Senate committee advances confirmation of New College trustees

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Professors, parents and alumni took particular issue with Chris Rufo's appointment.

A Senate committee signed off on a controversial slate of New College of Florida trustees.

The Senate Education Postsecondary Committee advanced the confirmation of seven new trustees on a 5-2 party-line vote. That was despite heavy criticism during public input regarding three trustees: Manhattan Institute senior fellow Chris Rufo, Hillsdale College Vice President Matthew Spalding and Inspiration Academy founder Eddie Speir.

All three were appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in a shake-up at the public liberal arts college that attracted national attention. Before the Senate began deciding on the trustees’ confirmation, a new board majority already fired New College President Patricia Okker and hired former Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran as Interim President at a base annual salary of $799,000.

Trustees also hired former Senate President Bill Galvano as General Counsel for the school. The school named Sydney Gruters, the wife of Sen. Joe Gruters, as Executive Director of the New College Foundation.

The chaos on campus since the appointment of new trustees prompted faculty, alumni and parents of students to speak out at the committee hearing.

Jessica Schilling, a documentary filmmaker who earned her undergraduate degree at New College, pointed to recent reporting in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune indicating Spalding was in communication with Corcoran about the job even before Okker was terminated. She categorized the trustees’ actions as “grifting” and “cronyism.”

“The new trustees don’t seem to care about violating our state Sunshine laws, but they should care about violating the Board of Governors’ conflicts of interest regulations that clearly state trustees cannot use their official position to secure any special privilege benefit or exemption for the trustee or others,” Schilling said.

“I worry the quality of education at New College will suffer greatly under this new board of trustees.”

Rufo, an outspoken commentator who has stood beside DeSantis at press conferences regarding legislation barring transgender girls from participating in female sports and banning educators from teaching critical race theory, took the most criticism from the public.

Ben Wright, whose son is a junior at New College, said he understood the Governor’s desire to grab headlines and attract attention to the school with Rufo’s appointment. But he said the trustee should be seen as little more than a “glorified YouTuber” who captured a couple moments of cultural zeitgeist.

“Christopher Ruffo is intentionally creating a hostile environment on the New College campus,” Wright said. “He is reveling in the frustration, confusion and disappointment of the students and faculty. He is by far the prime reason the students are so vehemently resistant to the Governor’s plan for this college. He is unqualified, undignified, ill-mannered, disrespectful and primarily self-interested.”

Still, while the committee held a separate vote on New College trustees from the rest of a slate on university appointments, the confirmations advanced.

Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book and Democratic Sen. Linda Stewart voted against the confirmations. Republican Sens. Jay Collins, Ileana Garcia, Erin Grall, Gayle Harrell and Keith Perry voted “yes.”

Sen. Perry, of Gainesville, reiterated comments he made last week regarding New College’s national standing. The small school by statute is designated as the honors university within Florida’s public higher education system.

He acknowledged U.S. News and World Report rankings that list New College as the No. 5 public liberal arts college in the country, behind only the military academies. But he said that designation is statistical gamesmanship.

“I was always told, ‘Well, they’re ranked No. 5 in their area,” he said. “Well, five out of 10 means you’re 50%.”

Democrats on the committee, though, questioned even the timing of a vote on the trustees. Sen. Book said Rufo’s appointment upset her in particular because of comments he has made attacking LGBTQ students.

“I’m very troubled by not having the opportunity to talk to these candidates, particularly when it has been such an uproar,” Book said. “It’s almost flying in the face of the very serious nature of confirmation within the Florida Senate.”

Committee Chair Grall, of Vero Beach, said members had the opportunity before the meeting to call trustees about concerns. None attended the meeting.

In addition to Rufo, Spalding and Speir, the committee confirmed three other DeSantis appointments to the New College board: Claremont-McKenna College professor Charles Kesler, Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein and lawyer Debra Jenks. The committee also confirmed Ryan Anderson, president of the Ethics and Policy Center, who had been appointed by the Florida Board of Governors.

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected].


  • Slim Jim

    April 5, 2023 at 11:48 am

    The Governor needs to find competent, non-religious people for our universities, not the rubes he has been pulling in lately.

  • NCF parent

    April 6, 2023 at 2:35 pm

    Thank you for your detailed coverage. I watched the meeting online and you covered it in detail, especially since there was virtually no discussion before the vote was taken and the public comments were ignored on party lines. I have one big concern. Here and in every article I have seen covering the meeting, not a single journalist has fact checked Senator Perry’s statement that New College of Florida ranks at “50%” for its category. This is a lie, probably fed to him by interested parties. A two second check of the USNews site ranking public liberal arts colleges shows that NCF is #5 of 18 ranked colleges and #1 of all non-military colleges in that category. Swarthmore College ranks NCF as #11 of ALL US colleges and universities for grads going on to earn PhDs. That is higher than Princeton, Harvard, and Yale. I am disappointed that the senator’s comments have been spread far and wide with no fact check.

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