He drew groans and laughter from some in the audience.
Rufo is among six people who were appointed to New College’s board earlier this month by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), setting the stage for what many think will be a conservative overhaul of an institution that is known for an LGBTQ-friendly ethos and a carefree student body. Rufo painted the campus as teetering on the brink, describing the trustees’ mandate as a “hostage rescue operation.”
“We’re going to liberate the campus,” he told reporters. “We’re going to liberate administrators. Were’ going to liberate faculty from the cultural hostage-takers.”
The two forums held Wednesday were the first public opportunities for people at New College to hear directly from Rufo, a conservative firebrand who is known for his deep skepticism of the kinds of diversity and inclusion programs that are popular at New College and across higher education. Rufo was joined on the dais by Jason “Eddie” Speir, another incoming trustee and co-founder of a Christian school in Bradenton, Fla.
Tensions have been running high since the trustee appointments were announced. That feeling was exacerbated before the proceedings, when Rufo told attendees that the college had received a death threat against Speir. Rufo assigned without evidence probable blame for the threat to the board’s liberal critics.
Catherine Helean, a spokeswoman for the college, confirmed in an email that the college had “received what were perceived to be credible threats.” The campus police are investigating, she said.
The threat, which Speir said came in an email to the college, appeared to set off a disagreement between the trustees and the college’s administration about whether it was safe to proceed with the forums. In an email to campus on Wednesday morning, Suzanne Sherman, the college’s provost, told students, faculty and staff to “refrain from attending” the events. “We prioritize keeping your community safe,” she wrote.
Rufo described the administration’s position as “cowardice” and said it should factor into the board’s decisions about whether the college needs new leadership.
Patricia Okker, the college’s president, did not attend the meeting and has declined interview requests from The Washington Post. The president’s “employment agreement” is listed as an agenda item for the board’s next meeting, which is scheduled for Tuesday.
In his opening remarks to the crowd, Rufo tied a data-driven argument about the college’s struggles to a deeper “cultural” problem. Making his case, Rufo quoted from a consultants’ report, which the college commissioned in 2019. According to the consultants, Rufo said, the phrases most strongly associated with New College are “politically correct,” “druggies” and “weirdos.”
“That’s not a great brand for the college,” he said.
The report, which was written by Art & Science Group, asked inquiring students and admitted applicants what they thought about New College. To test perceptions of the college’s social culture, the consultants “intentionally included” options that were “potentially negative,” according to the report. Rufo did not mention this in his remarks.
New College has faced threats to its existence before. In 2020, a Republican lawmaker proposed a bill that would have merged the college with a larger state university, effectively shutting it down. The college’s stated goal of enrolling 1,200 students has proved elusive, and lawmakers have grown impatient with the stagnant growth.
Rufo’s outspoken criticism of diversity, equity and inclusion programs on college campuses has stirred concerns at New College, where such programming is valued by many students. Sam Sharf, a New College student who is transgender, said she felt “targeted” by Rufo’s rhetoric on these issues.
“It’s very concerning,” Sharf said, “because we understand where this rhetoric leads to if it’s not stopped.”
If the “hate” goes unchecked, Sharf said, “it could lead to future violence against us.”
Several times during the forums, Speir described his religious beliefs, acknowledging that they might not be popular among the New College crowd. He has already had a public disagreement with the board’s chairwoman about whether the trustees, who set policy for a public college, could open their upcoming meeting with a prayer. Mary Ruiz, the chairwoman and a New College graduate, denied Speir’s request, citing consultation with legal counsel, Speir said on Twitter.
DeSantis’s administration has said that Hillsdale College, a private Christian college in Michigan, could be a model for what New College could become. That hasn’t been well received by some students, parents and alumni.
“We are very concerned that the freedom of education is going to be suppressed and replaced with a Christian, right-wing” agenda, Karen Stack, whose son attended New College, said in an interview.
Bristen Groves, a third-year student at New College, approached Speir after the forum and described to the trustee her experience as a Christian student on the campus. She had been accused of being “transphobic,” she told him. In an interview with The Post, Groves said she had had trouble establishing “deep relationships” with her classmates and mostly connected with friends from church who are not students at the college.
“I want this to be a space where everybody feels welcomed,” she said.
There’s disagreement, though, about how New College gets there. Many students say they love the place just as it is, but Rufo said he wouldn’t even be on the board if things weren’t extremely bleak.
“The situation has to be very serious,” he said, “if someone like me becomes a trustee of a public university.”