It was 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Apr. 26. Mornings are often quiet at New College, but outside the Hamilton “Ham” Center, a faint sound of music could be heard coming from Z Green. Slowly, a crowd began to gather. In just a few hours, the last Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting of the semester would be held, and communities were congregating outside Ham to protest for civil liberties and academic freedom. Students, parents and others showed their support for each other with powerful speeches and a forest of signs. Continuing the fight to keep New College alive and resist conservative takeover, it was clear that this little college is the one that could.
The demonstration attracted a significant media presence, with cameras from local and national news outlets. Chants echoed through the campus; the atmosphere was charged with a sense of urgency and passion fueled by students’ demand to be heard. Security personnel were stationed nearby, but the protest remained peaceful. As the day wore on, media presence expanded, with reporters, photographers and videographers making sure to capture every angle of the event as it unfolded.
Since the introduction of House Bill (HB) 999, which in its original form would “prohibit colleges from funding or backing any college programs or campus activities which support or espouse diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI),” the New College Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence (OOIE) was abolished on Feb. 28 by the BOT. This caused many concerns about safety at a school once thought of as a “safe haven” for students of color and those who are part of the LGBTQ+ community.
The student band Sungrazer performed at the opening moments of the rally. Many students sprawled out in the grass and cheered them on. They played a mix of songs that included both originals and covers. Two highlights from the set were “July,” an original composition by Sungrazer, and “Territorial Pissings” by Nirvana. The performance got the crowd going and showed the community and support that students provide each other.
After the performance, speakers began to take the stand. By then, Z Green was bustling with reporters and cameras. Many people gathered on the stairs outside Ham, chanting and waving signs commenting on academic freedom and criticizing the takeover. Some signs included, “We’re Nerds and Geeks not Jocks and Greeks” and “Hey Harvard Called and They Want Their Diploma Back.” A cardboard cutout of Michelangelo’s David stood dead center of the group, harkening back to the recent firing of a Tallahassee school principal when a mother complained that the artwork was “pornographic” and should not be shown in class.
“I’m concerned for the freedom of expression that’s being suppressed,” Tracy Fero, parent of a first-year student, told the crowd. “I’m concerned for every student on here that’s a marginalized, or BIPOC, or transgender or LGBTQ student. That there’s national coverage that’s been brought to this campus that used to be safe. For every right-wing extremist not to come by and do whatever, it’s a scary thing.”
She continued by commenting on the event itself and pointing out the smaller crowd than appeared at the last protest. Fero said this meeting occurred at a bad time for students, as the week was reserved for thesising students to complete their baccalaureate exams.
Fero and a group of parents of other current students ran a table at the rally that provided donated refreshments, snacks and sunscreen to attendees.
Pamela Perrey, a parent of a second-year student, commented on how the unique learning style of New College is what has drawn many students in.
“We chose the school because of the unique academic programming here where students get to design their academic program, we do not consent to them imposing lectures on the superiority of Western civilization, or abolishing DEI,” Perrey said.
She continued, touching on the immense impact that the current situation of the school has on younger generations: “I also feel like they misunderstand the rippling effects this is going to have on your generation, on Generation Z, because Generation Z is paying attention. They have not been listened to regarding gun rights. They have not been listened to regarding abortion. They have not been listened to regarding climate change. And they’re wondering why y’all are activists. Well, if they would start listening, then maybe we wouldn’t have you guys want to be activists.”
After the event, the Catalyst reached out to second-year Gabriella Batista, a Catalyst copy editor, to discuss some of the problems encountered. One of the biggest struggles was the administrative pushback towards having a local book bus from Shelf Indulgence at the rally.
“We were told someone in the President’s office has an objection to the book bus after receiving approval from campus police, the Student Activities and Campus Engagement (SA[U]CE) office, and [Director of Campus Space Scheduling] Jeff Thomas,” Batista said. “A parent went in person to confront Corcoran himself to get the denial in writing. Maura, his assistant, said she hadn’t heard about it and [had] contacted Christie Fitz-Patrick herself and received written approval from her. We believe it was Christie who had made the initial objection. Push came to shove and the bus didn’t stick around during the rally, but still donated items to be raffled off as planned.”
Much conversation surrounding recent academic takeovers is the banning of many books within Florida public schools. Banned books include titles such as Forever by Judy Blume and Booker Prize winner The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.
The protest and events that took place around the BOT meeting were powerful reminders of the importance of academic freedom, the right to express ideas and have scholarly discourse about difficult, but real, subjects.