New College of Florida Is Bringing Back an Old Tradition — Free Speech
What’s so radical about a classical liberal education?
As the golden gates of elite universities appear increasingly closed to free speech, the New College of Florida is hoping to burst open its own doors to students hungry for a true liberal arts education.
Governor DeSantis is overhauling what he calls “woke indoctrination” to revive the classical tradition at the public honors college at Sarasota, Florida, founded in 1960. New College is seeking $400 million in state funding over the next five years as it adds academic programs, expands its inaugural athletics department, and prepares for an increase in student enrollment.
Critics argue that the college will become a conservative hotspot, but its leaders insist that it is a haven for free speech and respectful discourse in a society that appears to devalue both. Considered by its leaders “extremely woke” just last year, the sprawling, coastal campus purports to embrace students who are “free thinkers, risk takers, and trailblazers.”
“A Hillsdale of the South” is what Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz envisions for New College, referring to the small Christian school in Michigan that has been active in conservative politics. Her hope, outlined in a statement earlier this year, is that the school will become “Florida’s classical college.”
Mr. DeSantis appointed six members to the board of trustees in January, including conservative activist Christopher Rufo, a dean at Hillsdale and a senior fellow at the right-wing think tank, The Claremont Institute. The board voted to abolish the school’s gender studies program, which the recently-appointed admissions director at New College, Bruce Abramson, tells the Sun reflected “a proliferation of pseudo-academic disciplines that really are more oriented towards advocacy and activism than towards scholarship.”
New College has also dispensed its diversity office, a move that the interim president, Richard Corcoran, said was done “to ensure that no group is singled out for punishment or preferential treatment.” Amid growing intolerance and physical threats on college campuses, “we prize free speech and condemn violence,” Mr. Corcoran asserted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week titled, “New College is a Haven for Harvard Students.”
Under its new leadership, the school is turning into “a beacon of conservatism,” according to the New York Times. Its only full-time gender studies professor said in his resignation letter in August that Florida is “the state where learning goes to die.” Yet Mr. Abramson dismisses accusations of political motives. “Even if you’re a governor,” he tells the Sun, “you can’t take over an institution because you dislike its politics.”
“It doesn’t matter what the Board of Governors wants, it doesn’t matter what the college president wants, a campus will be what the students and faculty make it,” Mr. Abramson says. He is tasked with fixing a crisis of enrollment at New College, which has been failing to hit its goal of 300 students a class. “In 2016, the leadership of the college understood they were in trouble,” he explains. “It was clear that it had to be moved in a new direction.”
That new direction includes the addition of several academic programs, such as the New College Freedom Institute, which would combat what Mr. Corcoran calls “a tremendous cancel culture” in higher education. The school has also built its first athletics program. In our “atomized society and culture,” Mr. Abramson says, “college sports give you a sense of being on a team and collaboration and community and it spills outwards.”
New College has faced some legal troubles this year. Alumni, faculty, and students have accused the school of academic censorship in violation of the First Amendment. Two civil rights complaints allege that it is discriminating on the basis of disability and driving out its LGBTQ students. Yet Mr. Abramson insists that on his campus, “students don’t have to worry about their physical safety or that they’re going to get in trouble for expressing an unpopular idea.”
To attract students who are hungry for civil discourse, Mr. Abramson has reworked the school’s admissions application to include provocative questions, like, “should we judge historical figures by contemporary standards?” and “Think of a time in your life when you were adamant and vocal about something only to discover you were completely wrong. What did you learn from the experience?”
New College works closely with the team behind the Classical Learning Test, a humanities-focused alternative to the SAT and ACT tests that a dozen colleges in Florida began using this fall. As part of its commitment to classical education, the school is adding a required course on the Odyssey and one on data sciences. “We build a bridge from ancient Greece to information age America,” Mr. Abramson says of the new curriculum.
The famed literary theorist, Stanley Fish, is leaving his post as a professor of law at Florida International University, which he has held since 2005, to teach two humanities courses at New College beginning in January. His classroom, he tells the Sun, will champion “academic freedom” in the true sense of the term, which pertains to the “academic job, not the job of therapy, or of social justice, or of fashioning democratic citizens.”
Those who teach their personal beliefs and political preferences infringe upon academic freedom, Mr. Fish argues. “It is not the business of a college or university teacher to nudge his or her students in the direction of some political position,” he says. “The business of a college or university teacher to help his or her students attain mastery of a field of knowledge.”
A new private university in Texas, the University of Austin, is launching next fall with a similar mission of warding against the politicization of the classroom. It pledges to protect “the fearless pursuit of truth” in its mission statement. “We are not the only ones,” Mr. Abramson says, “to recognize that higher education in America has taken a dangerous turn.”