Our visit to New College of Florida in Sarasota began at the dorms, where new students were still settling in and returning students were settling back into a new reality on campus.
“Uh- scary, I think,” is how Marshall Bustamante described the start of his fourth and final year at New College.
Just before the start of the semester, he learned earning his senior stripes no longer guaranteed him first choice at senior digs.
“The administration removed me from my dorm room so that athletes could be there,” he told us recently when we visited the college during student orientation week.
Long known as a haven for progressive thought and LGBTIQ-plus expression, among the most visible changes of the state’s culture shift at New College is the school’s dramatic expansion of its athletics program.
In addition to existing sports, including crew, sailing, and swimming, this year, New College is adding softball, baseball, basketball, and soccer to its roster of collegiate sports.
More college sports on campus means more student-athletes.
According to school officials, New College added 353 new students this year, a record for the college. A little under half of them are newly recruited student-athletes.
“I think it’s good that we get to build it up,” said freshman Andrea Gonzalez of Tampa. She’s on a full-ride scholarship to play for the school’s first-ever soccer team.
Kailyn Posey of Jacksonville is also a freshman soccer player. She came knowing about the state’s controversial recent history.
“I do have sympathy for what’s going on, and I know change is a hard thing, and I know a lot of people probably don’t like the changes, but we wouldn’t be able to come here and be doing school if it wasn’t for the athletics. So, I think the athletics is a really good opportunity for a lot of students,” she said.
“I think we're bringing something great here,” said Jake Platko. He’s among 70 baseball players drafted to play for the school’s new baseball team.
The college has yet to get approval to play in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), it doesn’t have a baseball field of its own, and batting cages are just going up,
Still, for 22-year-old Landen Morrison, leaving a Division I school in North Carolina for a chance to play for his old high school baseball coach was a pitch he couldn’t say no to.
The school’s new baseball coach, Mariano Jimenez, is now New College’s head baseball coach and athletic director.
“It could be risky, but I just really wanted to be part of Mario’s program again. I believe in him, and I believe in the coaches that he's bringing in to get me to the next level,” Morrison said.
But around campus, it’s hard to ignore the quiet political tension that remains in the air eight months after the state began its overhaul.
The changes, initiated by Gov. Ron DeSantis, were part of his ongoing reform of a public education system, which he described as going woke.
“They are not meant to indoctrinate students in political ideology. That is not a good use of taxpayer funds,” DeSantis said in Orlando back in July.
What began with the Governor’s appointment of six new conservative Board of Trustee members at the college quickly led to New College’s former President, Patricia Okker, getting fired. Then, the board eliminated the school’s diversity and inclusion office, and when several faculty members were up for tenure, the new board denied them tenure.
Since then, nearly 40% of New College’s faculty have left, according to Dr. Amy Reid, a tenured professor and the sole faculty member currently serving on the school’s Board of Trustees.
“No, the political tensions have not calmed down,” she told us during our visit.
Reid, who’s been teaching at New College for nearly three decades, has been an outspoken critic of the state’s changes and remains concerned about the school’s future.
“We've had such turnover in faculty and such turnover on the staff, and, frankly, a lot of turnover on the student body. So, I’m concerned about the impact of the brain drain on this campus. When we have lost a lot of faculty, staff, and students, it's hard for the place to run,’ she said.
A few weeks ago, Reid was one of just two board members who voted against abolishing New College’s gender studies program. It’s only full-time gender studies professor later resigned.
Reid, who is also the director of New College’s gender studies program, said several classes had to be canceled at the last minute because no one was teaching them.
“Nobody wants to be the object of a hostile takeover. No one wants to live through a siege,” she said about the exodus of faculty.
Senior Marshall Bustamante told us he’s just learned a senior philosophy course he needs to take had also been canceled.
“I have to find a way to graduate,” he said when asked how the cancellation impacted him.
But Interim President Richard Corcoran denies any classes have been canceled.
“Absolutely inaccurate. Every single student will be able to take the courses they want,” Corcoran said.
Richard Corcoran answers all our questions about New College’s new face. From how the school is dealing with a mass exodus of professors to why new student-athletes seem to be getting first dibs at housing and hearing what Corcoran is now saying about the school’s conservative board and claims right-wing politics are driving the school’s future.
Stay tuned for Katie’s continuing coverage of New College, a new year.