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A semester inside the siege: New College professor is trapped in the takeover

By Lane DeGregory, Tampa Bay Times
Published: August 27, 2023, 6:05am
6 Photos
Patricia Okker, left, then president of New College, chokes back tears as newly appointed trustees terminate her during their first meeting in January. New College board chairperson Mary Ruiz, center, and New College general counsel David Smolker applaud her tenure. Okker had said she looked forward to working with the new leaders but never got the chance. (Douglas R.
Patricia Okker, left, then president of New College, chokes back tears as newly appointed trustees terminate her during their first meeting in January. New College board chairperson Mary Ruiz, center, and New College general counsel David Smolker applaud her tenure. Okker had said she looked forward to working with the new leaders but never got the chance. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

SARASOTA, Fla. — Professor Amy Reid sat in her home office, tucked between towers of books, when her phone started buzzing.

It was winter break. Classes at New College wouldn’t start for weeks.

But that Friday in early January, Reid had a full day of online meetings with students who wanted advice about classes and internships.

Her phone pinged again while she was counseling a senior. And again. Different dings for texts, emails, voicemails.

She silenced the alerts.

Reid has taught French and gender studies at New College of Florida for 28 years — her whole career and almost half her life. She came to the small state school on Sarasota Bay because it lets students explore their own interests. Because its faculty and students are smart, curious and quirky.

Between Zoom sessions, Reid scrolled through messages. She saw articles about a “takeover” and a “siege.” She learned that the governor had just appointed six new members to the school’s board of trustees — and planned to turn Florida’s progressive honors college into a conservative institution. She read a tweet from one of the new leaders who proclaimed, “We are now over the walls and ready to transform higher education from within.”

Could this be real? colleagues texted Reid.

To her, the news sounded ominous, absurd. She couldn’t make sense of what it meant for her or her students, that these outsiders had crashed their tiny haven and vowed to turn it inside out.

That night, Reid emailed a few fellow professors asking, “What can I do?”

The Tampa Bay Times spent six months with Reid to chronicle the changes at New College through the eyes of one of its longest-tenured teachers.

January

As the spring semester began, reporters flocked to the small campus, hauling cameras and cables, thrusting microphones at students, filming documentaries for foreign audiences.

School administrators weren’t saying much. Reid, 58, subscribed to local newspapers and set up Google alerts.

Like many Floridians, she had been concerned about Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to prohibit talking to young students about gender identity, sexual orientation or critical race theory. But Reid didn’t anticipate that the governor’s education overhaul would extend to Florida’s public colleges.

Now, she cringed as she listened to clips of the governor criticizing New College for pushing “zombie studies” that don’t get graduates jobs, for lagging revenue and enrollment, for being too focused on social justice.

That didn’t sound like the New College she knew.

She had first heard of the place when she was in graduate school at Yale, studying French literature.

Four of her classmates — the smartest, most original thinkers she knew — had come from New College.

They told her about “Barefoot U” by the bay, which opened in 1960. They described towering palms and banyans dripping with Spanish moss. Faculty had the freedom to cross disciplines — after all, students could design their own majors. Tuition was low, but standards were high. There were no fraternities or competitive sports. It was a place, they said, where people felt comfortable being themselves.

Reid still remembers her first visit in 1995, seeing the historic buildings, tasting the thick, briny air.

Her first job as a professor turned out to be her only one. She got married and divorced while at New College. Her three kids went to day care only a short walk from her office. She helped build the school’s gender studies program, earned tenure, translated eight books. Between classes — discussions had ranged from French language to African fiction to feminist writing — she shared picnics with her kids beneath the pines.

Her daughter, a student at New College, often stopped by her mom’s office, where hundreds of books on French poetry and Haitian letters blanketed every surface. If a book was on a shelf, Reid had read it. If it was in a bag, she hadn’t gotten to it yet. Boxes lined the floor, filled with volumes waiting for the right reader.

Over the years, Reid saw the main road through campus turned into a brick promenade and new classrooms rise. She watched murals cheer up the coffee shop, helped students open a center for diversity, marveled as they turned a ramshackle residence hall into the popular Pride dorm.

She recognizes most of the 700 students’ faces, knows many of their names. She asks if they’re homesick or hungry, seems to know who needs space and who needs a hug. She loves surprising them with scones.

She has helped grow more than two decades of teenagers into adults, encouraging them to drop by when they need advice or an edit on a paper — or if they want to walk her rescue pit bull, Rosa.

Reid didn’t see her New College in what the governor’s press secretary described as a place “completely captured by a political ideology that puts trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning.”

She read that Florida Republicans were aiming to “ recapture higher education,” trying to save students from “getting brainwashed by liberals.”

The school had long ranked high among public liberal arts schools. For years, Reid knew, college leaders had been asking for more state funds to improve aging buildings and add dorms. It was true that many graduates didn’t get jobs right away — because many went on to law school, to earn Ph.D.s and Fulbright scholarships. Faculty, including Reid, were proud of the school’s focus on inclusivity and social justice.

Counting on the protection of tenure, Reid gave interviews to NBC, MSNBC, The Wall Street Journal. “We are not feeding students any ideological line,” she told The Washington Post. “We’re asking questions that invite students to engage in true, critical inquiry.”

Hate mail flooded her inbox, strangers taunting: “Commie loser,” “liberal clown.”

Someone wrote Reid, “Find another job.”

· · ·

On the last day of the month, the new trustees came to campus for their first board meeting. Reid stood outside the student center, watching protesters make speeches.

She knew many of those students, felt their anger and pain. She was proud of them.

She tended to be more reserved, straightforward and earnest, the type to carefully consider every word. Down-to-earth in class, she wore sundresses and flat sandals, no makeup. Ashen highlights streaked her straight, shoulder-length hair.

By the time she headed toward the board meeting that afternoon, a line wrapped around the parking lot.

But security guards turned Reid away — along with hundreds of others — ushering them toward an overflow room to watch a livestream.

Instead, she walked to her quiet campus office and raged alone.

The new school trustees included conservative activist Christopher Rufo, who some say created the conflict over critical race theory; Jason “Eddie” Speir, who founded a Christian sports school in Bradenton; and Matthew Spalding, a dean at the private, conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan — which the governor’s appointees vowed to use as a model for New College.

“Our all-star board will demonstrate that the public universities, which have been corrupted by woke nihilism, can be recaptured, restructured and reformed,” Rufo had written.

Reid, meanwhile, warned colleagues that New College was a “canary in the coal mine,” a playbook for dismantling higher education around the state, a pawn in DeSantis’ presidential run.

Now she watched as the board ousted the school’s president.

If they could do so much damage in just the first meeting, she wondered with dread, what was next?

February

Reid noticed, for the first time, that many of her students were distracted. They hadn’t done the reading. They were asking questions she couldn’t answer.

The board had disbanded the school’s diversity office. Then the interim president, former Republican education commissioner and House speaker Richard Corcoran, began clearing house. Soon, Reid watched gender-neutral signs on bathrooms disappear.

In class, students told her about pouring energy into protests and petitions. Many told her they felt helpless, hopeless.

Instead of chastising students or forcing them to focus, Reid invited them to come to a little lounge near her office.

There, as they sprawled on colorful couches, she poured tea and cocoa, served homemade chocolate chip cookies, peeled open Oreos for the vegans.

She called it: “T is for Tuesday” — tea and truth.

A dozen students showed up that first week, many she had never had in class. More came the next time.

Was the school really getting a baseball team? they wondered aloud. Why make them have a mascot? Would gender studies classes disappear?

Reid felt so bad for these students. They’d lost three semesters to COVID-19, and things were just swinging back toward normal. They hadn’t come here to be advocates. They’d come to learn. Professors at New College had taught them to speak up. But now, it seemed, no one was listening.

“I’ll work to hold this place together at least long enough for you to graduate,” Reid promised her seniors.

Her own daughter still had a couple of years to go. She wasn’t sure what the school would become by then.

March and April

When administrators told students and faculty to remove the pronouns from their email signatures, Reid refused.

When they announced they had hired a baseball coach, she felt sorry for the future players. New College doesn’t even have a ball field.

When a colleague told her that a Bible verse had appeared on cups at the campus coffee shop, she had to see for herself. There it was, in red, with the name of the Bible chapter spelled wrong: “Phillipians” 4:13. Reid looked up the words. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Then, a colleague she knew distantly, a computer science professor named Aaron Hillegass, was all over the news.

He had called the governor a fascist and tweeted his resignation, which went viral: “If I were more patriotic,” Hillegass typed, “I would burn the college’s buildings to the ground.”

Reid admired his courage and the attention it drew. But she couldn’t afford to quit.

Hillegass had worked in the tech industry, sold his company in his 40s, made enough to retire. New board members, mostly fellow white men, valued his field and reputation. He had only been a professor for a few months.

Reid’s career was New College. Her college-age kids still needed her to pay for health insurance, phone bills and tuition. She calculated that she couldn’t afford to retire for at least seven years.

She spent sleepless nights agonizing, frustrating mornings attempting to meditate. She tried to go rowing, which had always cleared her head, but couldn’t summon the energy.

Fellow faculty told her they worried pushing back might be futile.

At least she had the sanctuary of her classroom.

On a spring Thursday, in a room filled with sunlight, Reid and six students slid their desks into a circle to discuss the Haitian novel “A Knife in the Sky.”

No one had told Reid what her classes couldn’t cover. Not yet. So instead of weeding out texts that might be deemed inappropriate, she had stuck to her syllabus.

She and her students talked about the commentary on censorship and silence: “Whose voices are we not hearing?”

They were reviewing atrocities that had happened a half-century ago. Reid didn’t have to point out the parallels.

“These were proud people being beaten down by a global system,” said sophomore Catherine “Libby” Harrity. “We’re all in this together.”

Students opened up about the dread they felt seeing their school’s culture eroding. Some planned to defect by transferring, studying abroad or graduating early. Reid mourned their loss, was furious they felt forced out.

“How we manage the things that happen is important,” she went on. “That’s why we talk about survivors instead of victims.”

Toward the end of April, at another trustees’ meeting, President Corcoran denied tenure to five professors. The crowd chanted, “Shame on you!”

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The faculty member of the board, a professor Reid had thought “played too nice” over the last few months, resigned in protest.

All semester, she had watched co-workers pack their shelves, say goodbye, walk away.

More than 30 professors — about a third of the faculty — were not coming back.

Reid had planned to take research leave in the fall. Then yet another colleague, who she’d worked with for more than two decades, decided to leave. Since her department couldn’t fill the opening, Reid would have to teach French language — or students wouldn’t be able to take it.

For the first time, Reid thought: If that faculty representative had had enough, if so many of her colleagues were bailing, why was she still here?

May

Like her students, Reid hadn’t set out to become an advocate. It seemed to be a messy, difficult, painful responsibility.

But a few days later, Reid’s co-workers surprised her with a proposition: Be our faculty chairperson?

It would mean sitting alongside the new trustees as part of the board.

She laughed. Then spent four days trying to find a way out.

She couldn’t deny that she felt a duty to the school and students. And, in some ways, to herself.

“If I just walk away,” she thought, “who will stand up for this place?”

And if New College no longer existed, who was she?

Finally, reluctantly, she agreed.

She told herself she didn’t care how those men treated her. She told herself she was a crone, a wise older woman who dared to speak her mind. She told herself she drew power from not having to impress them.

“I just don’t want a mockery made of this institution,” she said. “I want to try to preserve the things that make New College unique and wonderful.

“If I speak up, that’s something, right?”

· · ·

For graduation speaker, the new administration chose a former adviser to former President Donald Trump. Scott Atlas, an outspoken opponent of pandemic lockdowns, would address students beneath a white tent on the water. Instead of wearing costumes — tutus, superhero capes and tie-dyed shirts, as they had for years — graduates were given caps and gowns.

As the new faculty representative, Reid would have to don her Yale blue robe and serve as grand marshal. She dreaded the keynote, imagining the students squirming.

She knew many were boycotting, planning their own alternative ceremony for the night before. They had raised $129,000, invited a civil rights lawyer to give their keynote, convinced the Sarasota Art Museum to let them set up chairs.

On a Thursday evening just before sunset, in the museum’s outdoor courtyard, Reid saw students wearing pope hats and rhinestone tiaras, dressed as characters from comic books and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” wearing butterfly wings and shirts that said, “Ban the fascists, not the books!” and simply, “Woke!”

Some donned black armbands. Others tied on rainbow flags.

For the first time in months, 5 miles from campus, this felt like New College.

Reid walked through the crowd smiling, seeing colleagues who had quit or been fired, students who were leaving early, the ousted president who had come to wish everyone well.

Former faculty representative Matt Lepinski had thanked Reid for jumping into his role after he walked out, and said she was the right person for that job. When asked if he had any advice for her, he paused, looked at the ground, and shook his head.

“Joy is an act of resistance,” the student emcee told the crowd. “We deserve to feel that joy.”

About 100 graduates walked across the makeshift stage, where Reid was sitting. She stood to shake some of their hands, hugged others. When a guy carried a girl in a mermaid tail past the podium, she laughed.

“This is what we needed,” she said later. “What I needed, to remind me why I’m still here.”

Somehow, this class of 2023 had managed to graduate in a way that celebrated what their school stood for.

To Reid, it was bittersweet: the end of an era.

June

She bought a book on Robert’s Rules of Order. Studied parliamentary procedure. Dissected the minutes of previous trustee meetings.

At her first board meeting, Reid sat at the end of a U-shaped table in a large conference room, listening to minutes being read, budgets being outlined.

The numbers didn’t add up, she pointed out. “I know I’m just a French professor,” she said. “But I have some questions …”

At the next session, she asked for a subcommittee to tackle the proposed “core curriculum” — a first for the free-spirited school. The board shouldn’t get to choose those classes alone, she said. Faculty needed to have input.

Trustees called her petty, voted her down. But they eventually scheduled a meeting. “I’m learning to accept small victories,” Reid said.

She still doesn’t know what she will be allowed to teach in the fall.

She believes other trustees won’t listen to her, that she and the student representative will be the minority on every vote. “But I’m not just speaking to them,” she said. “Hopefully, someone will hear me.”

She fears new mandates, more restrictions on what faculty can teach and talk about. She worries about the new students who have been recruited, who have lower grade-point averages and standardized test scores. How might professors have to adjust?

And so many students are not coming back. Reid doesn’t have a count, but has heard of dozens. She knows the exodus isn’t over yet.

July

As faculty chairperson, Reid offered to write a letter welcoming students for fall — “a love letter telling them how much New College wants them.”

Then administrators painted over the coffee shop murals. They reassigned dorm rooms that seniors had been promised to newly recruited athletes. They eliminated the African studies learning community and shuttered the beloved Pride dorm.

The student who was supposed to be the resident adviser there told Reid that classmates had been diving into dumpsters, trying to salvage posters and books – and that he, too, had decided to transfer.

“All this time, I’ve been fighting for the students,” Reid said recently. She paused, shook her head, wiped her eyes. “But if they successfully chase away everyone we are trying to save this place for, I don’t know what we’re still fighting for.”

She couldn’t write that letter.

August

The plan wasn’t on the agenda. But a couple of days before the next board meeting, Reid started hearing rumors that trustees were trying to kill the gender studies program.

No one had told Reid, who had helped start the concentration her first year on campus.

But when Rufo brought it up at the end of the meeting, she stood to read a statement about how important the program is, how many students take those classes.

Rufo laughed.

Legally, Reid told the board, the college couldn’t end a concentration for students who already had enrolled. So the school couldn’t completely eliminate gender studies. At least not now.

She knew the program had a fragile future. But at least she had bought another semester.

That night, Reid wrote to students, whoever might return:

Despite the departures of a number of inspiring faculty this summer — others of us are on campus and are committed to supporting you on your educational journey.

There will be a number of Gender Studies courses offered this fall.

… I look forward to welcoming each of you back to campus in a couple of weeks.

Honor & Respect!

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