A revamped New College of Florida Board of Trustees, dominated by conservative allies of Gov. Ron DeSantis, took aim Tuesday at issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion — including deciding to eliminate the school’s Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence.
Tuesday’s meeting also was the first for Interim President Richard Corcoran, a Republican former House speaker and state education commissioner who was appointed after trustees ousted former President Patricia Okker last month.
The board directed Corcoran to eliminate the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence and move its employees to other departments. The office has a $442,227 budget, four full-time employees and three part-time student employees.
One of the positions nixed was New College’s dean of diversity, equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer.
Trustee Christopher Rufo, one of DeSantis’ six recent appointees and a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, slammed diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, or DEI, in higher education. Rufo said he and other trustees have a responsibility to embody “the most important principles.”
“And DEI goes against those principles because it restricts academic freedom, it degrades the rigor of scholarship, it treats people differently on the basis of skin color or other inborn identities,” Rufo said.
The elimination of the diversity-related office and other board actions Tuesday drew objections from numerous people who characterized the decisions as politically motivated.
The trustees’ decisions came amid a broader effort by DeSantis and the Republican-led Legislature to cut spending on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in the higher-education system. During the upcoming legislative session, lawmakers will consider a bill (HB 999) that seeks to bar schools from promoting, supporting or maintaining programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion or “critical race theory rhetoric.”
Another part of the move to scrap New College’s Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence involved a regulation that will prohibit the Sarasota liberal-arts school from establishing a diversity, equity and inclusion office or hiring an officer for such a department.
The regulation defines diversity, equity and inclusion, in part, as any “effort to manipulate or otherwise influence the composition of the faculty or student body with reference to race, sex, color, or ethnicity, apart from ensuring colorblind and sex-neutral admissions and hiring” in accordance with state and federal standards.
The regulation is based on a report written by Rufo for the Manhattan Institute titled “Abolish DEI Bureaucracies and Restore Colorblind Equality in Public Universities.”
Diego Villada, a professor of theater and performance studies at New College, criticized Rufo’s influence on the changes Tuesday.
“I’m just a humble theater director, but I would hate for you to be making systemic decisions based on the work of board members who are citing themselves in a politically minded think-tank piece from non-empirically approached and non-peer-reviewed scholarship,” Villada said.
The New College trustees also took action to end mandatory diversity-training exercises on the roughly 700-student campus. School leaders were instructed to adopt such a policy in the employee handbook.
The school identified six diversity training programs that have been offered, including one for campus police officers, that would be prohibited.
Bradley Thiessen, chief of staff at New College, told trustees that some of the training exercises have been used sparingly in recent years.
Trustee Grace Keenan, who also is president of the New College Student Alliance, challenged the board’s decisions, essentially arguing that the diversity, equity and inclusion requirements on campus are not overbearing.
“This is not a very impressive DEI bureaucracy is what I’m saying,” Keenan said.
“Then there should be very little resistance to eliminating it. In a sense, that’s good news,” Rufo interjected.
Keenan replied that it “seems like we have spent more time and resources to find out what DEI we do than we are (spending) on doing actual DEI.”
Meanwhile, Corcoran laid out some of his priorities, including saying he will be “working immediately” on recruiting students to the school.
“I think we have great opportunities through the admission process to go out there and build our recruitment, build our argument why students should make New College their first choice,” Corcoran said.
Corcoran has faced sharp opposition from students and faculty, with many saying a $699,000 salary approved by the state university system’s Board of Governors is unwarranted.