Inside New College of Florida’s Counter-Commencement

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Inside New College of Florida’s Counter-Commencement

As Ron DeSantis and Chris Rufo plunge ahead with the school’s transformation into a right-wing clown college, the students have become the adults in the room. 

Built in 1938, the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium resembles a juiced-up Quonset hut with Deco and International Style accents; to visitors with a more vernacular architectural sensibility, it looks uncannily like the Super Friends’ Hall of Justice.

On Thursday, May 16, for the second secret graduation ceremony organized by the students of the Bizarro New College of Florida, it looked more like what the canaries do when they’re let out of the mine. The typical exuberance and selfies and relief and whooping came and went, but everyone seemed to settle at one point or another into surprise at being unstifled. This wasn’t the long relief of bluffing through a thesis and past a baccalaureate; it was more the sensation of light-headedness that came over them as they’d looked around and realized that they hadn’t noticed how hard it was to breathe back there.

You could be forgiven for forgetting about New College of Florida (NCF). After years of legacy media hand-wringing about the censoriousness of America’s collegiate illiberal left, NCF had the misfortune of not being an Ivy League school, not being relevant to Acela Corridor journalists’ ambitions for their children, and thus not worth worrying about, beyond most outlets’ token “Well, That’s a Shame!” piece and one “Florida Man: Higher Ed” story gawking at the freaks.

Worse, NCF was taken over by the right, which is evidently the good kind of illiberal censoriousness. Now this variety of elite-choreographed goodness has made its way to the Ivies and all the way out to Cal State–Sonoma. We tried to warn you, but maybe the context of last year’s secret graduation made it easy to dismiss as a cliché: At New College, our children truly are your future.

In 2023, in a doomed bid to seem like a big man, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis replaced six on NCF’s board of trustees with the head of a local Christian sports academy and a clutch of out-of-state conservative operatives—including Chris Rufo, colleague to fascists, race scientists, and “debate me!” white supremacists, and uncredited assignment editor of The Atlantic and The New York Times. The stated goal was to make NCF “the Hillsdale of the South”—referencing the fundamentalist college in Michigan that has long been churning out agitprop masquerading as scholarship for the conservative movement—thereby helping to mint a new generation of Republican Hill/Tallahassee staffers and the fecund women who marry them.

The actual goal—which was likewise announced on a frequency conservative free-speech warriors can’t hear—was to secure another key front in the War on the Woke. After all, why settle for just another factory churning out future Alitos when you can build one brick by brick, disassembling in the process the only state institution branded as churning out leftist activists, academics, and organizers? Unbuilding New College would drive nonconservative thought from the public sphere and render a left- and LGBTQ-friendly school unrecognizable and inhospitable to those who found a home there for decades.

This mandate entailed a great deal of wrecking-crew work that Rufo and the other DeSantis cronies on the board undertook with gusto. Gone was the college president, replaced by lifelong public paycheck collector (and the erstwhile “investigation into him was closed” education commissioner) Richard Corcoran, at likely the highest dollar-per-enrollee salary of a public college president in the state. Also gone were enough professors—nearly 40 percent—to staff a start-up college. Student thesis committees were transformed into faculty ghost towns, making entire areas of concentration impossible to pursue in the absence of professorial oversight.

By this March, New College was looking to plug holes in the curriculum by seeking adjunct faculty in such niche fields of study as art, art history, classics, creative writing, humanities, literature, music, philosophy, religion, and French, German, Spanish and Russian languages and literature. And Greek and Latin—but presumably New College’s new dedication to a classical liberal arts education encourages proactive self-starters who will teach themselves to teach them to themselves. (The college’s ouroboros department is fully staffed.)

At least one curricular hole was soon filled with boilerplate Rise-of-the-West fare: a mandatory class on The Odyssey, a text assigned to Florida’s ninth-grade honors English students; a great-books correspondence course from e-mail-forward-brained Islamophobe, Chicago Cubs owner, and racist billionaire Joe Ricketts. The school also ginned up an overnight half-baked sports program that lacked sufficient facilities for practice, competition, training, or medical treatment of athletes—as well as any substantial institutional history of interest in intercollegiate sports. But DeSantis’s frenetic mandate to reinvent everything on the fly again bore fruit, as NCF found itself marshaled into the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.

But the effects of NCF’s sudden avidity for sport were always meant to be projected inward as much as outward. A former admissions employee claimed that President Corcoran told the office that there were bonuses to be had for exceeding benchmarks for athlete enrollees, and that academics were flexible. So in short order, a colony of 153 overwhelmingly Christian athletes were recruited by Christian coaches and enticed by scholarships reserved for enrollees of academic distinction. NCF wound up with three times as many baseball players as the University of Florida, a school that boasts an undergraduate study body more than 50 times the size of NCF’s. Big steps for an institution whose premiere athletic event when I attended was the New College vs. Ringling College of Art and Design softball game (or, in plainer terms, Hallucinogens vs. Cocaine).

In the past, New College enjoyed commencement speakers like Dr. Cornel West. Last year, Bizarro New College offered them Scott Atlas—the Trump administration Covid conspiracist whose intellectual output sits at the convergence of a Venn diagram of fraudulence, ignorance, and homicidal indifference.

Atlas’s star turn was what spurred the students and alumni to build their own graduation ceremony last year. Graduating students raised more than $130,000 on GoFundMe, and alumni helped secure the Sarasota Art Museum as that year’s site. Fired President Patricia Okker addressed the students, as well as keynote speaker Maya Wiley, a former MSNBC contributor and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Wiley’s message was simple: “You have had to be strong in the face of a few who would tell you that you can’t read what you want to read, that you can’t speak what you want to speak, and that you should get in line with an ideology that is not yours. And [they] call that freedom?” Somewhere, Bari Weiss was getting that terrifying call from inside the house again.

This year, Bizarro New College offered them the wisdom of Joe Ricketts, defeating the purpose of attending his correspondence school. So the student body again launched its own end-of-the-school-year festivities at a secret location a few miles south on the Tamiami Trail, and a counter-commencement ceremony at the Super Friends’ Hall of Justice.

For the 2024 counter-commencement, the students chose New Yorker writer and commentator on authoritarianism Masha Gessen for their commencement speaker. Gessen (who identifies as nonbinary) arrived last-minute, waved off interviews, and made their way to the stage. They listened attentively to the student and faculty speakers, including retiring anthropology professor and journalism adviser Maria Vesperi, before taking up their position center stage, hip cocked and one hand in pocket, the other on the lectern.

A handful of alumni and students expressed to me a wish for Gessen, who grew up in the Soviet Union and has a standing arrest warrant waiting in Putin’s Russia, to speak more from their book Surviving Autocracy. Here, after all, were students and alumni constructing a kind of samizdat commencement for an authoritarian reality. What should they—we—do next? What archives of memory and what kind of parallel institutions ought we build, if any, to compensate for a reality in which institutions dedicated to the pursuit of truth are turned over to its suppression? How can we raise our intellectual ambitions beyond the straitened mission of shoring up Joe Ricketts’s profit vector, or serving as another inert plank in the failed campaign of Meatball Ron DeSantis?

Instead, Gessen addressed the impossibility of encouraging the graduating class to go forth and change the world—prior to Gessen’s gradual concession that the graduates would have little choice but to try to do that anyway. Already a soft speaker, they wound up relinquishing many of their words—a noun here, a clause there—to a sound system that had been checked for the audio levels of an empty room.

“We have given you the tools to understand structures of oppression and have done nothing to [fix] those in our institutions,” Gessen said, dipping their toe for a moment in the subject of a mental health crisis among the young. “We have taught you the ills of capitalism and saddled you with debt…. We have taught you the history of American protests and revolutions and called the police on you.”

Novo Collegians have always prided themselves on their expressive graduation ceremonies, but this one felt subdued—like someone had double-booked a church for a wedding and a wake. At most of the school’s past commencement celebrations, students and family sat under a large tent between the pink marble of College Hall and Sarasota Bay, with other students in trees, and still others perched on the fence separating College Hall, Charles Ringling’s family mansion, from that of Ringling brother John’s Ca’ d’Zan. Most graduates show up in something like a Sunday best for the folks, but there’s always been a contingent who went in cap-and-nude or costumed for fun, or as in-jokes, a community nickname. Everything was generally suffused with the affability of a tasteful afternoon buzz.

Ordinarily, the students had gone out of their way to take a ceremony that celebrates themselves, their journey, their forging a community, their finding the tools to shape the world—and tweak it a little bit. The basic idea was to add a little unplanned joy to the afternoon, to show a willingness to deliver a tart or winking “no” in response to a moment solemnizing their accomplishments, to lovingly take the independence instilled in them and turn it back on the institution that nurtured it, as if to say, “I learned it by watching you.”

Maybe I was projecting—and I did miss the end, due to needing to get a kid to bed—but the students seemed still funny, and so very smart, and thrilled to do this, yet solemn all the same. The powers that be are trying to turn their school into a clown college—so now it’s up to the people everyone calls kids to be serious, to venerate, rebuild and try to preserve the institution that was torn down around them. So it was not surprising to hear Gessen turn to the subject of Palestine and to the protests taking shape on campuses around the country, to hear them say that the same people who attacked New College are the same people going after the Ivies—that “these people hate education as you and I understand it.”

From the balcony above the audience, you could watch every head nodding. You don’t have to tell the canaries that the atmosphere is slowly and silently suffocating them. That’s what they’re there to tell you.

To be sure, New College is lucky to have been spared the nightmare of a centrist-celebrated police riot. The closest it’s come is the spectacle of Chris Rufo repeatedly standing at the center of a little force field of cops and walking directly at protesters. This typically self-aggrandizing feint forced the police tasked with surrounding him at all times to push into students and bully them out of Rufo’s path. Thus did Bizarro New College’s new ideological czar present himself as the most pigeon-hearted, preening protectee in a house full of chickenshit.

But the model is gaining traction. DeSantis’s clumsy ideological prototype is now being tested and refined at other campuses across the country. Wisconsin Republicans held state university staff raises hostage as they called for the firing of regents who opposed gutting DEI. Rufo himself hilariously tried to peg Florida International University as a place that “trains students for participation in violent left-wing protests.” Flush from his successful campaign to force out Harvard President Claudine Gay on tendentious and overbroad plagiarism charges, Rufo also helped direct the Times’ and The Atlantic’s attention toward the alleged Leninist cadres of the Ivy League with all the difficulty of trying to interest a strip-club patron in a handjob.

Columbia canceled its graduation after calling the police on its own anti-genocide student encampments, which even the NYPD initially couldn’t help but express bafflement about because of the peacefulness of the protests. USC canceled its graduation to stop the valedictorian from committing the pre-crime of speaking while Muslim. A graduate of Indiana University allegedly described their college president’s response to protests via this message emblazoned on their graduation cap: “You aimed a sniper at me, you fucking freak.”

Just in the last few days, students and professors at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill have learned that their administration is secretly recording professors. This was a much too on-the-nose establishment gloss on MAGA youth mascot Charlie Kirk’s idea, promoted via his dark-money PAC Turning Point USA, of instituting bounties on educators who inflict facts on conservative feelings. Cal State-Sonoma’s president was put on leave for “insubordination” after he simply announced his intention to submit the college’s investments in the State of Israel for review.

Billionaire donors have spent weeks behind the scenes attempting to smear students with a definition of antisemitism that would get them laughed out of the classrooms they’re trying to purge. Perhaps that’s an acknowledgement of private universities’ function as little more than billion-dollar hedge funds with an education sideline that provides a constant stream of dollars: If too much institutional money pulls out of Israel, why, that’s bad for everyone’s investments, yours and mine, buddy!

Viewed in the harsh light of the 2024 campus wars, New College’s extreme ideological makeover looks almost mild by comparison. For one, the aggressive new regime of right-wing oversight was as yet unrefined; for another, it was an abstracted one, requiring far less force. Florida lies too far out of the national consciousness, somewhere between forgettable and a punch line. And what DeSantis & Co. loudly targeted was the airy and debatable precept of diversity enhancement and a means of interpreting racism’s perversions of the law and public institutions—because who’s going to stop traffic about that, right?

But what they did was set about denying tenure, allowing academic fields to grow and remain fallow, tearing down transgender-inclusive signage, painting over student murals, and raiding the New College Foundation to maximize bonuses for a lifelong Tallahassee apparatchik with zero relevant experience or aptitude. And—you know what, lets get some jocks in here. They’re mostly conservative, and the governor was good at baseball. Let’s do it and be legends.

The suppression of speech in the Ivy League and on campuses around the country is more concrete and more immediate now. It has to be. It is easier to silence and marginalize a crowd demonstrating in support of critical race theory or gender studies as pedagogy than it is to silence a crowd full of people who are spending $80,000 per year to attend a school that they know will use those funds to underwrite the bombing and starvation of tens of thousands of women and children. That is an outrage birthed in blood—one that the opponents of student protests are historically illiterate enough to try to repress in the same way.

Still, it’s one thing for a small college with a passionately dedicated student body and alumni to try to build a parallel college for itself, with an independent roster of institutions and celebrations, hoping for rescue while trying not to think about what happens when the school stops attracting new students and new alumni devoted to protecting it. It’s another thing to replace the entire American university system.

But at least we had a graduation—one more, for now.

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