New College of Florida Trustees Christopher Rufo and Jason ‘Eddie’ Speir Face a Skeptical Crowd


SARASOTA, Fla. — His liberal reputation is killing him, Christopher Rufo told a crowd Wednesday at New College of Florida, where the conservative activist was recently appointed to the Board of Directors.

At two campus forums, Rufo linked New College’s anemic enrollment and recruiting struggles with an embrace of liberal orthodoxy that he says repels and intimidates conservatives. Many at the university quietly agree with this forecast, Rufo said. But they won’t say so publicly because “some of you are, quite frankly, harassing and intimidating people,” Rufo said.

It drew groans and laughter from some in the audience.

Rufo is among six people who were appointed to the New College board earlier this month by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), setting the stage for what many think will be a conservative review of an institution that it is known for a friendly LGBTQ spirit and easy-going student body. Rufo described the campus as being on the brink of the abyss, describing the trustees’ mandate as a “hostage rescue operation.”

“We are going to liberate the campus,” he told reporters. “We are going to release administrators. We are going to free teachers from cultural kidnappers.”

The two forums held Wednesday were the first public opportunities for the people of New College to hear directly from Rufo, a conservative agitator known for his deep skepticism about the kinds of diversity and inclusion programs popular at New College and across the nation. higher education. Rufo was joined on stage by Jason “Eddie” Speir, another incoming trustee and co-founder of a Christian school in Bradenton, Florida.

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Tensions have risen since the trustee appointments were announced. That sentiment was exacerbated before the proceedings, when Rufo told attendees that the school had received a death threat against Speir. Rufo placed probable blame for the threat on liberal critics of the junta without evidence.

Catherine Helean, a spokeswoman for the university, confirmed in an email that the university had “received what were perceived to be credible threats.” Campus police are investigating, she said.

The threat, which Speir said came in an email to the university, appeared to spark a disagreement between trustees and university administration over whether it was safe to continue the forums. In an email to campus Wednesday morning, Suzanne Sherman, the university’s chancellor, 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 board decisions about whether the university needs new leadership.

Patricia Okker, the university’s president, did not attend the meeting and declined interview requests from The Washington Post. The president’s “job deal” is listed as an agenda item for the next board meeting, which is scheduled for Tuesday.

In his opening remarks to the crowd, Rufo linked a data-driven argument about the university’s struggles to a deeper “cultural” problem. In making his case, Rufo cited a report by consultants, which the university commissioned in 2019. According to the consultants, Rufo said, the phrases most strongly associated with New College are “politically correct,” “drug addicts” and “weirdos.”

“That’s not a great mark for the university,” he said.

The report, which was written by the Art & Science Group, asked admitted students and applicants what they thought about New College. To test perceptions of the university’s social culture, the consultants “intentionally included” options that were “potentially negative,” according to the report. Rufo did not mention this in his statements.

New College has faced threats to its existence before. In 2020, a Republican lawmaker proposed a bill that would have merged the university with a larger state university, effectively shutting it down. The university’s stated goal of enrolling 1,200 students has proven elusive, and lawmakers have grown impatient with stagnant growth.

Rufo’s outspoken criticism of diversity, equity and inclusion programs on college campuses has raised concerns at New College, where many students value such programming. Sam Sharf, a student at New College who is transgender, said she felt “attacked” by Rufo’s rhetoric on these issues.

“It’s very concerning,” Sharf said, “because we understand where this rhetoric is leading if it’s not stopped.”

If the “hate” goes unchecked, Sharf said, “it could lead to further violence against us.”

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Several times during the forums, Speir outlined his religious beliefs, acknowledging that they might not be popular with the New College crowd. He has already had a public disagreement with the board chair over whether the trustees, who set policy for a public university, could open their next meeting with a prayer. Mary Ruiz, president and graduate of New College, denied Speir’s request, citing consultation with legal counsel, Speir said on Twitter.

The DeSantis administration has said that Hillsdale College, a private Christian university in Michigan, could be a model of what New College could become. That hasn’t gone down well with some students, parents and alumni.

“We are very concerned that the freedom of education is being suppressed and replaced with a right-wing Christian agenda,” Karen Stack, whose son attended New College, said in an interview.

Bristen Groves, a junior at New College, approached Speir after the forum, describing her experience as a Christian student on campus to the administrator. She had been accused of being “transphobic,” she told him. In an interview with The Post, Groves said she had struggled to form “deep relationships” with her classmates and, for the most part, connected with church friends who aren’t college students.

“I want this to be a space where everyone feels welcome,” he said.

However, there is disagreement as to how New College gets there. Many students say they love the place the way 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.”