Senate advances $15M for New College along with slate of trustees

Enrollment is down at the school following what supporters called a 'hostile takeover.'

A slate of trustees for New College of Florida advanced in the Senate. The confirmations moved forward the same day budget legislation negotiators agreed to give the school another $15 million.

That comes despite continued controversy and reported enrollment troubles at the Sarasota school.

Higher Education Appropriations committees for the House and Senate both have agreed to budget $15 million for operational enhancements at New College. That’s an amount Gov. Ron DeSantis said he wanted as he named a slate of new trustees to the school.

Sen. Keith Perry, a Gainesville Republican chairing the Senate Appropriations Committee on Appropriations, last month controversially said the school had “mediocre” standings and the money should raise the caliber of education.

But at a Senate Ethics and Elections Committee meeting, a number of alumni took issue with those assessments and the “hostile takeover” of the school.

Jennifer Wright, who has a child enrolled at New College now, came armed with statistics asserting the school was in great standing before the new trustees showed up and fired the university president to replace her with DeSantis’ former Education Commissioner.

“I want to clarify the outstanding quality of this school prior to the new trustees and the interim president taking over,” she said.

“It had led all public universities in the U.S. for the percentage of students that go on to earn Ph.D.s over its history. NCF has graduated 6,500 students, overweighted in the ranks of executives, entrepreneurs and academics who teach at leading institutions such as Oxford, Harvard and Princeton. NCF alumni include a Fields medalist and former head of the New York Federal Reserve. Despite having just 0.003% of Florida’s student population, (New College) Collegians account for 25% of all Fulbright winners.”

Meanwhile, enrollment is down at the school, with only about 100 enrolled for next year’s freshman class, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

The Senate committee nevertheless approved seven trustees for the school, including the six appointed by the Governor — Mark Bauerlein, Debra Jenks, Charles Kesler, Christopher Rufo, Matthew Spalding and Eddie Speir ­— and one named by the Board of Governors — Ryan Anderson.

Speir was the only one to speak to the committee. The founder of a Bradenton Christian school, he asserted students at New College were being coaxed and forced into activism. He said since his appointment, he has visited campus every day and believes an environment hostile to religion and outside views has softened.

“There’s been different truths that I have shared, that are causing a lot of concern,” Speir said. “But what I’ve done is followed up on those truths and those statements by showing up on campus and engaging in debate.”

Speir has caused outrage calling transgender students victims of a mental disorder. But he said after engaging in heated debate with students, a dialogue has opened up.

The Christian school founder, one of several trustees appointed to the New College board, defended his actions and those of a university board. He also committed to fighting the dissemination of an agenda he found offensive.

Democratic Senators voted against the entire slate of trustees. Rufo, a conservative activist who has led a national charge against critical race theory being taught in college, was voted on separately, as speakers at the event raised the most concerns about his appointment.

Sen. Bobby Powell, a Palm Beach Democrat, took issue with assertions that free expression had been compromised on campus, while the quieting of liberal voices was characterized as progress.

“I can’t imagine the students having to engage in conversation that would obviously be forced because now you’re a trustee,” Powell said as Speir awaited a vote.

Sen. Tina Polsky, a Boca Raton Democrat, took issue with Speir proclaiming his truths are founded in Jesus Christ. The Jewish lawmaker questioned the fairness of that at a publicly funded state university.

“There are several, quite a few, other religions including my own that do not follow Jesus Christ,” she said. “So how are you going to be a trustee over thousands of students and faculty and just be completely focused on your religion?”

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].


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