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Chaos reigns at New College of Florida as fall semester nears

When a committee of the New College of Florida Board of Trustees met in July, a whopping 36 faculty members had already left since Florida Governor Ron DeSantis initiated a conservative restructuring of the institution in January. That number has subsequently grown to more than 40, Amy Reid, the sole faculty member on the board, told Inside Higher Ed.

Now, as students prepare for the fall semester, the impact of the faculty exodus is becoming apparent: many classes won’t be offered at New College this term.

The course catalogue was already sparse when students first began looking at classes last spring. Dani Delaney, the mother of one former New College student who is transferring to Hampshire College in Massachusetts—which guaranteed admission to all New College students in good standing—said her son could only find two classes that counted toward his “area of concentration” (which is what New College calls majors). When he contacted the institution about the lack of relevant courses, she said, he was told the course catalogue was “in flux” and to “choose something else.”

“These are young adults who are not looking to fill up a semester with high school electives. It’s not like, ‘Oh, chorus is closed, let me just go take that art class,’” she said. “There are classes [students] need to take to continue to propel [their] studies forward … that was just an absolute stunning thing to have a college tell us, just pick something else. No.”

This fall will mark the first new academic year since DeSantis began his overhaul of the liberal arts college, the smallest public institution in Florida, by appointing six new conservative trustees. Many students were nervous about returning to NCF under the new leadership, which in short order fired former president Patricia Okker, axed the diversity, equity and inclusion office and denied five faculty members tenure. But as the fall semester inches closer, it is becoming increasingly apparent just how much dysfunction New College’s students will have to contend with this year.

The shrinking course catalogue isn’t their only worry. With just under two weeks until the academic year starts, students are also reckoning with last-minute class cancellations, poorly communicated housing changes and concerns about their ability to complete their mandatory senior capstone projects.

Inside Higher Ed sent New College 21 questions for this story; they responded only to one, about fall enrollment numbers, discussed later in this article.

Unexplained Cancellations

Throughout the summer, New College removed classes from the course catalogue, with some canceled as recently as last week, according to faculty and parents. Some students only found out via an email from the registrar’s office.

“Just wanted to let you know that BIOL 3120 has been cancelled. But we are adding new courses daily so please keep checking back,” one email read, according to a parent of a New College student who shared the message on X, formerly known as Twitter.

And students who haven’t had their course selections approved by their adviser receive no notice at all when a class they intend to take is removed from the catalogue. Shelby Nagle, a general studies major who uses she/her and they/them pronouns, planned to take a course entitled Philosophy of Mind until they noticed one day it was no longer listed on their online schedule.

“There’s not an open line of communication as to why this is happening,” they said. “Students are just finding that their courses are no longer there.”

‘Trouble Staying on Track’

Elizabeth Leininger, a biology and neuroscience professor who left New College this summer and will begin a new position at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in the fall, said some of the canceled classes have been electives—including neurobiology, which she used to teach. But she knows of at least one canceled course that is mandatory for a major: introduction to animal wellbeing, which is required for the relatively new animal wellbeing & conservation major.

And as more electives get canceled, it becomes harder for students to meet the requirements for their area of concentration.

“For neuroscience, there’s only one elective beyond the introductory level right now, which is not healthy,” Leininger said, noting that the number of faculty in NCF’s neuroscience program has declined from three to one. “The number of choices students have this year is drastically reduced … if one of those classes conflicts with another class they have to take that is completely required, they’re going to have trouble staying on track for their major.”

Elizabeth Leininger, pictured here at last year’s alternative graduation in protest of New College’s new conservative leadership, said New College will not offer neurobiology this fall.

Courtesy of danielperales.com

Leininger said she received permission from her new institution to teach New College’s neurobiology course over Zoom—a plan the NCF administration at first seemed to embrace. In an email to Leininger that she shared with Inside Higher Ed, Bradley Thiessen, the college’s interim provost, said he would “advocate” for her to teach the course if she was willing and able to do so.

But about two months later, she got word from NCF that she would not be allowed to teach the class, for reasons that were not explained. She suspects it may have something to do with her outspoken opposition to the direction DeSantis and the board are taking the institution, which has included speaking to the media about her decision to leave and reposting criticisms of the administration on X.

According to Leininger, the neurobiology course was listed in the course catalogue with her as the professor earlier in the summer but has since been removed. At least 11 students had already registered for the course, which is an elective for multiple majors, when it was unlisted, she said.

New College officials did not respond to a question regarding whether the university is planning to do anything to help students whose courses have been canceled. The college is currently trying to recruit more faculty. Chris Rufo, the conservative activist-turned-New College trustee appointed by DeSantis, posted on X on Friday that the college is hiring a “large cohort of new tenure-track faculty” in 14 departments, directing prospective candidates to contact him at his personal email account.

Reid, a professor of French and the director of the gender studies program, said that New College’s faculty and division chairs have been working to hire replacements for their colleagues who have left—on top of taking on increased teaching and advising loads themselves. But the university’s new political identity has made it difficult to do so.

“The division chairs have made a heroic effort this summer to fill in the gaps in our academic programs,” she said. “Sadly, their efforts are being hampered by an ideological litmus test imposed by the administration.”

In fact, the gender studies program that Reid leads is the latest target of New College’s leaders. Trustees voted at an Aug. 10 meeting to move toward eliminating the major beginning with the fall 2024 freshman class, with Rufo, who proposed the motion, celebrating the vote on X as a reversal of an “encroachment of queer theory and gender pseudoscience into academic life.” While Rufo noted that some gender studies-related courses will continue to be offered through other departments, students will no longer be able to make gender studies an area of concentration if the program is eliminated.

The rampant departure of faculty across disciplines may also make it difficult for students to complete another part of their studies: the senior capstone, a project that all graduating students present to a committee at the end of their final year.

Leininger said she spent as much as 20 hours each year sitting on students’ thesis committees, and wondered who would take on that extra work now.

Nagle, who transferred to New College from the University of Florida last year and is now entering their final year, is concerned about who will sponsor their thesis research, which seeks to explore intergenerational trauma in Polish families after World War II.

“I made all these connections with professors, started to keep tabs on who could have sponsored my thesis or who could sit on that committee for me,” they said. “Every one of them left.”

Housing Woes

In addition to making abrupt curricular changes, the college is altering housing assignments with what parents and students say is not enough warning or communication.

Students first heard in June that there was a chance their housing contracts, which were finalized in April, could change, according to a Tampa Bay Times article from July. Apartments typically reserved for juniors and seniors would now house the more than 100 new student athletes New College had admitted for the fall.

The remaining students are being squeezed into the other dorms on campus—except for a number of rooms that are offline due to mold and other structural problems—or being asked to live in a nearby hotel, the Home2 Suites by Hilton Sarasota Bradenton Airport, if they cannot secure their own off-campus housing. The college has rented out the entire Home2 Suites for the semester, totaling 133 beds, according to the contract between the institution and the hotel.

Administrators and trustees have described the lack of on-campus housing as a natural result of enrollment growth.

“This is an imperfect solution … but having said that, I take this as a sign that we’re moving along and building and as we go, we’re going to have to solve these kinds of problems,” Matthew Spalding, a New College trustee and a dean at Hillsdale College, said at the Aug. 10 Board of Trustees meeting.

The incoming freshman class, which is the largest in New College’s history, will include at least 341 students; 155, or just under half, are athletes, according to university spokesperson Nathan March.

Richard Corcoran (right), then education commissioner for the state of Florida, speaks beside Ron DeSantis in 2021.

Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Administrators worked to boost enrollment after years of “stagnation,” USA Today reported last month, with Interim President Richard Corcoran pushing for a freshman class of at least 300 students and offering financial rewards to admissions officers who met the goal. The recruitment strategy centered on developing an athletic program, which March said will include baseball, softball, men’s and women’s basketball, and men’s and women’s soccer teams.

According to the USA Today article, the baseball team had 70 players as of July, compared to 37 on the University of Florida’s Division I team.

Transit, Dining and Social Concerns

Students placed in the Home2 Suites hotel worry about how they will commute to and from New College, about a mile away. For those without vehicles, the journey consists of a 15-minute walk largely along a stretch of busy highway. Parents and faculty have also complained that high levels of crime make the area unsafe, especially at night. While a shuttle is available, it is infrequent—running hourly until 11 p.m.—and can only carry a handful of passengers.

“They don’t seem to be able to plan ahead very well at all,” said Hannah Galantino-Homer, whose son was assigned to live in the Home2 Suites, although he had already decided to transfer out of New College by the time he got the news a few weeks ago. “Like, you don’t think people need to be on campus after [11]?”

Reid echoed the sentiment at the Aug. 10 meeting, noting that the campus’s library is open until 1 a.m. daily.

Communication about the changes has been sporadic and confusing, students say. They received numerous emails asking them to confirm within a short timeframe where they planned to live in the fall. A July 11 email that Nagle shared with Inside Higher Ed gave them four days to confirm whether they had secured off-campus housing; another email, delivered Aug. 2 and shared by Delaney, informed students that the on-campus housing was full and asked them to confirm by Aug. 7 if they wanted to live in the Home2 Suites.

“If you do not send a message by this date we will assume that you will be seeking off campus housing accommodations for the fall semester,” the email read.

The details of New College’s contract with the hotel, made public just ahead of the Aug. 10 board meeting, listed a number of policies for students that are significantly more stringent than the college’s. While the college allows students over 21 to drink alcohol in their dorms and in certain outdoor areas, for instance, residents of the Home2 Suites are not permitted to drink, regardless of their age.

Students will not be able to order room service and the hotel will “not supply any food and beverage service” except for coffee, according to the contract. But the hotel also bans cooking appliances like hot pots and toaster ovens, and while this is consistent with New College’s residential policies, on-campus students will have easier access to the college’s dining hall and deli.

The hotel also has a “No Party Policy” and limits the number of guests in a room “at any given time” to two people, leaving students concerned about whether they will be able to socialize there.

At the Aug. 10 meeting, Chris Kinsley, NCF’s vice president of finance and administration, addressed some of the concerns, noting that students will be encouraged to use their meal plans—which are the same as if they were living on campus—and that the college might ask the Home2 Suites to run the shuttle more frequently. Corcoran noted that the college could purchase more vans to help with transit.

Reid told Inside Higher Ed that the Home2 Suites might not be big enough to solve the student housing crisis.

“Our interim dean of students is scrambling to solve problems with housing that resulted from the mold, the large incoming class and the decision to house all athletes in what had traditionally been upper class housing,” she told Inside Higher Ed. “The administration has made arrangements to house students in one hotel and they are now looking to secure additional rooms in a second hotel. I worry about our students who do not have clarity about where they will live or the transportation that will be provided on campus just one week out from the start of the semester.”

Kinsley noted at the Aug. 10 meeting that the Hilton Garden Inn, located on the same property as the Home2 Suites, had “held some rooms” for New College students if needed, though that was not reflected in the contract.

“We will have to come back to the board and ask for some additional dollars but the rooms are there to accommodate,” he said.

Dani Delaney’s son, a rising sophomore, decided he wouldn’t return to New College this semester in large part because he felt uneasy about the university’s decision to walk back the housing assignments students chose last spring.

He replied to multiple emails from the residential life department telling them he needed housing. Nevertheless, he received a notice on Aug. 9 telling him he had forfeited his spot in campus housing by failing to respond.

“I thought, ‘Oh my god, how many other people might have gotten that same email of, hey, basically, you’re on your own, kid,” Delaney said. “It just shows that they have not committed to what’s in the best interest of the student body. It’s so wrong, the way they’ve gone about it. The disorganization—I can’t wrap my brain around it. This is not how you run a college.”

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