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The New College of Florida’s trustees voted 7-3 Thursday to take the first steps toward eliminating the institution’s gender studies program.

The vote came on a motion introduced by Christopher Rufo, a trustee recently appointed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. It directs New College’s president to look into dismantling the program, with no new students to be enrolled in 2024. 

Some trustees, however, questioned the legality of the motion, which was not on the meeting’s agenda nor made available for public comment beforehand. They also suggested that any prior discussion about the motion between trustees ahead of the meeting may have violated the state’s transparency laws.

New College’s continued transformation

Under DeSantis, New College has become a testing ground of conservatives’ fight to remake public education. In January, the governor appointed several right-wing activists — including Rufo — to New College’s governing board, with the goal of making the liberal arts institution resemble the notably conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan.

Rufo has repeatedly opposed diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in liberal arts colleges and applauded other public institutions that have shuttered their gender studies programs.

“There is great historical precedent for abolishing programs that stray from their scholarly mission in favor of ideological activism,” Rufo said Thursday during the board meeting.

Matthew Spalding, another DeSantis-appointed trustee, supported the motion, arguing in a statement that removing gender studies aligns with New College’s mission.

Gender studies is “ideologically-driven and tendentious,” said Spalding, who also teaches at Hillsdale. This makes it “more a movement of cultural politics than an academic discipline. Any substantial topic taken up in gender studies may be found thoroughly treated in the ordinary academic disciplines such as history, psychology, or biology.”

Transparency concerns

Amy Reid, director of the gender studies program and faculty representative on the trustee board, read from a prepared statement in defense of the gender studies program prior to the vote.

“Women’s and gender studies has been central to the American liberal arts for 50 years,” said Reid.

The gender studies program has also been hit hard by the wave of recent faculty departures at New College, Reid said. She estimated that roughly a third of the vacancies came from gender studies-affiliated professors. “We are a small program with a limited budget,” she added.

“I’m actually somewhat gratified by trustee Reid’s statements,” Rufo said. “She’s saying it’s a small program with a small budget with a small number of people attached, which should make the decision even easier.”

Even though it wasn’t announced ahead of time, Reid said she had expected the motion following rumors she heard from others in the college community. She alleged that most board members were informed about the motion beforehand — potentially a violation of the state’s open meetings laws. 

Florida’s Sunshine Law gives the public the right to access governmental proceedings of public boards or commissions, like those held by public college trustees. It also stipulates that discussions between officials regarding public business must be made in public.

Thursday’s move “certainly violates the principles,” Reid said. 

Grace Keenan, the board’s student member, echoed Reid’s comments during the meeting. She called the motion “inappropriate,” as there was “no notice, no documentation, no opportunity for the public to come and make public comments.”

Rufo, however, labeled their accusations reckless and said the board should unanimously condemn them.

Bill Galvano, the college’s general counsel, said the vote could move forward since the motion would not result in the program’s direct termination.

“It’s to start a process that will be more robust and have the opportunity to have the powers-that-be weigh in,” Galvano said.

The next steps

Pen America, a free speech advocacy organization, blasted the vote on Thursday. 

“The New College board’s abolition of gender studies is a repressive act that echoes the actions of a repressive foreign government,” Jeremy Young, program director at Pen America said in a statement. “Trustee Christopher Rufo is clearly determined to import European authoritarianism to New College, trampling faculty members’ and students’ right to intellectual freedom. That his fellow board members would support him in doing so is a scandal.”

New College’s current leader and DeSantis ally, Interim President Richard Corcoran, is expected to begin work to dissolve the gender studies program. Corcoran is a finalist for the permanent presidency.

Before the board meeting, the New College trustees interviewed the three finalists for the position, including Corcoran. The position could be one the highest paid presidencies at a Florida public institution.