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New College conservative board votes to abolish DEI office

SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) — Trustees picked by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to oversee New College of Florida voted Tuesday to abolish its small office that handles diversity, equity and inclusion programs targeted by conservatives throughout the state university system.

The trustees voted 9-3 to get rid of the school's Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence, with four full-time staff positions to be transferred elsewhere to vacant jobs. The board also voted to permit interim President Richard Corcoran to consider ending a single online mandatory employee diversity training program that few actually take.

“This is not a very impressive DEI bureaucracy, is what I'm seeing,” said student body president Grace Keenan, who is a trustee and was not appointed by DeSantis. “Any DEI practices we do have here are all about inclusion. We don't discriminate against anyone here.”

Although they are relatively small programs, some of the seven new trustees at the historically progressive college said it was important to take a stand on issues they believe cause discrimination based on racial, gender, LGBTQ and other group identities rather than focusing on a student, faculty or staff member's individual merit.

“I think it's important that we take a position,” said trustee Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist on education issues nationally. “It is essential to say we are taking this mandate seriously.”

The decision comes as DeSantis, widely expected to seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2024, has said a key goal for Florida's higher education system is to defund DEI programs so they “whither on the vine” on campuses. DeSantis is backing a measure introduced for the upcoming legislative session to prevent colleges and universities from promoting, supporting or maintaining programs related to DEI or critical race theory.

The trustees' vote to abolish the New College DEI office and transfer staff to other positions will save about $250,000 a year, according to documents provided at Tuesday's meeting. Although that amount may seem relatively minor, supporters of the change said it will send a message.

“This is a question of what is being imposed and advocated, supported and funded, by the college,” said trustee Matthew Spalding. “If it's a minor situation, it should be abolished.”

The trustee meeting drew a crowd of about 300 protesters before it began, holding signs that read, “Our Students Are Not Political Pawns” and, “If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention,” among others.

Chai Leffler, a third-year student, said he came from a southern, conservative family where being gay was difficult, but New College changed his life.

“I was taught how to love myself again and to stand up for myself like we all are today,” Leffler said. “I understand we are everything DeSantis hates.”

New College, nestled along Sarasota Bay, has fewer than 1,000 students. It was founded in 1960 as a private school in part by funding from the United Church of Christ, said Rev. John Dorhauer, the church's president and general minister. Dorhauer gave public testimony at the meeting and spoke to the protesters about the “moral outrage” he feels at the changes being made by the conservative trustees chosen by DeSantis.

“The long arc of history will grind you into dust, and they (students) will win this battle and you will be remembered for the sycophants you are,” he told the trustees.

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Anderson reported from St. Petersburg, Florida.