In Sarasota, Fla., a group of moms (and a few dads) are standing up to protect public education.
What’s now unfolding at the New College of Florida in Sarasota is one of those intensely local David and Goliath stories with real consequences for the state and the country. The backdrop is the political push from the radical right to reshape public education—academic freedom, LGBTQ+ rights and free speech, be damned.
But what deserves the real spotlight here, is the efforts of a scrappy group of parents—mostly moms—to protect their kids. The outcome of their battle is uncertain, but the fierceness and joyful creativity of these women gives me a glimmer of hope—and clearly gets under the skin of those currently “laying siege” to the New College of Florida.
“Until January, NCF was the perfect school for my son.”
On Jan. 6, 2023, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) named six new trustees to the board of New College (NCF), the small public liberal arts college where I head up the Gender Studies program.
From the start, the DeSantis administration was clear that they want to turn New College into a “Hillsdale of the South,” referencing an exceptionally conservative, private Christian college in Michigan.
When the trustees met on Jan. 25, they promptly fired New College’s president, Pat Okker, and moved to eliminate the office responsible for diversity initiatives on campus. As faculty, students and alums scrambled to respond, the NCF Parent Advocacy group coalesced to defend the “Barefoot U” where their kids had found their academic home.
For Hannah, a veterinarian and researcher in Pennsylvania, New College was the “perfect school” for her son—now a third-year student. That is, until January. “The quirky vibe suited him, he knew he would feel at home, which wasn’t always the case in grade school,” she said. “He applied for and received a highly competitive NSF-funded REU [National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates] fellowship the summer after his second year.”
Experiences like that of Hannah’s son are what has built NCF’s success. The college has long attracted students determined to trace their own educational paths, including many who have not fit in standard educational models. NCF’s inclusive campus and rigorous curriculum translate into student success, whether measured in terms of post-graduate fellowships, including Fulbright scholarships, or the percentage of our alums who go on to earn Ph.D.s. And, at least until the “takeover,” we were ranked fifth among top public schools by U.S. News & World Report.
“You are my people.”
The “moms” fighting for NCF are a diverse and impressive group. There are now 75 members on the group’s chat, including several dads. (Disclaimer: As a faculty member and the mom of a current student, I’m a faculty liaison to the group.) Most are Florida-based, but some of the most active live more than 1,000 miles away. They are business owners and educators, healthcare and legal professionals. Some come from military families, some are disabled, some are queer and others straight. Most have kids currently at NCF, a few are proud parents of alums and a couple are alums themselves.
Their weekly meetings are virtual, and yet they’ve formed a tight-knit bond. According to Tamara, an educator from Sarasota and mother of an alum, that sense of community was immediate. She met Tracy, the group’s leader, at a public meeting with local Republican legislators: “She had signs and was ready to fight and I said, ‘You are my people.’”
What’s happening at New College is one component of a set of legislative and executive decisions that aim to eliminate diversity programming, majors in gender studies, and any instruction in critical race theory or intersectionality throughout the Florida State University System.
Politically, the moms represent a swath of the U.S. electorate, from center-right to left. But they have found common purpose in the fight to save NCF and, more broadly, to protect public education in Florida. What’s happening at New College is one component of a set of legislative and executive decisions that aim to eliminate diversity programming, majors in gender studies, and any instruction in critical race theory or intersectionality throughout the Florida State University System.
When I asked Sonia, a disabled critical care doctor, why she got involved, her response echoed the values I heard from each of the parents I interviewed: “When your kid has finally found their safe place and then has the rug pulled out from under them, there is nothing more motivating for a mother. And it is so empowering to be in this new group of people who are so diverse and so committed to doing the right thing.”
“Oh, hell no!”
Tracy is the clear leader of the group, and her style has a lot to do with the group’s success. As a business owner, she is used to making decisions and does not mince words or waste time. The group formed, according to member Eliana, as soon as the new trustees were named. “Tracy posted, ‘Oh, hell no!’ on [the NCF parents’ Facebook page] and then she started organizing.”
That sentiment clearly resonated. Multiple parents echoed those same words when asked about their reasons for joining the fight: “Hell no!”
For each of the parents, the attack on New College crossed a red line, threatening the values of inclusion and diversity that are at the core of public education and that made a difference in their kids’ campus experience. Before the first meeting of the NCF’s new Board of Trustees on January 31, Tracy ordered signs for the campus protest, reached out to other parents and set up the chat group. But, like a real leader, she doesn’t just act—she empowers everyone to take initiative and responsibility.
Watching the group work over the past four months, what’s impressed me most is how proactive and mutually supportive everyone is. When an issue arises, people step up and get the work done.
“I’m on it!”
So, what do the moms do? Each brings their own skill set to the table. For example, James (a pseudonym), one of the most active dads in the group, had already successfully grappled with Richard Corcoran—the former Florida education commissioner who was recently named interim president of New College—over issues at his daughter’s middle school.
“This is not my first rodeo challenging Richard Corcoran,” he said.
Activist experience matters, but others draw on their background in law or with the media. They dive into research, recording statements made by the new trustees and tracing their financial ties to other Florida politicians. They write letters and op-eds, file records requests and ethics complaints. Stephanie, who’s based in New York, serves as a connection to SaveNewCollege.org, an alumni group, and focuses on legislative outreach. They crack jokes, cheer each other on and care for our students by ensuring that the campus food pantry is stocked. With a nod to Napoleon, the moms know that students march on their stomachs.
“Well-behaved women rarely defeat the empire.”
And, significantly, they draw both media attention and the ire of our new administration by showing up at board meetings with signs, speeches, and props. One of their unofficial mottos is, “Well-behaved women rarely defeat the empire,” a line borrowed from a Star Wars-themed meme. When a group of moms attended a board meeting on Feb. 28 dressed in coordinated The Handmaid’s Tale costumes, they goaded their adversaries into revealing the misogyny that fuels their attacks on higher education.
The most outspoken of the new trustees, Christopher Rufo, a provocateur from Washington State whom the Moms have dubbed “Griftopher Rufo,” tweeted about this “bizarre development” and dismissed the moms as “helicopter parents” and “coddling.” He doubled down on his misogyny in a March 10 Substack post, which he titled “The Great Feminization of the American University.” “I would’ve been mortified if my mother had come to my college and protested on my behalf,” he wrote. Clearly, moms standing up for kids is more than he can take.
There are both lessons and laughs to be found in the example of these moms (and a few dads). They’re witty and compassionate, and they’re not backing down. They came to the defense of their own kids, but they’re making a stand for students across Florida, for the future of public education, and for the principles of free speech and respect for all individuals. I’m hoping they’ll win this fight, but they’ve already won the day.
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