Professors’ union sanctions Florida college over ‘political’ DeSantis takeover

<span>The New College of Florida in Sarasota last year.</span><span>Photograph: Chris O’Meara/AP</span>
The New College of Florida in Sarasota last year.Photograph: Chris O’Meara/AP
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A national university professors union has voted to sanction New College of Florida, the former liberal arts school where Ron DeSantis orchestrated an unprecedented “aggressively ideological and politically motivated” takeover by a group of ultra-conservative cronies.

The vote to sanction New College came after an investigation by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which has placed only 12 other universities on its sanctioned list since 1995.

The AAUP created a special committee to investigate the “apparent pattern of politically, racially, and ideologically motivated attacks on public higher education” by DeSantis, the far-right Florida governor who waged war on so-called “wokeness” at schools and colleges after his resounding re-election in 2022.

The investigation was launched in January 2023 after DeSantis appointed six allies to the school’s board of trustees, which at breakneck speed restructured academic courses without meaningful faculty involvement, eliminated the gender studies major, and cancelled a slew of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, including canceling meals during Ramadan, the holy month of daytime fasting for Muslims.

The new board imposed the sweeping reforms after ousting the president and inserting a confidant of DeSantis – at double the predecessor’s previous annual salary.

AAUP sanctions have no regulatory consequence, but they are published on the union’s website “for the purpose of informing association members, the profession at large, and the public that unsatisfactory conditions of academic government exist at the institutions in question”. Sanctions can also be removed.

In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, a New College spokesperson, Nathan March, said the union “lacks the authority” to issue sanctions and called the announcement “a headline grab, echoing the sensationalistic tone of their report”.

DeSantis, in conjunction with Republican-controlled state legislatures, targeted K-12 and college level education in the run-up to his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination, dismantling DEI initiatives and disciplines that offended ultra Christian rights groups.

According to the AAUP’s final report, the assault by the state government “reflects not only a blatant disregard for academic standards of governance and academic freedom but also a discriminatory and biased assault on the rights of racial minorities and LGBTQ communities”.

“It represents a throwback to Florida’s darker past that must be repudiated,” the report said.

“What we are witnessing in Florida is an intellectual reign of terror,” LeRoy Pernell, a law professor at Florida A&M Law, told the inquiry. “There is a tremendous sense of dread right now, not just among faculty; it’s tangible among students and staff as well. People are intellectually and physically scared. We are being named an enemy of the state.”

Another faculty member and union leader said: “The human toll in Florida is catastrophic. We are tired of being demonized by our government. Many of us are looking to leave Florida, and if we don’t, we will leave academia, and nobody wants our jobs. Faculty are suffering. And when we leave, our communities, our students, families – they will all suffer. So, when we fight for faculty, we are also fighting for the people in our communities.”

The AAUP report also found that “academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance in Florida’s public colleges and universities currently face a politically and ideologically driven assault unparalleled in US history, which, if sustained, threatens the very survival of meaningful higher education in the state, with dire implications for the entire country”.