On January 6, soon after being sworn in to a second term as Florida governor, Ron DeSantis appointed six new conservative members to the board of New College, a tiny public liberal arts institution that few Americans have heard of. The move drew national attention—in part because DeSantis, a likely 2024 presidential candidate, had made taking on “wokeism” in his state’s education system a defining feature of his first term, but also because of the audacity of his plan for New College. 

The school’s progressive culture, the governor charged, is failing to give its students the grounding they need to become productive workers and citizens. He therefore tasked the board with remaking it in the image of Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian institution in Michigan focused on the “great books.” “The core curriculum must be grounded in actual history, the actual philosophy that has shaped Western civilization,” DeSantis said. “We don’t want students to go through, at taxpayer expense, and graduate with a degree in zombie studies.”

Politically, DeSantis chose his target well. Founded in 1960 as a private college and later merged into the state university system, New College is famous for its alternative learning style and left-leaning population, with a high percentage of LGBTQ students. Professors give written evaluations rather than grades, and students follow a “contract” system in which, each semester, they agree to pass a certain number—not necessarily all—of their classes. Courses on offer include “Race and Ethnicity in Global Perspective,” with readings from the social justice scholar Ibram X. Kendi, and “Going Viral: Making Video Art for the Internet.” (No textbook required.) Located on Sarasota Bay just down the road from Siesta Key Beach, it is affectionately called by its students “Barefoot U.”

New College, however, is an odd choice for DeSantis’s ire in one crucial respect: On most measures of actual outcomes, the school performs at a remarkably high level. Indeed, on the Washington Monthly’s latest college rankings, which rate colleges on measures of upward mobility, research, and service, it comes in 41st out of 203 liberal arts colleges in America. On U.S. News’s more conventional list, it ranks 76th. Indeed, New College outperforms other Florida public institutions of higher learning and most of the conservative colleges and universities that DeSantis’s trustees point to as models for how they want to remake the school. 

DeSantis and his appointees levy seven specific charges against New College. 

First, they say, the curriculum is lightweight—“zombie studies,” as the governor put it. But by their own standards of what’s serious, the subjects New College teaches and the texts it uses are no less substantive than most other liberal arts colleges, and in many ways more so. According to an in-depth article in The Bulwark, a conservative Never Trump publication, New College students study the satires of Horace in Latin, Homer’s Iliad in ancient Greek, Voltaire’s Candide, and other mainstays of the Western canon from the Medieval Age on through the Enlightenment. The more progressive classes focused on race and identity are academically rigorous. “An art class on the history of museums includes modern-day controversies on ‘decolonialization’ and diversity but also provides solid coverage of historical material,” The Bulwark observed.

Of course, it’s possible that New College students are too busy playing beach volleyball to absorb any of this weighty curriculum. But the Washington Monthly’s ranking metrics don’t support that conjecture. New College graduates go on to earn PhDs at a higher rate than many of the nation’s more prestigious liberal arts colleges, such as Smith (21st on the Monthly’s rankings) and Bowdoin (28th), and considerably higher than conservative Claremont McKenna College (82nd). As Republican state Senator Joe Gruters approvingly wrote in an op-ed in 2020, “New College has become a top producer of students who earn prestigious fellowships. Their students have been awarded 74 Fulbright Fellowships over the past 15 years. That is more scholars per capita than Harvard and Yale.”

The second criticism DeSantis and company make is that New College is a liberal echo chamber that produces unproductive graduates lacking the grounding to contribute as citizens. One of the governor’s new trustees, the conservative activist and critical race theory opponent Christopher Rufo, says he plans to hire faculty who will teach “civic virtue” and “American principles”—implying that the school isn’t promoting those qualities now. 

But as the Monthly’s college rankings show, New College is already doing just that. New College ranked 19th out of 203 liberal arts colleges in America in the percentage of its students who go on to serve in the Peace Corps and in its support for students who serve in AmeriCorps. That’s considerably higher than Claremont McKenna, which comes in at 81st place on that measure. (Hillsdale College, the institution DeSantis holds up as his primary model, takes no federal student aid funding and therefore, conveniently, doesn’t have to publicly disclose its outcome data.) New College is the middle of the pack in the share of its students participating in ROTC—on par with a number of conservative colleges, like Liberty University and Dallas Baptist University. It devotes 13 percent of its work study slots to community service jobs, better than most colleges. It earns the highest possible score on the Monthly’s measure of whether a college encourages students to vote, with a student voter registration rate of 92.6 percent in 2020. The Monthly’s data shows that the vast majority of New College students are already active participants in American democracy, speaking to the school’s success in producing good citizens. 

The third, related grievance is that New College is one of those left-leaning campuses that are “hostile to academic freedom,” as DeSantis put it, and “impose ideological conformity to try to provoke political activism.” It’s true that social justice ideals, when misused, can lead to illiberal decision-making by college administrators. We saw this in the recent firing of an adjunct professor at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, who provoked anger for tactfully showing a historically significant painting of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class. Such silencing, however, is not unknown at the handful of conservative colleges in America—such as Liberty University, where a prominent anti-Trump Christian author was escorted off campus by university police. 

In any event, New College has not had any such controversies. In fact, in 2010, its administration resisted pressure from students and alumni to kick out R. Derek Black, an undergraduate who is the godson of the Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and at the time an avowed white nationalist.

Ironically, the DeSantis administration’s heavy-handedness could well undermine the school administration’s evident dedication to freedom of thought. During a tense January 25 meeting with students and faculty, Rufo and fellow new trustee Jason “Eddie” Speir—the cofounder of a private Christian charter school—implied that state funding would be tied to the school’s compliance with the trustees’ ideological goals. “When we show we are moving in that direction and understand the assignment … I think the coffers will open,” Speir said. 

The fourth criticism voiced by DeSantis and the trustees is that too few New College students graduate. At 64 percent, the school’s eight-year graduation rate certainly has room to improve. But that rate is roughly average for the state and well ahead of such schools as Florida State College at Jacksonville (39 percent) and Florida Polytechnic University, the school closest to New College’s size in the state university system, which had a graduation rate of 56 percent. That raises the obvious question of why the DeSantis administration singled out New College for draconian restructuring over poorer-performing state schools.

The fifth critique is that New College graduates have low employment rates and incomes in the year after graduation. But the narrow time window they cite does not give the full picture. The Monthly’s “social mobility” ranking factors in actual versus predicted earnings of students 10 years after college entry, capturing graduates as well as dropouts over a longer and more representative time frame. That metric shows that New College students earn $43,994 10 years out—toward the low end of peer liberal arts colleges but higher than the University of West Florida ($43,063) and conservative Bob Jones University ($40,853) and Liberty University ($42,395). 

The sixth charge that DeSantis and company muster is that New College has not met its own enrollment benchmarks. That is true: In 2016, the school set an enrollment goal of 1,200 students by 2024, and it’s now at only 700, having fallen from a high of about 850 in 2019. But New College’s enrollment struggles are typical of small, nonselective liberal arts colleges around the country, 60 of which have closed their doors in the past five years. And there is solid evidence that New College was turning the situation around before DeSantis intervened: The school’s 2022 freshman class was the largest in six years—a 30 percent increase over fall 2021. 

The seventh and final argument the DeSantis administration makes is that New College’s admission standards are too low. The school admits about 75 percent of applicants, Rufo chided New College students and professors in January: “Most liberal arts colleges try to keep that number under 20 percent. You accept more or less anyone who applies.” 

This criticism is rich, to say the least, coming from conservatives who claim to be champions of the working class and scourges of upper-middle-class privilege. With an annual $7,194 net price of attendance for students from families below the $75,000 income threshold, New College is the ninth most affordable liberal arts college in America. As such, it enrolled 12 percent more Pell Grant recipients in 2022 than would have been predicted after taking into account student test scores and family income levels in Florida. 

The school’s largely open admissions criteria is a key reason why it scores higher on the Washington Monthly’s rankings than on U.S. News’s, which rewards colleges for their exclusivity. Indeed, what is most extraordinary about New College is that it achieves outcomes comparable to those of some of the nation’s most elite colleges—ones that play the U.S. News selectivity game—with students who are far more representative of American society as a whole. 

Beyond these metrics, New College also serves the public good as a welcoming educational institution for LGBTQ students in a state where they often face violence and discrimination. According to a 2021 report by the office of the Florida attorney general, 28 percent of hate crimes in the state were motivated by anti-LGBTQ prejudice. And in 2022, researchers found that online hate against the LGBTQ community rose dramatically following DeSantis’s signing of the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

New College is a public institution, funded by taxpayer dollars. Ron DeSantis won reelection in a landslide on an anti-woke platform, and can claim a mandate to change Florida’s institutions, at least until the public tells him differently. 

The problem is that he is restructuring a college that is already performing at a fairly high level based on the measures that students and parents care most about, like whether the college offers degrees at a reasonable price that earn graduates decent salaries, and whether it encourages them to be good, active citizens. There is certainly room for improvement at New College on these measures, and maybe DeSantis and his appointees will boost its performance. But there is a lot more room to make the college worse, and plenty of reason to think that’s what the DeSantis administration will accomplish.

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Aalia Thomas

Aalia Thomas is an intern at the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @aalstea