Action can keep despair at bay
College Hall, facing the bay, 1964.

Action can keep despair at bay

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Bruce Benidt (’72)

Hope is irrational, illogical, fragile and beautiful; and likely the only way anything good happens. 

I have learned these things anew at my college, New College, half a century after graduating. 

As another class graduates now in Sarasota, two images shine strong in my mind. May 2023, at the graduation ceremony, New College students and their parents standing and turning their backs on the president and speaker, ideological zealots who invaded their school. And June 1989, a slender Chinese man holding a shopping bag and standing tall in front of a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square, resisting dictatorship with silent grace and power.

Governor Ron DeSantis’s right-wing takeover of one of the nation’s most creative colleges has pleased people who want to return to the America of the 1950s when straight, white Christian men ruled. And it has appalled people who value education over indoctrination.

But the students of New College, now the resistance in an occupied land, are heroes. And what an education they’re getting about how things work, and how things don’t. And how to stay true to your own north star.

A year ago in January the culture warriors landed on the bayfront, sloshing ashore dressed in suits, dragging mud over marble. With icy arrogance these Conquistadors smashed everything they could reach. LGBTQ+ friendly? No more. Diversity, equity and inclusion? Wrong and gone. Gay and transgender staff fired. Current students shunted off to hotels so athletes, admitted through lowered standards, can have the good dorms on campus. Female president fired, replaced at more than twice the pay by a male politician with no academic or leadership qualifications. Students and their parents lied to. Indoctrination over inquiry. Rules over freedom. Caste over equality. 

Too many students and faculty have fled, understandably. They know they’re not welcome at their own school anymore. Many no longer feel safe there. But many have stayed, because tearing up roots and finding a new home is hard and expensive. For all, their futures have been derailed, their present feels under assault. And the new administrators and trustees don’t give a damn. In fact, they’re proud to have chased away so many people who are not like them—just collateral damage of a hostile takeover. 

But through this cruel assault on students’ plans and their personhood, many who’ve stayed hope they can wait out the occupiers. Others are staying and patching together programs with the remaining courses and teachers and independent study. New College is about learning to spur your own learning, and these young people are passing that test. 

They’re inspiring. Their spirit enlivens mine.

I’ve seen a senior student, the most adult member of a board of trustees that has mostly violated its trust, whose firm diplomatic presence gives her the strongest voice in the room. And a passionate trans person screaming at trustees, in pain as their college program and welcoming environment are eviscerated. Resistance needs voices hot and cool.

I’ve met a brave student who’s a military veteran risking retribution by joining a lawsuit against the hostile takeover. And a student criminally charged by a trustee for protesting the destruction of her beloved school, a place that felt like home. 

I went to New College in the 1960s, another tumultuous time of culture clash, demonstrations, anger, hope and despair. New College taught me how everything fits together. And that when the connections are ignored, everything suffers. It’s a radical school based on questioning everything, discovering for ourselves, following crosscurrents across tired old boundaries. New College learning guides my work, my life as a citizen and a human.

Today’s students will take New College with them across a tattered globe. They have learned there is no ivory tower. They’ve learned how crushing a cold system can be that has no room for outliers. And they’ve learned to adapt to what can’t be changed, change what can be, create new paths for themselves and raise hell when they need to. Act up, act out—act.

The Indigo Girls sing:

“Darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable,

And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear.”

We hear you, New College students, faculty and staff, New College escapees, refugees and parents. And I’m warmed by the light of your hope. Go change your own corner of the world.

Bruce Benidt is a Communications Coach assisting professionals in speech-writing and delivery, articles and more. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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