Saturday, 24 June 2023 07:05

The Culture War Goes to College

Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist and New College of Florida trustee, is escorted by police as he walks through protesters at New College of Florida in Sarasota on May 15, 2023. Rufo was leaving an event where Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed three education bills on the campus. Credit: Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post via Getty Images

From banned books to forbidden pronouns, the culture war is raging inside America’s classrooms. We go to one Florida college where students and faculty are battling Gov. Ron DeSantis.

From book bans to uproar over critical race theory, American classrooms have been on the front lines of the culture war. And there’s one state that’s leading the charge.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has championed several laws affecting education, from prohibitions on classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity to blocks on funding for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at state colleges. He’s also targeted one the state’s most liberal and academically rigorous institutions: New College of Florida.

In January, DeSantis’ chief of staff told National Review, “It is our hope that New College of Florida will become Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the South.” The comment sparked widespread controversy because Hillsdale College is a private Christian school in Michigan, and New College is the state’s public honors college.

That same month, DeSantis appointed multiple new trustees to the board, who began seizing control of New College almost immediately. In their first meeting, trustees ousted the college’s president and legal counsel and selected a new board chair, a DeSantis appointee. And they set in motion a plan to terminate the school’s diversity officer.

Since then, a pitched battle has been playing out, with DeSantis and his appointees on one side and students and faculty on the other. In this episode of Reveal, we partner with freelance reporter and filmmaker Sam Greenspan, who is a graduate of New College, to examine the changes taking place there. Greenspan follows journalists at the Catalyst, the student newspaper, as they cover the rapid-fire changes that are throwing the future of the college into uncertainty.

To close the show, host Al Letson interviews Democratic Florida Rep. Angie Nixon about her opposition to many of the governor’s recent policies and the effects she thinks they’ll have on students and educators in the state.

Dig Deeper

Read: What Is Ron DeSantis Doing to Florida’s Public Liberal Arts College? (The New Yorker)

Read: The Christian Liberal Arts School at the Heart of the Culture Wars (The New Yorker)

Read: How William F. Buckley Jr.’s Right-Wing College Crusade Paved the Way for Ron DeSantis (Vanity Fair)

Read: DeSantis’ Latest Target: A Small College of ‘Free Thinkers’ (The New York Times)

Read: DeSantis Takes on the Education Establishment, and Builds His Brand (The New York Times)

Read: More from the Catalyst, New College of Florida’s student newspaper

Credits

Reporter: Sam Greenspan | Producers: Sam Greenspan, Michael I Schiller and Steven Rascón | Editor: Brett Myers | Fact checker: Nikki Frick | Production manager: Steven Rascón | Digital producer: Nikki Frick | Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Interim executive producers: Taki Telonidis and Brett Myers | Host: Al Letson | Special thanks to Amanda Gilliland, John Witte, Laura Hampton, Steve Miles, Kathy Kilian and Uzi Baram

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Park Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Amanda Gorman: Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t woken, but simply unfinished.
Al Letson: It was written just two weeks to the day after a violent insurrection.
Amanda Gorman: We close the divide because we know to put our future first we must first put our differences aside.
Al Letson: A young poet took the stage at President Biden’s inauguration and captured the nation’s attention with a poem about the dream of America.
Amanda Gorman: Being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.
Al Letson: So what is it about Amanda Gorman’s poem that we have to protect our children from? Why remove it from an elementary school library?
Male Reporter: Access to the poem Amanda Gorman recited at Biden’s inauguration has been limited at an elementary school in Miami Dade County.
Female Reporter: The complaint alleges that material is not education, has indirect hate messages, causes confusion, and indoctrinates students.
Al Letson: A culture war is heating up inside American classrooms. Across the nation, school districts are pulling books from shelves often when books address race, gender or sexual orientation. Student plays are being canceled for depicting gay characters. Lawmakers are crafting bills to regulate the way teachers teach subjects like history and slavery. School board meetings are all too often playing host to rowdy, sometimes violent protests with right wing activists often fanning the flames.
Female Reporter: Emotions erupted outside the Glendale School Board meeting.
Al Letson: So today, we’re going to look at one state where the classroom culture war is ranging, my home state, Florida.
Ron DeSantis: They’re having third-graders declare pronouns. We’re not doing the Pronoun Olympics in Florida. It’s not happening here. And so-
Al Letson: Florida Governor and Republican presidential hopeful, Ron DeSantis, has enacted a slate of laws rewriting public education in the state, including a policy that critics call Don’t Say Gay. The law, which was recently expanded, prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in most Florida classrooms.
Ron DeSantis: The state of Florida, we’re proud to stand for education, not indoctrination in our schools.
Al Letson: As part of his so-called war on Woke, DeSantis has targeted public education, not just K-12, but in higher ed too. There’s one school where these battles are playing out right now in real time.
Board of Truste…: And so, I’m calling the meeting to order and we’ll have roll call.
Trustee Anderson?
Here.
Trustee Barrowline?
Here.
Al Letson: In late January, a little over a dozen people gathered around a table in an aging auditorium on a college campus in southwest Florida.
Board of Truste…: Trustee Lapinsky?
Trustee Mark La…: Here.
Board of Truste…: Trustee Mackey?
Here.
Trustee [inaudible]-
Al Letson: It has all the hallmarks of a normal Board of Trustees meeting.
Board of Truste…: And can you confirm public notice of the meeting?
Yes, confirmed.
Al Letson: But this is the first shot in a new front in the culture war, and it’s happening at New College of Florida. New College is a small liberal arts college, the honors college of the Florida University system. It’s known for its academic freedom and rigor, and for being a haven for left-leaning young people, many of them queer or transgender. The school only just started doing Pride events this year because as one student put it, “Going to school at New College is a Pride event.” This meeting in late January is the first since Governor DeSantis appointed six new members to New College’s Board of Trustees. These board members wastes no time seizing power.
Just before the meeting, the college president, Patricia Okker, learns that she will be ousted from that position. Okker breaks the news from the dais.
Patricia Okker: That was not how I thought this was going to go. I understand that my job as President is to carry out the policies and plans of this board. I understand that there is a new mandate for this college. And I have been informed that the plan includes the termination of my employment as President. That is my understanding.
Al Letson: By the end of this meeting, trustees tap former Republican House Speaker, Richard Corcoran, to take over as Interim President at more than double the salary. They install a new board Chair, a DeSantis appointee. They oust the school’s legal counsel, and set in motion a plan to terminate the diversity officer, a trans person of color. I know New College a little. When I was a spoken word performer many moons ago, I performed there and I met a student named Sam Greenspan. That was more than a decade ago, and now Sam is a reporter. As an alum, Sam has been keeping up with the events unfolding at New College through one of the best news sources there is about the school, the student-run newspaper, The Catalyst.
Sam went back to New College to spend some time with the student reporters there as they cover the remaking of their school. Sam takes the story from here.
Sam Greenspan: It’s late April, and I’m sitting in The Catalyst office. Editor-in-Chief, Sophia Brown, is talking with a couple of editors.
Sophia Brown: … because I feel like my stuff is too long, and I always hear that back.
Sam Greenspan: I also [inaudible] cutting down my own interviews because I’m like, this is all so important.
Sophia Brown: It all feels so relevant in the moment, but that’s kind of… You have to learn to kill your darlings.
Sam Greenspan: The office is small, just big enough for a table, an aging loveseat, and some filing cabinets. Old print issues of The Catalyst are piled up around the room and stapled to one of the walls in a mosaic, some with headlines that I vaguely remember from when I was a student here almost 20 years ago. Sophia is talking about the big story on the docket this week. It’s about the college mascot, which is actually kind of hard to explain.
Sophia Brown: The story, the lore that is in my article, is that starting in the 1970s the mascot was a stray dog living on campus, Brownie the Dog, who passed in the 1990s. The dog was officially in the New College Student Alliance Constitution.
Sam Greenspan: But then in the 1990s, students are updating the Constitution.
Sophia Brown: They start doing some long-overdue maintenance amendments.
Sam Greenspan: And they come to the language about the mascot, the now-deceased Brownie the stray dog. So, they replace it with a pair of bracket symbols.
Sophia Brown: Because no one could necessarily agree on one. They’re like, “We’ll leave it blank for now. We’ll come back to it.” They never came back to it. So you just have this empty set, but over time that in itself became the symbol and people started embracing it as the, “Null Set”.
Sam Greenspan: The Null Set, a pair of brackets, like a parenthesis, but square with nothing in them. It’s a symbol used in discreet mathematics to mean nothing. Well, not nothing exactly, it’s a set containing no elements. You get it, it’s nerd school. The Null Set became the official mascot. New College, as you might guess, has never really been much of a sports school, at least beyond sailing and some club teams. But with the Governor’s new appointments to the board, it just hired it’s first-ever athletic director with a mandate to build a baseball team. And a new administration is applying to join an intercollegiate sports conference with a lot of Christian schools. And, administrators are now trying to drop The Null Set mascot.
Sophia Brown: I guess it’s not attractive when you’re trying to make a baseball team, I guess, or whatever it is they want to do. It needs to change, clearly. Which is pretty unpopular. Our communications and marketing department recently, without any warning, [inaudible] announced to the campus that we’re looking for a new mascot, and included a survey with a series of predetermined options. It’s not clear who or what office decided on them, but they were pretty horrific.
Sam Greenspan: I think I heard a couple of the options, but what are they?
Sophia Brown: The Pelicans, the Oyster Catchers, the Conquistadors.
Sam Greenspan: The Conquistadors, you know, the 16th century Spanish Colonial armies that led a campaign of genocide against Indigenous peoples in North America, including what’s now Florida? Yeah. This language of conquering is not lost on the students. After all, one of the new trustees, Chris Rufo, spoke of his hope to “Reconquer public institutions all over the United States.” Upon taking power at New College in January, Rufo wrote on Twitter, “We are now over the walls and ready to transform higher education from within.” You might recognize the name Chris Rufo. He’s an architect of the moral panic behind Critical Race Theory and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
He routinely uses his social media presence to make fun of trans people, including some at New College. Rufo is also an advisor to Governor DeSantis. Other DeSantis appointees to the board have ties to religious schools, including Hillsdale College in Michigan. DeSantis’s own Chief of Staff has said that the Governor hopes to “Transform New College into a Hillsdale of the South.” Nevermind that Hillsdale is a Christian school and New College is public. If Ron DeSantis was bringing his War on Woke to New College, this cadre of trustees looked a lot like a landing party.
I first arrived at New College in 2004 from cookie cutter suburban South Florida. I was a typical New College student in that I was atypical. An honor student, but so awkward I was ostracized even by the other smart kids, queer but so closeted I wasn’t even out to myself. I was an odd duck who loved sci-fi, and thrift stores, and public radio. Before I learned about New College, I had fantasized about attending some small liberal arts college full of smart weirdos, places like Reed, or Oberlin, or Brown. But those were all out of financial reach for me. When I learned that Florida had a public version of that, a tiny 700 student honors college, no grades, no frats, which can be paid for with state scholarships? It felt like a miracle.
Set on an old Ringling Brothers estate in Sarasota, a Gulf Coast town built largely on circus money, New College is academic powerhouse that boasts more Fulbright Scholars per capita than even places like Harvard and Yale. New College is rigors, but it’s also kind of zany. The official school motto is, and I quote, “There is more to running a Starship than answering a bunch of damn fool questions.” I told you, it’s nerd school. Which brings us back to the school mascot, the Null Set.
Back in The Catalyst office, Editor-in-Chief Sophia Brown is finishing up her story on the Null Set, and how it all just feels like the newest front in the culture war on their campus.
Sophia Brown: What I think what’s very telling is that on the New College website there used to be a page explaining this history. It’s been taken down.
Sam Greenspan: Sophia was able to recover the deleted page from the Internet archive. She pulls it up and reads me the entry.
Sophia Brown: It’s lasted for almost 20 years and will probably stick forever as an homage to nerdy, nonconformist nature of New College.
Sam Greenspan: Wow.
Sophia Brown: And they deleted it.
Sam Greenspan: Wow.
Sophia Brown: Yeah, very I think symbolic of how things are going over here. Yeah.
Sam Greenspan: The next day is the third of Board of Trustees meeting since the Governor’s appointments. Outside of Sudafed Center where the meeting will be held, a protest is forming. A student band called Sun Grazer is playing.
Sun Grazer Band: So this will be [inaudible]. This one is called Territorial Pissing. It’s by Nirvana. It’s about claiming land and shit that isn’t yours. (music playing).
Sam Greenspan: The day is hot and the mood is tense. Cops are everywhere. I spot Sophia, whose here to cover the meeting for The Catalyst.
Sophia Brown: I counted 12 police cars.
Sam Greenspan: I only got nine.
Sophia Brown: There’s a K-9 unit.
Sam Greenspan: And you got 12?
Sophia Brown: Yeah, because there’s some back here. Yeah, some of these look like Sarasota Police. Definitely outside, horses.
Sam Greenspan: Yeah, I don’t think New College has 12 police vehicles.
Sophia Brown: I don’t think so either. Maybe two or three.
Sun Grazer Band: Thank you. Fuck fascism.
Sam Greenspan: Today’s meeting is a big one. On the agenda is a vote to confirm five faculty members for tenure. Even though standing for tenure is a years-long process requiring multiple levels of review, which these five professors have all passed, many suspect the new trustees will vote no. Mainly because DeSantis has been outspoken against the very concept of tenure. He says it creates an intellectual orthodoxy. Through legislation signed in 2022, he’s effectively ended tenure. Faculty at state colleges are now required to come up for review every five years.
Ahead of today’s meeting, Richard Corcoran, the Interim President at New College, asked the faculty members up for tenure to withdraw their applications. Sophia and I [inaudible] the media check-in and get a full body frisking from the campus security.
Okay, we’re about to get our bags searched by gentlemen in bulletproof vests.
Sophia Brown: [inaudible].
Sam Greenspan: And tasers.
Inside Sudakoff Center, the blasting AC is a relief, and that old ugly, comforting, musty carpet smell gives me a jab of nostalgia. Sophia and I take our seats in the press area and the meeting gets started.
Board of Truste…: We have a quorum, and the meeting was publicly noticed.
Thank you. Today we have had 54 people who have registered for public comment. Each commenter will have one minute to speak.
Sam Greenspan: A procession of speakers moves to the podium to give public comment. Faculty praise their colleagues, students praise their professors. The motivation is clear, people don’t think the board is going to sign off on tenure. Here’s Amy Reed, Director of the Gender Studies Department.
Amy Reed: Rebecca Black, Lin Jong, Nasima Nogales, Geraldo Torro-Farmer, Ugo Vialavalgas. They’re teaching, research and community service have earned them tenure and promotion. New College was lucky to recruit them. I am honored to be their colleague. Five fantastic scholar teachers who have earned tenure at New College. Honor and respect.
Sam Greenspan: That dinging is a one-minute timer. Speakers get their mics cut off at 60 seconds exactly. Some speakers decry the new administration. This student, Alaska Miller, wears a trans flag like a cape.
Alaska Miller: I want to publicly shame our President, who has shown nothing apathy and disregard for our student body and our traditions, and to remind him that he is not welcome or wanted on this campus. Fuck you, Richard Corcoran.
Board of Truste…: Please have him removed. You’re out. Officer, please take him out.
Sam Greenspan: Debra Jenks, the new Board Chair, misgenders the student as she ejects her from the room. Sophia was shocked.
Sophia Brown: That’s the first time someone’s ever been removed from these meetings. [inaudible]. I would be a trans student [inaudible].
Sam Greenspan: … misgendered terms hopefully.
Sophia Brown: Yeah, they did.
Sam Greenspan: Finally, two hours and 40 minutes into a very contentious meeting, the board takes a vote on tenure for Professor Rebecca Black.
Board of Truste…: Trustee Rufo?
No.
Trustee Ruiz?
Yes.
Trustee Spalding?
No.
Trustee Spear?
No.
Chair Jenks?
No.
It does not pass.
Okay.
Rowdy Crowd: Shame on you. Shame on you. Shame on you. [inaudible] University, you’ve got it. Good job.
Sam Greenspan: In the before times, approval was basically a formality, but today the trustees voting no offer little in the way of a rationale. The closest we get is when Trustee Mary Ruiz challenges one of the DeSantis appointees, Mark Bowerline.
Trustee Mary Ru…: You’re a tenured professor. You’ve reviewed these packets. Did you find any of them defective in some way? Or is it a procedural concern that you have?
Mark Bowerline: Well, if we wanted to get into details, I think that there are some weak publication records since hiring. Quite a few of them.
Sam Greenspan: The votes happen one-by-one. All five professors are denied tenure by a six-four vote.
Rowdy Crowd: Shame on you. Shame on you. Shame on you.
Trustee Mark La…: I’d like to task the campus police to give us a threat assessment and give us a recommendation at the next board meeting.
Sam Greenspan: The meeting looks like it’s about to adjourn, but then Matt Lapinksy cuts in. He’s a professor of computer science, and the Faculty Representative on the Board of Trustees.
Trustee Mark La…: Very quickly, I’m very concerned about the direction that this board is going, and the destabilization of the academic program. And so, I wish you the best of luck, but this is my last board meeting. I’m leaving the college.
Sam Greenspan: Matt Lapinksy stands and walks out of the room. Later, he would tell Sophia for The Catalyst that this decision was like jumping off a cliff. He hadn’t planned to exit the board or quit the college, but at that moment he felt it was all he could do.
Sophia and I follow the crowd outside. There’s a group of students here banging pots and pans.
The golf cart transporting the trustees, people are chasing after them, the police are setting up a blockade. They set up a blockade. And there goes Corcoran and Spear, and a couple of others.
Sophia grabs a photo of the golf cart as it passes, which she’ll later publish in The Catalyst. At least one trustee is grinning. Another seems to be filming students on her phone.
Sophia Brown: She’s filming us.
Sam Greenspan: I asked Sophia if she’s thinking about her story.
Are you already writing it in your head?
Sophia Brown: A little bit. I know I knew this morning what the lead was going to be.
Sam Greenspan: What’s the lead?
Sophia Brown: I’m paraphrasing here, because-
Sam Greenspan: You’re paraphrasing something you haven’t written yet.
Sophia Brown: Because I think Maria Vesperi would argue this is too opinionated, and I think she would be right, this hypothetical Maria in my head. First, they came for our President, then they came for our office [inaudible] and now they’ve come to our faculty. They’ve denied these five people tenure. It’s [inaudible]-
Sam Greenspan: The person Sophia mentioned, that hypothetical Maria in her head, is Maria Vesperi, Faculty Advisor of The Catalyst. She’s also my former mentor. When Maria tells me to meet her in her office two days later, I know exactly where she means. On the second floor of College Hall, a pink marble mansion once owned by Charles Ringling, nestled right up against the Sarasota Bay.
Maria Vesperi: The students have learned so much about what it means to present a balanced story. We’ve recorded everything and in some cases it’s the only record of some of what’s gone on. We’ve talked about how this is for the record. This is for history.
Sam Greenspan: Maria has been at New College for 30 years, long enough to really appreciate what the school stands to lose.
Maria Vesperi: I would have been happier if they just closed the school than what they’ve actually done, because it’s so disrespectful. It’s so dishonest. It’s just shocking to me that they could be saying, “We’re going to model this after a Christian school.” I don’t know how they can possibly do that and get away with it. I was aware pretty early on that the most we could do was making meaning out of what was happening to us and allow others to see.
Sam Greenspan: One of the most distinctive parts of the New College curriculum is the student thesis. They’re usually about 100 pages long and take a whole year to write, and they have to be defended in a live baccalaureate exam given by three or four professors. Every student has to write one to graduate. On it’s own, the thesis weeds out a lot of prospective students because it takes a certain kind of bright, driven masochist to actually want to do this. But Maria and lots of other faculty are concerned that the school is going to water down the curriculum in order to recruit more sports students.
Maria Vesperi: I’m pretty certain they’re going to abolish the thesis. As you know, you wrote one yourself, it’s not easy.
Sam Greenspan: It’s not easy.
Maria Vesperi: It’s hard to do.
Sam Greenspan: Maria gestures towards a bookshelf behind me. It’s stacked floor-to-ceiling with binders, folders, spiral-bound printouts.
Maria Vesperi: All those theses on those shelves there.
Sam Greenspan: Oh my God. What are we looking at here?
Maria Vesperi: Those are all the theses I’ve been involved with.
Sam Greenspan: Really?
Maria Vesperi: Mm-hmm.
Sam Greenspan: Oh my God.
Maria Vesperi: All the way down to the bottom to the top.
Sam Greenspan: Oh my God, so mine’s in there somewhere probably.
Maria Vesperi: Yeah. Mm-hmm. I always said, when that shelf is completely full that’s when I’m going to retire. Well, there’s not much space left.
Sam Greenspan: Maria could have retired years ago. She’s 71. But she’s kept teaching because she loves New College.
Do you think you’ll be here in the fall?
Maria Vesperi: I don’t know. I’ll tell you this, I refuse to compromise about the theories and ideas that I’ve learned and that I know to be important for anthropology students to have as a foundation of their education.
Excuse me. I need a break here. I don’t mean to get emotional, Sam, but I just… It’s hard. I don’t feel sorry for myself, Sam. I’ve had a great career.
Sam Greenspan: And you’ve launched a lot of careers.
Maria Vesperi: Well, thanks.
Sam Greenspan: Present company included.
[inaudible].
Maria Vesperi: Yeah.
So that’s going in there. That person refused an interview, I guess.
Sam Greenspan: Half an hour later, Maria and The Catalyst staff are meeting in the Anthropology Lab. It’s a well-worn, but cozy one-room bungalow just big enough for a long conference table. The meeting is just getting started, when I see something lizard-shaped scurry out of my peripheral vision.
Sophia Brown: It’s like a giant lizard [inaudible].
Maria Vesperi: What was it that-
Sam Greenspan: It was a broad-headed skink.
Maria Vesperi: Is it the skink?
Sophia Brown: Yeah. [inaudible].
Maria Vesperi: It lives here.
Sam Greenspan: Oh, it lives in here?
Maria Vesperi: It lives here, yeah.
Sam Greenspan: [inaudible].
Maria Vesperi: No, it lives in the building. I haven’t seen it in a while. Remember the skink? There have been skinks in this building since I started teaching here.
Sophia Brown: [inaudible].
Maria Vesperi: Yeah.
Sam Greenspan: The lizard, a broad-headed skink I am told, disappears into a corner of the room. Oh, Florida. Sophia takes a seat at the head of the table, Maria next to her. The meeting gets started, but they’re missing nearly half their staff.
Maria Vesperi: Where are all these people?
Sophia Brown: I’m frantically texting them like, “Hi.”
Maria Vesperi: Not okay.
Sophia Brown: Not okay.
Sam Greenspan: I’ve heard that attendance has suffered all semester, especially after board meetings, which can plummet student morale.
Maria Vesperi: We’ve never had absentees like this.
Sam Greenspan: And at least one of The Catalyst writers, it turns out, is shopping for a new school.
Maria Vesperi: I thought I’d update from [inaudible] Hampshire right now.
Sam Greenspan: Hampshire College in Massachusetts is offering to take any New College student who wants to leave. Among The Catalyst staff, there’s a collective gasp.
Sophia Brown: Oh, really? Okay.
Maria Vesperi: Another one bites the dust, I guess.
Sophia Brown: Yeah. All right. Who feels like starting us off?
Sam Greenspan: Students start pitching stories, and nearly all are about the drastic changes precipitated by the board. There’s a pitch about the on-campus café, which has started serving drinks in cups with Bible verses on them.
Maria Vesperi: Yeah, if it’s a religious-affiliated place and they’re pushing that at all, that is really, really a problem.
Sophia Brown: The cups have-
Sam Greenspan: There’s a pitch about how the gender neutral bathroom signs around the college have been getting taken down.
Sophia Brown: Stuff is going missing.
The Catalyst St…: And they’re taking the signs off of gender-neutral bathrooms. I can only imagine what [inaudible]-
Maria Vesperi: Did you hear about that story? Helene wrote to me about that and wants-
The Catalyst St…: Yeah, that was-
Maria Vesperi: … and invited to [inaudible]-
Sam Greenspan: The Helene that Maria mentions, Helene Gold, is the Research Librarian at New College. She reached out with a tip about those bathroom signs going missing. But by the time that The Catalyst publishes the story, Helene Gold will have been fired without cause or notice. And she’s one of a growing number of staff who’ve been terminated. In an email, Helene tells me that she’s looking for jobs outside of Florida. “I’m so bitter about leaving. I really love it here,” she wrote me. “I never thought I’d be run out of town by actual fascists.”
Al Letson: When we come back, New College gets a surprise visitor.
Rowdy Crowd: … go away. Racist, sexist, anti-gay. Ron DeSantis go away. [inaudible].
Ron DeSantis: Thanks so much. Thank you. Thank you all for coming. Great to be at beautiful New College.
Al Letson: That’s coming up on Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has spent the spring signing a wave of controversial legislation, restrictions targeting drag shows in the state, further limits on discussions about sex and gender in Florida classrooms. The Governor also signed recent laws transforming higher education, some of which he chose to sign inside that pink marble mansion at New College of Florida.
Ron DeSantis: Thank you. Thank you all for coming. Great to be back in Sarasota. Great to be at beautiful New College. What a great spot. I know-
Al Letson: Today, we’re looking at the culture war that has come to America’s classrooms. We’re spending much of the show at New College, the public honors college in Florida. DeSantis’s Chief of Staff has talked about transforming the institution into a Hillsdale of the South. Hillsdale, remember, is a private Christian school. Reporter and New College alum, Sam Greenspan, picks up the story in May with Ron DeSantis’s surprise visit to New College.
Rowdy Crowd: Racist, sexist, anti-gay. Ron DeSantis go away.
Sam Greenspan: It’s Monday of Finals Week, and a visit by DeSantis and his entourage has thrown the school into chaos.
Rowdy Crowd: Null Set. Null Set. Null Set.
Sam Greenspan: Null Set, they’re chanting, as in the mascot. Police are in tactical gear. At least one holds an assault rifle. Police hand-cordoned students off about 200 yards from the building’s entrance, but students have pushed closer, wrapping around the building. Their protests have become audible inside College Hall, where the Governor has brought a pastor with him to the bill signing.
Pastor: Now say with me, “[Spanish].” I can do all things through Christ.
Board of Truste…: Pastor, would you please pray for those people outside?
Pastor: I am already.
Sam Greenspan: Governor DeSantis also mocks the students outside.
Ron DeSantis: Yeah, I saw some of the protestors out there. I was a little disappointed. I was hoping for more.
Sam Greenspan: He’s here to sign several bills targeting higher ed.
Ron DeSantis: It’s all good.
Sam Greenspan: Which prevents state funding of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and put restrictions on how topics like race and gender can be taught in public universities.
Ron DeSantis: If you want to do things like gender ideology, go to Berkeley. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but for us with our tax dollars, we want to focus on the classical mission of what a university is supposed to be.
Sam Greenspan: Representative Spencer Roach addresses the crowd. He’s a Republican and sponsor of one of the bills. He’s much more blunt.
Senator Spencer…: When you hear what’s going on outside, that’s what Woke sounds like when it dies, the last gasp of a dying [inaudible].
Sam Greenspan: No one had told the New College faculty that DeSantis was coming. Professors with offices in the building where he was speaking got an email that morning, but it only said that the building was sealed off with no explanation why. Instead, the room is filled with a hand-picked audience, including students from the College Republicans Club at the University of South Florida, which is more than an hour away. When Richard Corcoran, the Interim President of New College speaks, it’s clear that he’s addressing them and not the students of New College.
Richard Corcora…: What you’re hearing outside, that’s all on me. I told staff last night turn off the air conditioning in the dorms. If you’ll listen carefully, they’re saying, “Turn the air back on. Turn the air back on.”
Libby Harrity: Collectively, I’m sure you guys speak about this, but there’s been a lot of talk about-
Sam Greenspan: Outside, local reporters arrive and students set up an impromptu press conference. This is Student Senate President, Libby Harrity.
Libby Harrity: All of this shows Ron DeSantis who New College is, and why we care about what we care about. This, let it show you that we will not stand down. Let it show you that the people of Florida will not run away. Let it show you that the people of Florida will rise up. You cannot make us all transfer.
Sam Greenspan: Libby Harrity would appear in newspapers later that day shirtless, but for a rainbow flag. The nudity wasn’t meant to be a political statement. It was just really hot out and Libby had only been wearing a hoodie. This audio, by the way, was all recorded by Basil Pursley. He’s an editor at the student newspaper, The Catalyst. We actually hear Basil in the tape offering Libby his shirt.
Basil Pursley: If you want my shirt, I can give it to you and I’ll just go buff.
Libby Harrity: Are you for real?
Basil Pursley: I’m for real. Just give me the shirt back later.
Libby Harrity: Thank you so much. Thank you.
Basil Pursley: Here, look at my titties instead.
Sam Greenspan: A few days later when I’m chatting with Basil in person, he tells me that the scene will be one of the memories of New College he’ll hang onto.
Basil Pursley: I think me giving Libby my shirt is definitely one that will stick with me. I feel like that’s just sort of what New College community is like.
Sam Greenspan: [inaudible] you give someone the shirt off your own back. I think it’s-
Basil Pursley: Yeah, yeah.
Sam Greenspan: Even though Basil is only 19 and in his second year at New College, he’s planning on starting his thesis project in the fall in order to graduate early. Which for him is bittersweet.
Basil Pursley: I would have loved to stay longer if things were better, but with the way they are I’m happy that I have the option to just rush through it and get out.
Sam Greenspan: Basil tells me that the overall feeling he has on campus now is grief.
The other day, Basil passed by a classmate outside the Student Union with a bunch of stuff they were trying to get rid of. They offered Basil their longboard.
Basil Pursley: So I took it and I was like, “Oh, are you leaving?” They were like, “Yeah.” I was like, “Forever?” They were like, “Yep, never going to come back here. I’m really going to miss this place.” We ended the conversation with “It was nice knowing you.” That just keeps ringing in my head. It was just so heartbreaking because I didn’t feel like it was the natural end to that relationship. We weren’t close. That wasn’t where it was supposed to end.
Sam Greenspan: It’s more than just bummer vibes. It’s actually getting to feel dangerous, especially for students who are queer and transgender like Basil.
Basil Pursley: You know, being trans in Florida is troubling.
Sam Greenspan: Troubling is putting it mildly. Earlier this year, the Governor’s office asked Florida universities to give them medical records of transgender students. Some schools complied. And then in May, while of this is happening at New College, the Florida legislature passes a law outright banning hormone therapy for all trans kids under 18, and even makes access to hormones extremely difficult for trans adults.
Conflict psychologist, Quinetucket Macklemore, has called this policy “Explicitly genocidal.” In June, a judge issued an injunction, but still, confusion abounds about who can access which medicines.
Again and again, students tell me they’re living in a perpetual state of anxiety, and loss, and uncertainty, bubbling up in all parts of their day. It’s like you go to the library to meet with a librarian and you find out she’s fired. Then you go write an angry note about it in chalk on the sidewalk, a time-honored tradition in New College, and the campus police it criminal mischief. Before the end of the day, it’s been power-washed off. You try to get your mind off things in your dorm, and you find people are leaving. You try to focus on your studies and plan out your next year, but you’re not even sure which of your professors are going to quit, and which of those who don’t quit will end up getting fired.
I was hoping to bring these concerns to the Interim President and get the administration’s take. But my requests for an interview were ignored. Four days after DeSantis signed those bills in College Hall, people are gathering outside of the building beside the Sarasota Bay front. It’s commencement. The graduation ceremony is about to start, but hardly anyone is here. Chairs reserved for faculty members are empty.
Richard Corcora…: Welcome to the New College in Florida Commencement Ceremony for 2023.
Sam Greenspan: Eventually, most graduates do show up late, though many professors don’t. In what feels like one final troll from the administration, the school has booked Dr. Scott Atlas as the commencement speaker.
Richard Corcora…: Its my honor to introduce the speaker this evening, Dr. Scott W. Atlas. We honor Dr. Atlas by providing him with an honorary degree from New College.
Sam Greenspan: Atlas advised President Donald Trump on Coronavirus policy. Atlas is a radiologist, not an infectious disease expert. His positions were often at odds with other public health leaders. Atlas pushed for herd immunity and advocated against masking and social distancing, and he uses his commencement speech to defend these policies.
Dr. Scott Atlas: Florida avoided the lockdown harms and yes, even with its elderly high risk population, after two full years Florida had better age-adjusted COVID deaths than 60% of states, and lower access death increase that-
Sam Greenspan: A graduate whose sitting next to me tells me that her grandparents couldn’t be with her today because they both died from COVID. She and her classmates are not having it from Atlas.
Rowdy Crowd: Knock it off. Knock it off.
Dr. Scott Atlas: Okay, let me finish up here and we may be [inaudible].
Sam Greenspan: When the time comes for students to walk, which they do in ballgowns and Yu-Gi-Oh cosplay, and a denim jacket with the word “Dyke” on it, College President, Richard Corcoran, doesn’t shake students’ hands or hand them their diplomas. One graduate, while crossing the stage, gives Corcoran something. It’s a copy of George Orwell’s 1984. At one point in the evening, a plane with the words “Save New College” [inaudible] underneath flies over the school. Sophia Brown, the now-former Catalyst Editor-in-Chief addresses fellow graduates as their elected student speaker.
Sophia Brown: Thank you to the New College student body for giving me this opportunity to deliver one final letter from the editor to you all.
Sam Greenspan: Sophia says that her speech had to be submitted for approval by the Interim Provost beforehand, and it was very restrained. But the night before all of this, there was a very different kind of ceremony.
Graduates threw an alternative commencement off-campus at an art museum downtown.
Casey Casey: Thank you. There’s a lot of people here. It’s great to see.
Sam Greenspan: Two graduating students, Matty Marcum and Casey Casey worked with alums to raise more than $130,000 to make it happen. Graduates, their families and the professors have shown up in force, each picking up a button with their pronoun to check in, a small act that here in Florida feels very political.
Casey Casey: Thank you.
Sam Greenspan: Casey Casey emcees the event in gold hot pants.
Casey Casey: I think as we celebrate our graduates tonight, I want you all to recognize that joy is an act of resistance. It’s hard to feel joy sometimes, especially when facing injustice on a daily basis. An event like this, it’s just a bit easier to remember that we deserve to feel that joy and love, and we deserve to feel celebrated. Thank you.
Sam Greenspan: And Sophia gives a speech she wouldn’t dare try at the official commencement ceremony.
Sophia Brown: … but I do think the reason that we’re all here today is that we can all innately sense that the ceremony taking place tomorrow isn’t really for us. This new administration is in no position to authentically celebrate our community. They are not interested in celebrating the same students that they have ruthlessly attacked and mocked for months. I am here to say that there is value in our anger and in sharing our authentic voices. We’re also leaving behind some truly bright and brilliant students and faculty. These are some of the bravest people I’ll ever have the fortune of meeting. They will continue to preserve what has made New College so special.
Sam Greenspan: There are no diplomas to give out at this unofficial ceremony.
Sophia Brown: (Singing) Jessie Merckle.
Sam Greenspan: But that doesn’t stop students from having their names read and walking across the stage to shake hands with faculty wearing their full doctoral regalia.
Alt Commencemen…: Viennay Hodomedro.
Sam Greenspan: After the ceremony, I catch up with Maria Vesperi, my old mentor and Faculty Advisor to The Catalyst.
Maria Vesperi: Well, I’ve made the decision to stay another semester. Now it seems like I’m just going to stay and see. The Catalyst has done really well, and the students feel appreciated for the incredibly hard work that they’ve done.
Sam Greenspan: Elsewhere, Helene Gold, the recently-fired librarian, encounters a scrum of her former students.
Sophia Brown: Yeah, I’m so happy to see you.
Helene Gold: I’m so glad to be here. No, this is a worthy celebration and-
Sophia Brown: I also wanted to tell you personally that you are one of the reasons why I actually started my thesis. I went to you. I was so lost.
Helene Gold: Remind me of your topic again?
Sophia Brown: America’s Next Top Model with Tyra Banks.
Helene Gold: That was amazing. I loved that topic so much.
Sophia Brown: You gave me so many resources.
Sam Greenspan: And over the next couple of days, New College graduates will receive video messages of support from all over the Internet from people like author, Neil Gaiman, transgender advocate Erin Reed, and filmmaker Michael Moore.
Michael Moore: I hope you know that in making history, which is what you’ve done, we’ll never forget you because you stood up for who you are, what it could mean to be a Floridian.
Sam Greenspan: But the future of New College remains uncertain. Several professors have already announced that they’re leaving, and at least one, a professor of history, has been fired. The administrative staff has been hollowed out. Many fear that more drastic changes will happen over the summer when school isn’t in session. What is for sure is that lots of eyes are on New College now. When the Board of Trustees continues meetings throughout the summer, they’ll have at least one journalist in the room.
Issac Tellechea: My name is Issac Tellechea. Today is June 1st. I am at the Sudakoff Center at New College waiting for the Board of Trustees meeting to begin.
Sam Greenspan: Issac Tellechea, the incoming Editor-in-Chief for The Catalyst, is staying in Sarasota this summer specifically to cover what the administration does when fewer people are around. And so, as long as it’s in print, The Catalyst will be there reporting, documenting, and making meaning out of the culture war that came to them in their dorm rooms.
Al Letson: That story was from Sam Greenspan, a reporter and filmmaker in Los Angeles. When we come back-
State Rep. Angi…: I honestly think that it is by design that public schools are under attack.
Al Letson: A frank conversation with Florida State Representative Angie Nixon. She has a lot to say about the new laws targeting education in Florida and what they mean for teachers. You’re listening to Reveal.
From the Center for investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. On today’s show, we’re looking at how sweeping new laws championed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are impacting education in the state.
State Rep. Angi…: It’s so absurd the way in which he’s doing it.
Al Letson: That’s State Representative Angie Nixon. She’s a Democrat representing District 14, and fierce critic of DeSantis, the changes he’s making, and what it means for teachers.
State Rep. Angi…: He has a tendency to say things like, “Oh, I didn’t ban books,” but you’ve created an environment where people are fearful that they’re going to lose their jobs, or they’re going to get felony convictions based on certain books.
Al Letson: We wanted to interview Governor DeSantis for this show, but his office didn’t respond to our requests. We also made repeated attempts to talk to Florida’s Education Commissioner, Manny Diaz, Jr. about the new policies, but his office declined.
State Rep. Angi…: I honestly think that it is by design that public schools are under attack.
Al Letson: So, I met up with Angie. She’s worked as an organizer in my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida for years before she became a State Rep, and she sat on the state’s education subcommittees. For this interview, she wanted to meet in front of the Duvall County School Board building.
State Rep. Angi…: I think us being in front of the school board building, I think the first thing we should bring up is the fact that Governor DeSantis, he endorsed school board candidates, and that definitely made a difference in some of these races. He was basically fearmongering. He’s targeting school boards to push his really divisive agenda.
Al Letson: I’ve been in Florida since I was 11. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a Governor getting involved in a school board race. How often does that happen?
State Rep. Angi…: I don’t think it’s happened before. And now, especially him rolling out particular members he’s looking to target, it’s absolutely absurd. That’s taking it a bit too far. He’s also pushed the Don’t Say Gay 2.0 bill in which now our students can’t even use their pronouns in school. We know that suicide is exponentially higher amongst students in the LGBTQ community, and them feeling unseen and not loved, and for them to not even be able to express themselves the way in which they want to, to be called what they want to be called, and identified as they want to be identified is just absurd.
Al Letson: What does that look like in the school?
State Rep. Angi…: If a trans student attends a school, a trans girl, and she wants to be called a girl, she no longer can be. That has negative mental implications. It’s just not right.
Al Letson: What about students who aren’t trans but are gay? How are they affected by it?
State Rep. Angi…: It’s creating an environment that is ripe in which educators are fearful of even talking about… They’re not supposed to really talk about LGBTQ issues. Also, some educators no longer want to be sponsors of clubs that may center LGBTQ students because they don’t want to be targeted and they don’t want to be called groomers, and that type of thing.
Al Letson: So earlier in the hour we heard that DeSantis doesn’t want to fund any DEI work, diversity, equity and inclusion, and he’s also trying to limit tenure. Why do you think he’s doing that?
State Rep. Angi…: He’s doing that because he knows that oftentimes students go to colleges and universities and they learn about different cultures and ideas, and ideologies from what they learned growing up. That expands people whose minds and horizons. I come from Jacksonville, the Bible Belt, and so my family had some negative ideas about a certain culture. I had some stereotypes about some folks, and then they became my friends in college. And so, that is what he’s fearful of.
Al Letson: It seems to me like Governor DeSantis wants to sanitize history and wants it to be taught in a specific way. Can you talk a little bit about that?
State Rep. Angi…: Yeah, he definitely does. HB 999 speaks to that. Not only is it an attack on diversity, equity and inclusion, but it’s also an attack on critical studies classes, so women’s studies, critical theory, African studies, African American studies, those types of things. Governor DeSantis wants us to learn the way in which he wants us to learn because if you are not critical of certain things you’re not going to question when you are having your freedom stripped away from you, like what he’s done these past few legislative cycles. Why don’t we want an educated electorate, or an education population of folks that think critically? Unless you want to control them.
Al Letson: I just want to pull back a little bit and really talk about your experience when you go to Tallahassee.
State Rep. Angi…: It is very traumatizing to be a black woman in that space, to be an outspoken vocal black woman whose there and being outspoken on behalf of my community, who has a little drawl, and to have my intelligence questioned and demeaned on a daily basis, it hurts. A lot. And it’s frustrating. But I know that I am fighting for my community. I know that my ancestors would want me there. I’m just going to keep fighting.
Al Letson: State Rep. Angie Nixon, thanks so much for talking to me.
State Rep. Angi…: Thanks for having me.
Al Letson: Today’s show is produced by Sam Greenspan. Be sure to check out Sam’s podcast, Bellwether, which tells true stories from inside the frame of a sci-fi radio serial. The editor for today’s show is Brett Myers. Thanks to Michael Schiller and Steven Rascone for additional production help on this episode. Special thanks to Amanda Gilliland, John Witte, Laura Hampton, Steve Miles, Cathy Killian, and Uzi Barom. Nikki Frick is our fact-checker. Victoria Berenetski is our general counsel.
Our production manager is Steven Rascone. Score and sound design by the Dynamic Duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando-my-man-Yoaruda. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our interim executive producers are Taki Telenedis and Brett Myers. Our theme music is Commarado, Lightening. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation. The Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. McArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the Hellman Foundation.
Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investgative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson. Remember, there is always more to the story.