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Encore: Gov. DeSantis is now looking to overhaul Florida's colleges and universities

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

After making controversial changes to K-12 education in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis is now looking to overhaul the state's colleges and its universities. A new board he's appointed has begun reshaping policies at the state's liberal arts university, the New College, in Sarasota. Yesterday, the governor's appointees fired the university's president, and they began working to phase out programs promoting diversity, equity and inclusion. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Governor DeSantis dropped a bombshell last month when he appointed six new members to the New College's board of trustees. They include conservative educational activists who immediately issued pledges to overhaul the university known for its progressive educational policies. It's a school that's long suffered from inadequate state funding and a declining enrollment. But at a news conference yesterday, DeSantis said he believes the school's problems aren't financial but ideological.

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RON DESANTIS: The mission has been, I think, more into the DEI, CRT, the gender ideology rather than what a liberal arts education should be. And so we're going to be able, I think, to offer some reforms.

ALLEN: DEI, diversity equity and inclusion programs, and CRT, critical race theory, are two phrases that come up a lot now in DeSantis' news conferences. He's required all public colleges and universities to report on how much they spend on DEI programs. DeSantis says the Republican-controlled legislature will soon bring him a bill outlawing them in Florida. The New College's new board met in Sarasota yesterday. One of the first items raised by new trustee Christopher Rufo was a motion to abolish DEI programs at the school.

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CHRISTOPHER RUFO: This goes against the founding mission of the college. It goes against the will of Florida voters and against the stated vision of the governor.

ALLEN: Dominated by the new conservative members, the board voted to begin the process of rooting out DEI programs at the school. Also at the meeting was a large group of students, parents and alumni concerned about the university's future. Alisa Mitchell said her son is a first-year student at the school.

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ALISA MITCHELL: He and his classmates have done nothing to deserve the type of disruption that is currently happening to their education.

(CHEERING)

ALLEN: Mitchell had a dig at the six new board members, all of one of whom are from out of state.

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MITCHELL: As an actual Florida taxpayer, someone whose voice and vote counts just as much as anyone else's, I want to say that I think this school is an excellent use of my taxpayer money.

ALLEN: The antagonistic and at times boisterous audience put the new board members on the defensive. While it's a small school with an enrollment around 700, DeSantis' pledge to make it into a conservative institution has brought a storm of outrage that has bothered some new board members. One of the new trustees, Matthew Spalding, is a dean at Hillsdale College, a Christian school that some of DeSantis' administration say is a model for the New College. Yesterday, he responded to the criticism.

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MATTHEW SPALDING: Some have said this - recent appointments amount to a partisan takeover of the college. This is not correct.

(LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: The New College audience clearly wasn't convinced. DeSantis promises lawmakers will allocate $15 million in new funds for the New College this year and $10 million more in succeeding years. Most distressing to students, parents and faculty yesterday was the board's vote to fire Patricia Okker, the school's popular president. She arrived at the meeting expecting the dismissal and apologized to those who wanted her to stay.

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PATRICIA OKKER: But I'm going to say publicly, I do not believe that students are being indoctrinated at New College.

(CHEERING)

ALLEN: Okker's replacement as interim president at the New College is another indication that change is coming. Board members voted to put someone close to DeSantis, his former education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, into the job.

Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.