New College's true legacy lives on with ALTNEWCOLLEGE

Smolny College, established as a department of Russia’s Saint Petersburg University in the mid-‘90s, was one of the first liberal arts programs to emerge after the fall of the Soviet Union. Its student-directed way of learning was a departure from traditional Soviet education, emphasizing critical thinking, innovative teaching and freedom of course choice in a variety of disciplines. Within two years of its inception, it became the largest liberal arts program in Russia and was on track to become an independent institution.

Instead, in 2021 the Russian government cracked down on what it framed as a growing Western agenda at Smolny, eliminating course in gender studies, feminism, human rights, science and world history and namig its  U.S.-based partner, Bard College, an “undesirable organization.”  A new curriculum, dictated by Russian Federation standards, was put in place and more than a third of the faculty left in protest.

Carrie Seidman
Carrie Seidman

Sound familiar? Smolny’s demise has more than a few similarities with the ongoing conservative makeover of Sarasota’s New College of Florida, where a board of trustees appointed by Gov Ron DeSantis has, among other things, fired the college’s president, dissolved the diversity department, abolished the gender studies program and put in pace a new, required curriculum. As a result, more than a third of the faculty and an estimated 125 students have left the school.

What Smolny and New College alumni also have in common is a desire to somehow preserve the academic freedom and spirit of open inquiry and acceptance their institutions represented. So when a group of New College of Florida supporters started talking about a way to revive what was being lost at the state's public honors college, they looked to Smolny as a model.

In 2022, former Smolny faculty members and other liberal arts academics, assisted by Bard, started Smolny Beyond Borders, an initiative to provide online courses based on the critical thinking and free discussion that had begun to flourish at Smolny before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now a volunteer group of New College alumni, former faculty and donors have launched a similar online platform – – designed to “support the academic freedom of students who have been in the middle of a political crossfire by partisan politicians,” according to Mary Ruiz, who is heading the startup.

“What we offer is an online solution to students and scholars at New College and throughout Florida who are losing access to the things they want to study,” said Ruiz, former chair of the New College Board of Trustees, who resigned at the first meeting held by the DeSantis-appointed board.  “ALTNEWCOLLEGE wants to address the gaps that are occurring and carry forward the legacy of New College – and we’re finding the idea is a powerful one.”

Former New College of Florida Board of Trustees Chair Mary Ruiz speaks during a Jan. 31, 2023, meeting. Ruiz is one of the figures behind the creation of ALTNEWCOLLEGE, an online school that will carry on the legacy of New College. The liberal arts school has undergone a dramatic transformation since Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed six conservatives to the New College trustees board.

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With the help of three partners – Bard, which specializes in offering education opportunities where they are not available; the Open Society University Network founded by philanthropist George Soros; and PEN America, a nonprofit focused on the intersection of academic freedom, human rights and literature – ALTNEWCOLLEGE recently offered its first two online classes. (Though faculty are paid, all classes are tuition free; college credit is available through Bard.)

The first session, “The Authoritarian Assault on Gender Studies," taught by Masha Gessen and Judith Butler, drew more than 500 people; the second, “Young People Can Change America: Youth Voting and Political Power,” was led by Parkland survivor David Hogg. Among those who’ve signed on to teach is Neil Gaiman, an acclaimed English author of fictions, poetry and comics who draws his inspiration from mythology, folklore and pop culture. (Gaiman has offered to volunteer his time.)

“We’re focusing attention on the subject matter most under fire: race and the history of race, gender studies, the intersection of science and politics, academic freedom and student activism,” Ruiz said. “We feel if a democracy doesn’t have freedom in education and learning, it won’t have freedom in any part of society.”

Sophia Brown is a 2023 graduate of New College who realizes she “got kind of lucky” in graduating last May, before the full ramifications of the “makeover” had been felt. Yet she still feels a commitment to the school that helped her enjoy learning “for the first time” and to the friends and faculty members she left behind. After serving an internship with WSLR radio in Sarasota over the summer – where she broke the story about New College student murals being “painted over” at the behest of the new administration – she accepted her current position as PEN America’s first Florida-based community outreach coordinator.

Brown, who grew up in Lutes as “a queer student who couldn’t really be out,” says she found a community at New College where “I didn’t need to leave my identity at the classroom door” and an academic environment that ”made learning feel challenging and rewarding.” A former editor of the student newspaper, The Catalyst, she has embraced the opportunity to work with her alma mater against the trend of “increasingly censorious legislation” in the state.

“Among those still at New College, there’s a strong pervading sense of uncertainty about whether the options they chose to pursue higher education will still be there for them,” Brown said. “With all this disruption, it’s not clear to students what they’ll actually be able to study. I see ALTNEWCOLLEGE as kind of supplementing and giving some of those options back to students.”

For her friends who remain at New College, Brown said, “it’s still a roller coaster, changing day by day,” but the new platform has “given me hope.”

“New College is not a plot of land, a curriculum or a specific administration – it’s the students and faculty that made the education and social experience," Brown said. "No matter what happens, there’s still that essence of New College and I think that essence is now being carried over to ALTNEWCOLLEGE.”

Contact Carrie Seidman at or 505-238-0392. 

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: ALTNEWCOLLEGE keeps alive the true spirit of New College