Since the Jan. 6 announcement of six new conservative-aligned Board of Trustee (BOT) members appointed at New College of Florida, Representative Anna Eskamani (District 47- Democrat) has spoken out frequently and firmly in opposition to the decision. Taking to social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, Eskamani has called the decision a “hostile takeover” and a “conservative grift.” In addition to being a vocal advocate for New College, Eskamani spoke at the community protest preceding the first BOT meeting to include the new trustees on Jan. 31.
“I know a little something about academic freedom because I experienced it every day as a public school kid, and now as a student myself, and within the Florida legislature where I fight like hell for the needs of every day people against this fascist regime,” said Eskamani at the Jan. 31 protest. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Florida (UCF) and is currently pursuing a doctorate at her alma mater.
Eskamani agreed to sit down with the Catalyst for a Zoom interview on Feb. 3 to share her thoughts with the campus community.
Q: As a State Representative, what’s your take on the government’s role in public universities?
A: The government has a responsibility to ensure the integrity and the access to public education, including K-12 and workforce education. It’s in our best interest to ensure that we have a generation of citizens that are engaged, that are critical thinkers, that have an understanding of not just their communities but of the world and we should help to eliminate disparities in who has access to educational opportunities. We should ensure that what is taught in our classrooms is based on the expertise of faculty and not on the political preferences of politicians.
Q: What do you think is the future of the State University System (SUS) under DeSantis?
A: Very dark. Gov. DeSantis has politicized every single agency and institution for his own political ambition, and all of the attacks he’s done on higher education speak to that. It’s ironic because in 2019, when the Governor was asked about freedom of speech on our college campuses, he literally said Florida doesn’t have a problem with that. And yet, now, three years later, this has been his latest witch hunt, to go after higher education and censor what’s taught in classrooms, censor administrators and terminate presidents.
It’s absolutely unheard of, it’s insidious, and again, it’s trying to put into place your political ideology as the core purpose of education, which is totally a farce but also really dangerous to the future of higher education in Florida. It’s not going to allow us to be competitive in a global market, and it could even threaten our accreditation with reputable bodies which determine our access to financial aid and research grants. I mean, so much of this is a domino effect with much larger consequences.
Q: As New College is a small liberal arts school, it feels kind of like an easy target within the SUS. Under DeSantis, what changes do you think could be realistic for larger schools like University of Central Florida (UCF) or Florida State University (FSU)?
A: I don’t think any college is safe, regardless of size. The BOTare made up of six gubernatorial appointments, five Board of Governor (BOG) appointments and then the faculty representation and student president is placed. So, that gives a lot of leverage to these political bodies to put who they want on the boards. The BOG has been corrupted as well, it’s made up of Republican politicians and Republican donors, so no institutions are free of the corrosive agenda of the Governor.
Obviously with larger universities, there’s a larger alumni base to fight back.They’re also located in bigger media markets and more people know about these larger institutions, but I mean, University of Florida (UF) has already hired another former Republican politician to be their President and that was done behind closed doors. UCF administrators have not spoken up at all against the Governor and what he’s doing, and classes are getting canceled at state colleges because of what the Governor is doing. At the end of the day, I don’t think any institution is safe at this point.
Q: What would your advice be to Floridians who are concerned about what’s happening at New College?
A: You need to fight back. You need to spread the message, you need to come out and protest, you need to be as vocal as possible and help folks understand the economic consequences of this and the consequences to our democracy as a whole. There are economic concerns here. At the end of the day, we’re not going to be competitive at a national scale if we’re not attracting the best and brightest. We already have professors who are pulling their applications from Florida, we have students who are rethinking going to a Florida school. If you keep weakening tenure, you’re not going to attract the best professors. Your professors who have a career in academics look towards tenure as a benefit of being in the career for as long as they are, and if you weaken that, then what’s the incentive to stay in the state to earn tenure? I mean, again, all of this is so corrosive.
I really do encourage folks to speak out and go to your BOT meeting’s public comment periods and express your concern about what is happening. Push these individuals to defend these institutions and what they stand for. Part of the struggle with what happened in New College, too, is that some of these BOT members have no connection to Florida at all. Some of these other institutions at least have board members that work in Florida, have businesses in Florida, and so maybe they still have some connections with the state and are worried about the state’s future versus their own political careers or ambitions. Speak out, but also speak out with the best target. Focus on the people who make these decisions, like your BOT, like your President, and make sure your voice is heard.
Q: What plans do elected representatives have to address this takeover of higher education?
A: Well, that’s the problem. Florida has a Republican supermajority in both the House and the Senate, and Republicans at this point have not said a damn thing. They’ve consented to everything the Governor is doing. If they have spoken out, it’s in support of what the Governor is doing. As Democrats, we need to do what we can to push back against this political agenda, to educate our communities about it so we aren’t the only ones expressing concern, and encourage our constituents to come to Tallahassee.
These BOT members at New College have not even been formally approved yet by the Florida Senate. You should come to the Florida Senate and tell the Senators to not approve these BOT members, from your perspective. This is dangerous and undemocratic and not in the best interest of our universities and our colleges and our workforce. We have to work the inside-outside strategy bringing everyday people with us into the Capitol because we don’t have the numbers to stop this from happening.
Q: What is your message to the New College community during this time?
A: My message is that you are not alone, and that we’re incredibly proud of the students and the faculty who are fighting back, and incredibly disappointed in the administrators who are being pushed over. At the end of the day, the power lies with the students. There is no university without the students. Students need to keep fighting back and keep inspiring others. Know that what happened at New College can happen anywhere. The world is watching, and as fellow Floridians we are gonna be there by your side no matter what happens.