“Our students are not political pawns”: hundreds gather on campus to oppose elimination of DEI, Richard Corcoran
Students, community members, parents and alumni gathered outside of the Hamilton "Ham" Center on Feb. 28 in protest. Photo by Nat Kornblum

“Our students are not political pawns”: hundreds gather on campus to oppose elimination of DEI, Richard Corcoran

“Fight fight fight, education is a human right!” This mantra was chanted by hundreds of students, alums, parents and community members gathered on the steps of Hamilton “Ham” Center before the Feb. 28 New College Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting. The meeting would be the first where newly appointed Interim President Richard Corcoran would be present, and on the agenda was the abolition of the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence (OOIE) and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) statements from candidates for faculty positions as a part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’s plan to eliminate “wokeness” in higher education. 

Also recently in the news is the introduction of House Bill 999, which would effectively ban the field of Gender Studies in Florida universities, eliminate any element of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and weaken tenure protections for professors, among other proposals. DeSantis also stirred controversy last month by criticizing the College Board for its introduction of an Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies course, threatening to pull Florida schools out of the nationwide program. On Feb. 23, students in universities across the state walked out in protest of DeSantis’s recent conservative focus on higher education. So what some are calling the “hostile takeover” of New College is emerging as just one moving part of a broader educational agenda, leaving some Floridians feeling anxious, targeted and outraged. 

Attendees milling around before the protest begins. Photo by Nat Kornblum

Some 200 people gathered in anticipation of student and guest speakers, including Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando), who has previously spoken in support of New College and Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer, the current President of the United Church of Christ (UCC), which provided the initial funds to found New College in the early 1960s. Attendees held signs including statements such as “I shouldn’t have to miss class for this,” “Are we too woke or do you need to wake up?” “Students can’t be replaced, Governors can” and “Diversity matters.” 

The protest was organized by the student-led group NCF Students for Educational Freedom and spearheaded by second-year Sam Sharf, who has been outspoken about her opposition to the conservative direction newly appointed trustees are attempting to take the school. 

“These trustees, new president and governor have made it clear that they are waging a war on academia’s most marginalized,” Sharf said during the protest. “The rhetorical demonization of CRT and DEI initiatives is a war on Black and POC students, faculty and staff…they don’t want students to think critically about the injustices of this society or a positive future that abolishes the status quo.”  

Five other student speakers addressed the audience, voicing opposition against the abolition of DEI as well as the impacts of this legislation of LGBTQ+ students and students of color.  

Protesters gathering on the steps of the Hamilton Center. Photo courtesy of Sophia Brown

“I learned that to be a New College student is to uplift the community around you,” Third year Chai Leffler said. “I learned that to be a New College student is to be unapologetically yourself.”   

First-year Lianna Paton, representing the People of Color Union (POCU) and the Asian American Pacific Islander Student Alliance (AAPISA), said “I am here to defy and deflect the political attacks that the Florida Government has made personal for me and a lot of students of color.”  

A student speaker who identified herself only as A described her experiences with gaining access to Black history and literature in Florida schools. 

“Seventeen was when I first recalled being taught elements of Black history that I never heard of before. It wasn’t just that Martin Luther King had a dream, but that he had the will to speak up against fascism and was killed for it. I learned about the Black Power movement and the contradictions of the U.S. government when it came to protecting Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQIA+ livelihood,” she said. “To me, academic freedom is the right to see yourself in the academic texts being reflected back to you.” 

Second-year Fatima Ismatulla addresses the crowd of protestors and reporters. Photo courtesy of Sophia Brown
First-year Bilge Akyol speaks to fellow protestors. Photo courtesy of Sophia Brown

As Representative Eskamani took to the podium, she reiterated her commitment to “fight unapologetically for academic freedom.” 

“A fight at New College is a fight for all of us. It’s not just a fight for academic freedom, it’s a fight against grifters like Richard Corcoran and other members of the BOT who continue to fail forward here in Florida, not based on merit but based on cronyism,” said Eskamani. “No matter your political affiliation, Democrat, Republican, non-party affiliated (NPA), each one of us should be against this gross agenda.” 

The concluding speaker was Rev. Dorhauer, who expressed his outrage at the situation. 

“I am here to make a continuing promise that the community that you’ve created, we will be here to protect and defend, and make a charge to the beautiful, brilliant creative students of this campus,” said Dorhauer. “I want to express my moral outrage at Gov. DeSantis, willing to compromise and sacrifice the future, the vision, the hopes, the dreams and the safety of the students on this campus for his aspirations to serve as President of a United States whose right-wing religious and Republican wings are growing more fascist and more extreme every day.” 

In addition to Rev. Dorhauer, representatives from seven different branches of the UCC were present at the protest. 

“Church tradition calls us to stand up against fascism,” said clergy member Rev. Mark Buck, from Iowa, about his decision to attend the protest.

As the protest concluded, a bald eagle could be spotted gliding over the crowd as several attendees made their way to the Sudakoff Conference Center to give their thoughts during the public comment period. Students made their way over to the lunch, paid for and served by parents of current students.

Chalk outside of the Sudakoff Conference Center reading, “The natural state of the human spirit is ecstatic wonder, that we shall not settle for less.” Photo by Nat Kornblum

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