November 9, 2023
From The Real News Network
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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s war on education has been a major pillar of his administration, and the tiny liberal New College of Florida is now a laboratory for his political agenda. Dave Zirin speaks with Mike Sanderson of the “Save the New College of Florida” movement on the right-wing takeover underway, and the role of sports in making it happen.

Studio Production: Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Taylor Hebden
Audio Post-Production: David Hebden
Opening Sequence: Cameron Granadino
Music by: Eze Jackson & Carlos Guillen


Transcript

The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Speaker 1:

(singing)

Speaker 2:

Thanks for having me, Dave.

Speaker 3:

Awesome. So let’s get started. Speaking broadly, what has Ron DeSantis done to the New College of Florida? That’s so terrible.

Speaker 2:

Well, in January without any warning or consultation, he announced the appointment of new trustees in a batch. He hadn’t made any appointments in his first term, and basically immediately giving him a governing majority on the board, and announced these sweeping changes with a lot of sort of false statements about what new college was, a lot of stereotypes, a lot of off the shelf cookie cutter propaganda that was just not true, and announced the intention to remake the school. Sort of broadly, the term that was used over and over was Hillsdale of the South, referring to the extremely conservative private school of Michigan. In fact, one of the trustees appointed was a dean at Hillsdale. And a part of that, they immediately fired the college’s president who had been in office for 18 months and was well-respected and was starting to show results. And they immediately made… They hired the former Republican speaker of the house who had no academic qualifications to be president and proceeded to try to drive students away. They eliminated diversity and equity inclusion area.

They immediately changed bathroom signs on campus. It was like their first priority. And they denied tenure to trustees, and created just generally an environment of uncertainty and hostility that is still being worked out. And as part of that… So that’s the overall aspect of what they’ve been doing and why so many people of students and faculty and alumni and community supporters have been fighting hard to, in some cases, try to work with these people to see what their goals are, but it’s just so… It’s been so disruptive and so destructive to especially the students and faculty in the current community. And we’re trying to stand up for the institution and say what’s happening there is wrong.

Speaker 3:

And then just to give people a visual picture, it’s a school of just 700 students, right?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, so it has about 700, 800 students. It’s in Sarasota, Florida. Yeah, it’s a small liberal arts school. It’s the smallest in the state system by a large margin. It was founded as a private liberal arts school in around 1960 and was acquired by the state in 1975. It’s been independent inside the state since 2001, has a very rigorous academic system. So it was founded to be a rigorous academic college, and it has a unique academic system, actually, in which we didn’t get grades, but received narrative evaluations and had to… You have to be very self-motivated to go there. So it acquired a reputation as a school that’s very quirky and individualistic, but also very academically rigorous, as seen by results of the number of students who go on to get PhDs or have other received prestigious fellowships like Fulbrights. Many years, New College had the only students get Fulbright scholarships in the entire state of Florida.

So it did have a good reputation. It did have problems with enrollment over the years. They’ve been trying to grow that number. It was hit very hard by the pandemic. But the school was coming back, and then you just had this hostile takeover, which was part of this broader agenda against higher education in Florida in which New College was just seen as sort of a small fish that could be sort of plucked out.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, or the opening shot of a much larger agenda where they point-

Speaker 2:

Yeah, the opening-

Speaker 3:

… to the New College of Florida.

Speaker 2:

Absolutely. This is something they said directly when Christopher Rufo, the conservative ideologue, was appointed to the board, said pretty directly that this was something they were going to try to replicate throughout. And in fact, they eliminated the DEI in Florida in February, and then they proceeded to eliminate DEI in the state legislature, and they’re going to be implementing that in November throughout the state public university system. So it is really something we’re trying to get the word out. Because something like this at New College, they eliminated diversity, equity, inclusion in February and there wasn’t a groundswell. There weren’t consequences by the other institutions reacting to that. So the message really was, okay, you can do this and it’s not going to cause problems with your accreditation or with your membership and associations or whatnot. And that’s a very disturbing message that’s come out of this because it’s more than just the school itself.

Speaker 3:

Now, you spoke about it being about 7, 800 students. Can you speak to how sports are being used to change the composition and perhaps even politics of the campus?

Speaker 2:

When they started this in January, February, there was some talk by people like Rufo of recruiting mission aligned students, like the Hillsdale of the South language was in that regard. But really, they drove so many students away so quickly, who just decided that the hostility and the uncertainty of it really just came about numbers that they decided to create these sports programs, as I can see it, just to start recruiting students. And they basically hired these coaches to recruit students and get students replaced. The ones they were driving away, the coaches they hired have all very specific backgrounds. Aside from being underqualified, two of the coaches came from Bob Jones University, one directly. The other had worked there for years. Others, they all came from either attended or worked at Christian colleges or high schools. So it was very clear ideologically, who they were going to get.

There’s also allegations, the director of admissions told employees to recruit Christian students, which he later may have changed to the right students, wink wink. But another point is just because New College had struggled with enrollment trying to get bigger, it was very academically rigorous. And one of the things they did was just incredibly lower the standards, as well as put the recruitment of athletes outside the normal admissions process. And you saw that in the New York Times article that ran, I think last month, where the admissions on the record said that they got an essay that was just grammatically and it was just a mess. It was a screenshot of cell phone notes and just said, “I want to play ball.” And that athlete was admitted. So it’s on one hand, a cultural thing, but it’s on another thing, it’s just a way to bring in students to replace the ones that they’re trying to drive away as part of their effort, which is partially ideological and partially just mismanagement in terms of they are running a college as difficult and they have not done a very good job of it.

Speaker 3:

Yeah. I want to get the numbers right because they’re kind of astounding to me. So you’ve got seven to 800 students. They’ve recruited and given scholarships to over 100 athletes. Am I getting that right? And 70 baseball players, 70?

Speaker 2:

70. That number’s pretty eye popping. And I think they just got the recruitment pipeline going. And it wasn’t about building a team, it was just about bringing in students, so they didn’t stop. So we knew the Richard Corker, the interim president, wanted to hit this enrollment number, and so it was just all comers. So yeah, they tried to recruit an incoming class, which as of the summer, it was something like 150. The numbers change every time they report them. So I know you want to get the numbers correct, but they change every time. And over the summer, it was about 150 student athletes and 70 of them being baseball players. And the athletic director they hired, who was the former employee of one of the trustees, was who they decided to hire, was a baseball coach. And so that was part of the reason that trustee had a Christian high school with a baseball program, and several of his students immediately were accepted into New College.

So it was just there were baseball people in the start, and it was just about driving up the numbers, not trying to build a sustainable program. And that’s how you get these absurd laughable results of 70 baseball players. Yeah.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, that should be a scandal. I believe, I think it was you who pointed out to me that the number of baseball players at the University of Florida is, what, like 25?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, I think someone who was a… One of the local reporters was previously a reporter.

Speaker 3:

That’s right.

Speaker 2:

[inaudible 00:09:12] paper, The Alligator. They have a good journalism program there, well-known journalism program there. And yeah, he said that he knows the program. There has 36 baseball players, right? And there’s nine players on a team. So 70 players, if they got 20 more, they could field 10 baseball teams. Every position could have its own team.

Speaker 3:

It’s also 1/10th of the school is now baseball players.

Speaker 2:

1/10th of the school. They don’t even have a baseball field on campus. They’re going to be renting facilities. It shows you this is not a legitimate effort to build a sports program. It’s not a legitimate effort to build a sustainable New College. It’s just about putting a bunch of numbers on the board that are bigger than the previous numbers, say, “See, look, we fixed the school,” and count on the political fog to not ask questions. And then presumably when the thing falls apart in a few years, the people responsible will have moved on to other things and can blame someone else for the failure of it. It’s really… It should be a bigger scan. It’s going to be one of the biggest scandals in, I think, Florida history. If people come to grips with what’s actually happening here, just the waste and the destruction and the personal enrichment of President Corcoran, who is negotiating a salary that’s over $1 million for a school of 700 people, which is coming out of the school’s foundation that was raised over decades.

People have compared it to a bust out. If you know the term bust out from the Sopranos, it’s not stealing money from the register. It’s you take a functioning business, and then you just load it up with debt. You order whatever stuff on credit. And then you sell it, liquidate it, and then other people are holding the bag. It’s really analogous, and it’s really just… It’s why so many people are involved. It’s not about classical education. That’s one area where people are having productive conversations. People are not digging in against a expanded core curriculum that people are ready to talk about that. But it’s just the mismanagement, the inconfidence, and the joke of an athletics program is really where you see the lack of seriousness and the harm and destructiveness that’s happening there.

Speaker 3:

Well, it seems pretty clear that we’re talking about the use of sports as a way to enact an ideological cleansing of what was the student body, which is a scandal unto itself.

Speaker 2:

It’s really unprecedented, and a lot of people have trouble getting your minds around the fact that the college would put administration in that basically… That students going about their own business in their first, second, third year of college, it’s January, and they’re going to come in and say, “Okay, this school isn’t for you anymore. We’re now going to hit… We’re going to take the housing contracts that you had.” This happened over the summer. These people had housing contracts, they signed them, they were moving into dorms, and say, “No, you can’t live there anymore. We’re giving those dorms to athletes.” And they ended up not just giving them to athletes, but also to all the incoming freshmen that they recruited, but they specifically told them that they’re giving it to athletes, which definitely was a way to… It is not what you would do if you’re trying to build a new culture. It’s what you do when you’re trying to drive people away. But they don’t have dorms for those athletes when they come back in the second year.

They recruit the same number of students. So those students, they’re not expecting those students to return in large numbers either. It’s just going to keep a shell game, going [inaudible 00:12:50] keep the overall number up. Yeah.

Speaker 3:

What we know about the politics and vision of the school’s athletic director, Mario Jimenez?

Speaker 2:

He was the former employee of one of the trustees, Eddie Spear. Eddie Spear was the owner of Inspiration Academy in Bradenton, a private, Christian middle and high school with a big baseball program. Trustee Spear was actually not confirmed by the state of Florida legislature, which to not get through the Florida legislature, that’s a pretty high bar to clear, or maybe a low bar. But Jimenez did stay on. I don’t know much about his politics, but we just do know who he hired, the resumes of the people he hired. These coaches are seriously underqualified. Only one had ever been a college head coach before. Several of them had only been assistant coaches, one for less than a year. One had never been a college coach at all and just totally underqualified.

And they knew very little about the school when they went out and started to recruit students. So we have these student athletes coming in who don’t know anything about the school. For Jimenez, he was the director of a high school baseball program and a high school athletics program, which makes me marginally qualified to work as a college athletic director, nevermind set up a program from scratch.

Speaker 3:

And that’s important from scratch because they didn’t have one before this hostile takeover, right?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, exactly. There were intermural programs. There was certainly athletics and recreation. The school had a sailing team that competed at intercollegiate, as well as a power lifting team. It was more ad hoc by sport, but they did not have an intercollegiate athletics program before. And they’re setting up from scratch, and it’s just in a rush. And it’s clear. It’s not sustainable. I’m not an expert in college athletics’ finances, but how does a program like this sustain itself? And I think it’s not supposed to. It’s just supposed to replace the existing students. They have this big pot of money from the legislature this past season, this past session, and they’re going to drive out the existing students, say, “See, we’ve got, we drove out the existing students and the numbers are still up.” And then that was the plan, and that’s what they’re going to do and hope that no one looks too closely at either the numbers in detail or how things play out in a few years.

Speaker 3:

Yeah. I’m glad you pointed out about this money coming from the legislature because these are Floridian tax dollars that are going towards a political and ideological hostile takeover of a university, and that in and of itself should be a national scandal. What about this membership in the NAIA? They were just admitted to the NAIA. That’s a sort of secondary athletic conference to the NCAA, but with its own proud history, it just seems absurd on the face that such a ramshackle program would be admitted very quickly and very easily. Can you discuss how that was able to come about?

Speaker 2:

Yeah. I was working on this since the spring, and I read in the newspaper that New College was planning to join the NAIA, and I thought, “Oh, well, what’s this?” I looked into it. And you go to the NAI site, it’s all about character-based athletics. It’s about core values of respect and integrity and sportsmanship, and it’s about support for DEI. And I thought, oh, the NAIA is going to want nothing to do with this. Of course, they will. Just send them a letter and that’ll be the end of it. And we started a petition actually in May, and they respond, “Well, New College has not applied, and we will not evaluate the situation.” I thought, okay, well, that’s fine. But as the months went on, it became more and more suspicious. We found that some of these coaches in recruiting students were citing that New College already was part of the NAIA. They were telling students this in one case in social media posts. And we brought this to their intention, and got the NAIA’s attention and got no response, which was odd. We then got the college’s application to the NAIA in July.

We got it in response to a Florida public records request. So we got it through the college. And it was a mess. It was handwritten, it had math errors, had grammatical errors. It had a faculty athletic rep was signed by the VP of government relations. The athletic handbook had been copy pasted from Inspiration Academy, which I mentioned earlier was Jimenez’s his former school. We know because it made references to IA faculty and IA campus, IA being Inspiration Academy. It was clearly copy pasted. There was no planning whatsoever. And the NIA continued to move forward with the application. And we eventually found, through researching who was running the NAIA, and who was in some news reports saying that New College would be joining the NAIA, were some very close political allies of DeSantis in Florida who were involved in the Sun Conference, which is one of the conferences of the NAIA. And just these people, in addition to running the Sun Conference, also run a political advocacy group for private colleges that had business in the legislature to increase these private college vouchers, which were increasing that semester.

And while they were running the group as business before the legislature, they were also making media statements saying New College would be joining the Sun Conference before New College had even applied. It’s just a brazen conflict of interest, and we could show that the NAI statements were coordinated with the political organization because the political organization tweeted out the article less than 90 minutes after it was published. So clearly, we did a whole report. We presented all this to NAIA. And this was in July, and their response was… We said, “We would like this to be handled under your ethics policy.” They have a code of ethics, character, core values, code of ethics. “And send it to your ethics committee.” And the NAIA’s response was, “Well, since New College is not yet a member of NAIA, there’s not an avenue to send it to the ethics committee,” which makes no sense whatsoever.

It suggests the code of ethics doesn’t apply. They gave this in writing. They sent us an email of this. And then they can proceeded to move forward with membership through the site visit through everything else. It’s just despite all the red flags, despite everything involved in this, it was clear the fix was in, that they-

Speaker 3:

Yeah.

Speaker 2:

And they suspended their code… They said their code of ethics doesn’t apply to this decision. And so the NCAA at least has a conflict of interest, Paul. You have to be really bad to make the NCAA look ethical in comparison. I think you have to be really… That’s almost impressive-

Speaker 3:

Amen.

Speaker 2:

… that [inaudible 00:19:52] managed to do that. And again, it’s not everything that happened New College, the hostile takeover, eliminating DEI, the hostility, the fact that it didn’t interfere with their ability to join this organization. Other schools, they need to look at this to say, “Hey, are we enabling this? What’s happening?” They’re going to go for other schools next. And the message that’s coming out is, it’s fine. You can do what you’re trying to do at New College, and it’s not going to affect your ability to join other organizations, institutions. I think that’s a very disturbing message that is coming out of this, but that’s what it is.

Speaker 3:

Now, just a couple more questions. You’re with the Save New College of Florida Movement. Do you have a perspective? Does your organization have a perspective about perhaps reaching out to some of these student athletes to see if it’s possible to engage them in organizing, or do you think that’s just a non-starter given where they’re recruiting these athletes from?

Speaker 2:

That’s a great question. And I think a lot of us… I’m an alum. We’ve left it to the returning students to engage their fellow students on campus. I think in some cases it’s possible to overstate ideologically the new students because that was… Well, that was sort of the top line of Christopher Rufo’s sort of idea of going out and finding hundreds of young conservatives to fill the ranks. That’s not really… I don’t know if those people really exist in the numbers they want, but it’s more just they’re getting scholarships. They were recruited by these coaches. In this cycle, a lot of them were recruited in… Well, they were all recruited after March, so many of them, April, May, June, July. “Hey, do you want to come to the Honors College of Florida and get a scholarship and play on play in the NAIA,” which they were telling people directly.

And so a lot of them feel that they personally got a lot of benefit out of it, that to come and tell them, “Oh, well, you’re doing something wrong by being here,” is not really a message. I think that… And it’s not for them personally. They’re being used as pawns in this, and we’re given some pretty materially valuable incentives. And the only thing I would say to them regarding the elimination of DEI is that there are more black and Hispanic students in the incoming class, which is great. That’s great. But it’s also like, do they know they’re being held up as being examples of, “Oh, we eliminate DEI and now we have more black and Hispanic students. See, it’s good you eliminate DEI.” They’re making that argument very explicitly. In some cases, their spokesman, Rufo, and others. And that’s sort of my main takeaway. That’s what I would say to the student athletes. But we’re trying to not put pressure on them who are-

Speaker 3:

Sure.

Speaker 2:

… personally… I’m not ascribing it to ideology. It’s just a very difficult position for them, having them recruited.

Speaker 3:

Sure.

Speaker 2:

Some of them were also… We know they were lied to. They were lied to about NAIA membership, which even though the fix was in, it still would tell them that the school had a certain level of organization and coherence, that they’re already in the NAIA that they did not have because they had not even applied. And we also know some of them were lied to about what programs were offered, or the coaches were just ignorant. Some of them came thinking they could major in business or sports medicine, which don’t exist. Several of them thought they could major in programs that did exist, but the faculty have left, and now their transfer students are having to change. So for some of them, it’s not about ideology, but for some of them it’s apparently not working out. And some of them just also, we’ve heard, just want to get some playtime before they transfer to division one schools. Some of them know [inaudible 00:23:36]

Speaker 3:

They want to get some tape.

Speaker 2:

Yeah. Some of them also know what they’re doing, which puts a point to, or they have a plan that’s consistent with what’s going on, which again, puts the focus back on Corcoran at the administration who said, New College, it was not doing well, and then they destroyed the school. And then they’re saying, “Look, we’re fixing it,” but it’s not a sustainable fix.

Speaker 3:

It would be interesting though, if there was one athlete who had a petition that was called Athletes for DEI or Athletes for Gender Studies, and not so much this massive rebellion against the board of trustees or Corcoran, but just a basic like, “Hey, you eliminated this. We want it back as athletes. And since you’re holding us up as a new era, we want some of that old era in here too.”

Speaker 2:

I think a lot of us in the… We’ve let returning students engage with athletes. Some of them are hostile. We’ve heard some bad things there, but a lot of them are also just doing the best they can, like everybody.

Speaker 3:

Sure.

Speaker 2:

And so it’s an unprecedented situation for a lot of people, which is to say, to have a college to try to do the kind of ideological takeover and to put students, to have them come in and say, “By coming here, you’re supporting this political agenda. Just by showing up, we’re going to cite you as a support.” That’s a lot of people, I think… That’s sort of a big thing to put on someone who’s 18, 19 years old.

Speaker 3:

Absolutely. No, totally agree about that. Although I do want to point out that people like Christopher Rufo, in addition to being a pseudo intellectual gas bag, is a profound hypocrite to hold up diversity numbers when they’ve done whatever they could to attack even the concept of getting data about diversity.

Speaker 2:

Yeah.

Speaker 3:

And now they’re like, “Look how diverse we are.” And yeah, it boggles the mind, the shamelessness. One last question for you, Mike. You’ve been so generous with your time. People are watching this. How can people best support the movement to save New College of Florida?

Speaker 2:

One thing we’re trying to do is we’re trying to educate people who are in other NAIA institutions in particular in that regard. So while the NAIA has a large number of private Christian schools in it does have some public schools, especially out west. We found UC Merced, University of California, Merced is a member of the NAIA, and we’ve reached out to some people there to try to talk to them. It’s kind of strange to say, okay, to save New College, we’re going to go to the Central Valley of California, but here we are. And it’s a big ask for them too, to say, “Hey, your school is in this organization, and this organization that’s done something disreputable. We’re going to bring a lot of disruption to your campus.” You’re talking about how this organization is wrong, but also we’re trying to not do that. We’re trying to start the conversation.

But especially people at the University of California system, especially UC Merced, California State University Maritime, Evergreen State College in Washington State, also Oregon Tech, these are public schools that are in the NAIA. If you know those people, that’s what we’re trying to do. More generally, the Department of Education has a complaint, so we’re trying to look at that. But I’m working still… I’m still on Twitter and we’re working under the name Team Snowflake because New College Snowflakes was one of the mascot ideas floated. It was not taken. I think that was great. That they imposed a new mascot on the school as also one of the many other terrible things that they’ve done. It’s not about the mascot, but about the process of imposing a new one. But yeah, I’m working on the Twitter account, NCF Snowflakes. So that’s where we get some information. And yeah, team Snowflake. And we’re just trying to get word about what’s happened there, is really what we’re trying to do, especially for people out of Florida and at other institutions.

Speaker 3:

And the new name, I believe, is the Banyan, which is a tree or something like that? Is that-

Speaker 2:

Their campus has some banyan trees on it that are very nice. And it’s the Mighty Banyans, which the Mighty [inaudible 00:27:46]

Speaker 3:

The Mighty Banyans.

Speaker 2:

Mighty Banyan, yes. So the mascot was sort of a placeholder, but a lot… It was the empty set. It shows up on some funny mascot lists. But they wanted a new mascot. They did a survey. They then ignored the survey results, and President Corcoran picked this idea privately, apparently, and put it to the board, which voted on it 20 minutes later, which is just very typical for the whole process. So they have the team, the Mighty Banyans. And then we in opposition who are looking at our team Snowflake. So it’s NCF Snowflake, twitter.com NCF Snowflake, and also ncfsnowflakes.com.

Speaker 3:

Mike, I’ve seen sports used for nefarious purposes in my time. This tops the list, the idea of using sports, something that can be beautiful, something that can create community. Seeing it used for the purposes of an ideological takeover is… It boggles the mind. I really appreciate you and everybody with Save New College of Florida, the work you’re all doing on this. And if there’s anything else that we can do, that I can do, please let us know.

Speaker 2:

Thanks so much, Dave. I appreciate you having me.

Speaker 4:

Thank you so much for watching The Real News Network, where we lift up the voices, stories, and struggles that you care about most. And we need your help to keep doing this work, so please tap your screen now, subscribe, and donate to the Real News Network. Solidarity forever.

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