New College Trustees Get Senate Nod

TALLAHASSEE — The Senate continued moving forward Monday with confirming a slate of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ appointees to the New College of Florida Board of Trustees, as outnumbered Democrats grilled one of the governor’s picks.

The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee voted to advance seven conservative appointees to the New College trustees. Six were tapped by DeSantis as he and other Republican leaders try to remake the small liberal-arts college in Sarasota.

The DeSantis appointees who received the committee’s backing were Christopher Rufo, Matthew Spalding, Charles Kesler, Debra Jenks, Eddie Speir and Mark Bauerlein. The committee also supported the confirmation of Ryan Anderson, who was appointed by the state university system’s Board of Governors.

The appointees ultimately will need confirmation by the full Senate.

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Speir was the only one of the seven trustees who was present for Monday’s meeting.

A founder of Inspiration Academy, a Christian school in Bradenton that launched in 2013, Speir described himself as having an “entrepreneurial background” and emphasized the importance of religion in his life. Speir, who told senators he regularly visits the New College campus, also was asked about his meetings with students and faculty members.

“There’s been different truths that I have shared that are causing a lot of concern. But what I’ve done is followed up those truths and those statements by showing up on campus and engaging in debate,” Speir said.

Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, pressed Speir about “what those truths are.”

“I have to start with the truth that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life,” Speir said.

Speir moments later said another one of his “truths” was “a tweet that I sent out describing … trans as a mental disorder.”

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, questioned Speir about how his religious leanings might come into play on the board.

“How would you separate out your religious beliefs in a public setting, such as a public university that is paid for by the state, and not hurt those who don’t believe in the same religion as you? Or any religion at all,” Polsky asked.

“The same way that I would like the religion of ‘wokeism’ to respect me, by not forcing pledges of fealty and avoiding dogmatic teachings,” Speir replied.

Speir and the other recent appointees already have made an imprint by shaking up New College’s leadership. The board in January removed former President Patricia Okker and replaced her with Richard Corcoran, a Republican former House speaker and state education commissioner.

Several people addressed the panel and blasted the governor’s picks, including a former New College professor and parents of current and prospective students. One critic cited Okker’s removal as a reason for his distrust of the board.

Stephen Miles, a former New College professor of music who also previously was provost and vice president for academic affairs at the school, said the new trustees have displayed a “complete disregard for shared governance” on campus.

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“Trust is impossible when the board’s first action was to force the resignation of our former president, Patricia Okker, a leader who was widely respected by students, faculty and staff,” Miles said.

While the Senate panel voted on six of the trustees as a group, they held a separate vote on the confirmation of Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. Rufo has emerged as perhaps the most controversial of DeSantis’ picks, in part because of frequent comments about New College on social media.

Despite Rufo not being present at Monday’s meeting, Democrats still lobbed some criticism at him while denouncing the overall board.

“All of them, including Mr. Rufo, have been chosen so that they can do the hostile takeover of New College. It is truly heartbreaking when you hear students — and I’ve had them come to my office and reach out to me — alumni, professors, talk about what has happened to their beloved school,” Polsky said.

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