberal arts. And the value of direct exposure to competing ideas was espoused by one of history’s most renowned liberal thinkers, John Stuart Mill, who wrote in On Liberty that students must be able to hear opposing views “from persons who actually believe them … in their most plausible and persuasive form,” not just from those who oppose them.

The solution for New College may be pretty simple and speaking with some alums who think very differently than I do, it shouldn’t be controversial either: Hire additional, credible faculty with viewpoints or research that come from outside the college’s norm — whether they teach courses on economics, history, literature or otherwise — and bolster the school’s curriculum on civics, political theory, and other relevant topics.

The point isn’t to forcibly shape a student’s ideology, but to ensure students have exposure to diverse inputs with permission and safety to explore them. Echo chambers may be great for cults or cable networks, but not so much for colleges.

While a shift toward true ideological diversity on campus feels justified and overdue, there are many things about New College’s design that remain worth commending and preserving.

New College’s unique academic structure is successful and worth preserving

At the core, state money is invested in state schools to teach, train, and prepare students for careers and fulfilling lives.

And when it comes to academic structure, there are many things about New College that contribute to its undeniable success story. If you’ve heard of New College at all, chances are it’s been about the high ratio of its students who go on to earn graduate degrees, its exceptional track record for Fulbright Scholars and other fellowships, and various other undergraduate research accolades.

New College students get earnest and meaningful attention from faculty. For example, under the school’s novel contract system, students and their advisers meet to set formal expectations for each semester. Generally, contracts require a student to take and pass certain classes. But they can go well beyond that.

One example of this deeply impacted my life.

In 1999, my third year at New College, my contract with anthropology professor Uzi Baram looked a little different.

“You’re going to pass your classes,” I recall him saying, “But you don’t engage enough in them. You don’t speak up. You don’t ask questions or challenge other students.”

He wasn’t wrong. I was shy, and hesitant to speak without tons of preparation, which usually meant never speaking at all. It held me back and felt painful. “What would help you gain confidence?” Uzi challenged.

I don’t remember if it was his idea or mine, but somehow, we agreed that I’d join the school’s improv team as a condition for fulfilling my contract that semester.

So, I did.

It was hard — a true challenge for me to speak in front of people without time to think. If it hadn’t been required of me, I would have quit. But somehow, improv helped. My confidence grew, my willingness to challenge — and be challenged — expanded. I was happier. I started to speak up in class.

In large measure, I credit my talk with Uzi that day (and the contract system itself) for my willingness to speak up now, even knowing many from my alma mater disagree with where I stand.

Here are some of the elements I see great value in preserving, and urge the Board of Trustees to consider amplifying and building upon:

— Contract System: Students and their advisers discuss, negotiate and fulfill semester contracts. This process provides well-defined and personalized challenges to students, and even creates opportunities for them to try out courses they otherwise may not have the confidence for. The contract system also offers preparation for life after college, by having students design expectations and accountability for those decisions.

— Narrative Evaluations: Instead of grades, New College students receive a narrative evaluation at the end of each course, with a satisfactory/unsatisfactory designation. These evaluations are detailed, providing students with a comprehensive assessment of their performance throughout the course. It eliminates grade-related competition among students, and removes the opportunity for grade inflation, too.

— Independent Study Period: There are no classes in January. Instead, students engage in independent study on a topic or project preapproved and supervised by a faculty member. These projects have catalyzed extraordinary things — the formation of business models, unique inventions, research discoveries and breathtaking works of art.

— Thesis or Senior Capstone Project: Modeled after graduate research programs, all New College students complete — and defend — a final project. These build off coursework and independent study, and result in exceptional, original research. While there’s faculty guidance throughout, self-motivation is both necessary and developed through the process.

New College can stay a bit different, a bit better

For a place that rightly prides itself on being a home for those who are a little bit different, there has been increasing pressure or self-selection toward a whole lot of the same. I think we can do better.

At a public meeting held at New College on Wednesday, new Board member Christopher Rufo told students and faculty that he doesn’t want his personal views to become the doctrine of the college. Rather, he said, he wants to see “a Marxist professor debating a libertarian professor debating a Christian professor” — a place where students who hold these various ideologies are “able to participate on equal footing.”

This is a vision worth embracing.

New College is a state-funded school where students of all backgrounds should be challenged to think critically, are comfortable learning together, and can make the world a better place for it.

Karen Cyphers, Ph.D., is a partner and director of research at Sachs Media, and a member of the teaching faculty at Florida State University. She can be reached at [email protected].

Karen Cyphers

Karen Cyphers, Ph.D., is a partner and vice president of research at Sachs Media Group. She can be reached at [email protected].


  • Tom

    January 26, 2023 at 7:42 am

    Makes me long for the good old days when religion and politics were never discussed in polite company. On another note, what exactly are conservative voices (aside from qanon type conspiracy theories)?

    • John Tucker

      February 5, 2023 at 7:20 pm

      “On another note, what exactly are conservative voices (aside from qanon type conspiracy theories)?”

      That’s what you should have learned in college if not before. And is exactly what Karen would like to see fixed.

  • NC Alum

    January 26, 2023 at 8:36 am

    A New College education really should produce graduates who wouldn’t give their life working in the Ron Sach’s pay for play gutter.

    The research and spin SMG produces is well beneath it and more on the level of someone who supports Republicans for Governor. Sorry but that’s just true.

  • Clarence

    January 26, 2023 at 8:39 am

    Regarding Karen Cyphers’ defense of the takeover of New College: heaven forbid we allow Christopher Rufo a bully pulpit in our higher education system in Florida. He is a veteran of the despicable fight against teaching evolution, the use of CRT to raise racist alarms among conservatives, and myriad other reactionary activities. Kathryn Joyce in Salon argues that Rufo’s claims about public school teachers and grooming are designed to “generally foster so much anger against public schools that it drives a nationwide popular movement to privatize education'” (Salon, cited in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Rufo)

    Cyphers quotes Rufo as having suggested it desirable for New College to engage Christian professors in debate with Marxist professors and libertarians. With Marxist professors near the vanishing point in academia, there is no need for outsiders to shove Christian/libertarian philosophy onto an intellectual community. Clearly, Rufo’s history makes us see he won’t sponsor thoughtful debates about or race, public schools, or any other topic.

    I’ve been the lone conservative in a college classroom; I have never been at an institution that imported corrupt agenda-driven leaders.

    • John Tucker

      February 5, 2023 at 7:26 pm

      Sadly, most young people don’t get much opportunity to engage in honest debate with people that they disagree with in college anymore, and the result is posts like this – endless character attacks offered without support.

      Lets count them
      1. despicable
      2. racist
      3. reactionary
      4. “shoving” philosophy (that I disagree with) at students
      5. “agenda driven”

      But the poster goes on to comment that Rufo won’t “sponsor thoughtful debates”.

      Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

  • cassandra

    January 26, 2023 at 1:17 pm

    Sounds like you need a safe-space to go whine and indulge in some “quiet cries for help” !

    If you are being silenced you must have said “gay”! Or maybe Desantis’ police overheard you saying that women aren’t public incubators owned by men, or perhaps you were so brave as to call-out some bigot who was trying to indoctrinate students with the lie that Black people loved being slaves because they got free transportation to the greatest ever country! I hope no one caught you talking about the fact that women aren’t even mentioned in the Constitution and that, like minorities, women have been—and continue to be— oppressed by straight, white, fundamentalist Christian, forced-birther, misogynistic males! And that it is not God’s mysterious will that women submit to men. That could mean real trouble!

    You state that: “community members privately acknowledge that the school has a legitimate culture problem – but fear raising their voices.” Rufo aka ‘Not a Community Member’ doesn’t privately *ACKNOWLEDGE* anything; Rufo publicly *ALLEGES* BS! And, as you know, Rufo is quite loud about it! If you are this dishonest in your classroom, you should be teaching at a conservative Christian university where it is Sunday-school all week, not trying to get hired at New College. BTW were you turned down for a job at NCF?

    What action did NCF take when you reported that some students would “ostracize, intimidate, and punish others for holding certain religious and political beliefs”? How did the school handle it?

    You fail to explain why a staff member told you that “Your diploma should be revoked.” It surely was not merely for working on Crist’s campaign!

    It seems that conservatives are really panicking! I guess it’s pretty scary for you that Derek Black left the racist lifestyle as a result of his education at NCF. Can’t have that going on, right?

    Don’t make the mistake of thinking most of us do not want to hear you. Every time a “conservative” speaks is an opportunity to show a few more people the level of the Christian Right’s depravity and the fact that their only way to win a debate is through the use of government force.

    Citations, evidence next time, okay?

    • John Tucker

      February 5, 2023 at 7:29 pm

      Again, I think the responses to this column illustrate the author’s point exactly. Young people who have no experience in intellectually honest debate with those of differing views fall directly into character attacks as a substitute for reasoned debate.

      The endless personal attacks here are not only distasteful, they are evidence of the failure of our educational system.

  • Jim Cline

    February 6, 2023 at 6:35 pm

    John, you make incorrect and ageist assumptions (“young people” with no experience debating are writing these responses).

    In Donne’s writing what stands out is a timeless message: we are all part of the human race and the suffering of others should affect us, just as we mourn today for the thousands killed in Syria and Turkey. There is room in our colleges for all kinds of people who engage with others in a changing world, not just those who want to study Judeo-Christian tradition and European philosophy.

    • John Tucker

      February 6, 2023 at 7:24 pm

      Sorry Jim, I’m confused. Exactly where was Caasandra pointing out that “we are all part of the human race and the suffering of others should affect us”?

      Perhaps when she accused the author of “whining” and “needing a safe place”?

      Perhaps when she ridiculed the author’s concerns about viewpoint diversity and accused her of indirectly supporting those who claim blacks loved being slaves”?

      Or maybe when she accused her of lying about her mistreatment?

      I understand that we’re all prone to be more sympathetic to those who share our views, but if this is your idea of “caring about the suffering of others”, I hope I’ll never find myself reliant on your kindness.

      • Jim Cline

        February 7, 2023 at 9:28 am

        John, I wasn’t responding to Cassandra, but to you. I assumed that you a scholar understand the connectedness and caring for others John Donne described in the words you quoted: “Ask not [never send to know] for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” which concludes “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”

        • John Tucker

          February 7, 2023 at 10:22 am

          I apologize Jim, I misread the post.

          Likewise, I am struggling to find even the remotest connection between what I wrote and your responses. Where, at any point, did I suggest

          1. That there is no “room in our colleges for all kinds of people” or that the college should only address the needs of those “who want to study Judeo-Christian tradition and European philosophy.”?

          2. That we are not all interconnected and should care about each other?

          Nor did I advocate torturing kittens or a nuclear strike on Kenya. It was a simple call for civility and addressing ideas that we disagree with without getting personal and engaging in character assassination.

          • John Tucker

            February 7, 2023 at 10:28 am

            Somewhere in here I wanted to thank Karen Cyphers for writing a very thoughtful and balanced post that addresses the issues without demonizing those she disagrees with.

            It’s genuinely disappointing to see her efforts to express her viewpoint in a respectful and civil way responded to with in such a childish and unkind way.

            Please keep up the good work! Irrespective of whether one agrees with your position, this is the kind of issue-focused writing that we need to see more of.

    • John Tucker

      February 6, 2023 at 7:39 pm

      I’ll just add here that history shows us over and over again that no one who claims to be all about making things better for the downtrodden and oppressed, but who is driven by hate, has ever made the world a better place. Pol Pot was driven by un insatiable drive for what is now called equity. Hitler claimed to be all about the downtrodden German worker. Tim McVeigh, Donald Trump, Mao, the Baader Meinhoff gang….

      Steve Stills nailed in. “If we can’t do it with a smile on our face, if we can’t do it with love in our hearts, we ain’t got any right to do it at all, cause it just shows we’re no different”

Comments are closed.


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