He elicited groans and laughter from some in the audience.
Rufo is among six people appointed to the New College board of directors by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) earlier this month, setting the stage for a conservative overhaul of an institution known for an LGBTQ-friendly ethos that’s a carefree one student body. Rufo painted the campus as being on the brink and described the trustees’ mandate as a “hostage rescue operation.”
“We will liberate the campus,” he told reporters. “We will free administrators. We will rid the faculty of the cultural kidnappers.”
The two forums held on Wednesday were the first public opportunity for the people of New College to hear directly from Rufo, a conservative arsonist known for his deep skepticism about the types of diversity and inclusion programs being implemented at New College and in of higher education are popular. Rufo was joined on the panel by Jason “Eddie” Speir, another new trustee and co-founder of a Christian school in Bradenton, Florida.
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Tensions have run high since the appointment of the trustees was announced. That sentiment was reinforced prior to the trial when Rufo told attendees that the college had received a death threat against Speir. Rufo, without evidence, blamed the likely blame for the threat on the board’s liberal critics.
Catherine Helean, a spokeswoman for the college, confirmed in an email that the college had received “threats that were perceived to be credible.” Campus police are investigating, she said.
The threat, which Speir said came in an email to the college, appeared to spark a disagreement between the trustees and the college administration over whether it was safe to proceed with the forums. In an email to the campus Wednesday morning, Suzanne Sherman, the college’s chancellor, urged students, faculty and staff to “not attend” the events. “We value protecting your community,” she wrote.
Rufo described the administration’s stance as “cowardice” and said it should factor into board decisions on whether the college needed new leadership.
Patricia Okker, the college’s president, did not attend the meeting and declined interview requests from The Washington Post. The President’s “contract of employment” is listed as an agenda item for the next board meeting, scheduled for Tuesday.
In his opening address to the crowd, Rufo connected a data-driven argument about the college’s struggles to a deeper “cultural” issue. Rufo justified his reasoning, citing from a consultants report the college commissioned in 2019. According to the advisers, Rufo said the phrases most associated with the New College are “politically correct,” “drugs,” and “crazy.”
“It’s not a great brand for college,” he said.
The report, authored by the Art & Science Group, asked inquiring students and admitted applicants what they thought of the New College. To test perceptions of the college’s social culture, the advisors “deliberately” included options that were “potentially negative,” according to the report. Rufo did not mention this in his remarks.
The New College has faced threats to its existence before. In 2020, a Republican lawmaker proposed a bill that would have merged the college with a larger state university and effectively closed it. The college’s stated goal of enrolling 1,200 students has proved elusive, and lawmakers have grown impatient with stalled growth.
Rufo’s outspoken criticism of diversity, equity and inclusion programs on college campuses has raised concerns at New College, where such programs are valued by many students. Sam Sharf, a transgender student at New College, said she was “offended” by Rufo’s rhetoric on the subject.
“It’s very worrying,” Sharf said, “because we understand where this rhetoric is going if it’s not stopped.”
If the “hate” is left unchecked, Sharf said, “it could lead to future violence against us.”
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Several times during the forums, Speir described his religious beliefs, acknowledging that they may not be popular among the people of New College. He’s already had a public disagreement with the chief executive officer over whether the trustees, who set policy for a public college, could open their upcoming meeting with prayer. Mary Ruiz, the New College chair and alumnus, denied Speir’s application and cited counsel for counsel, Speir said Twitter.
The DeSantis administration has said Hillsdale College, a private Christian college in Michigan, could be a model for what the New College might become. This does not go down well with some students, parents and alumni.
“We are very concerned that educational freedom is being suppressed and replaced with a Christian, right-wing agenda,” said Karen Stack, whose son attended New College, in an interview.
Bristen Groves, a third-year student at New College, reached out to Speir after the forum and described to the trustee her experiences as a Christian student on campus. She was accused of being “transphobic,” she told him. In an interview with The Post, Groves said she’s struggled to form “deep relationships” with her classmates and mostly connects with church friends who aren’t students in college.
“I want this to be a place where everyone feels welcome,” she said.
However, there is disagreement about how the New College gets there. Many students say they love the place the way it is, but Rufo said he wouldn’t even be on the board if things weren’t extremely grim.
“The situation must be very serious,” he said, “if someone like me becomes a trustee of a public university.”