Key Gender Studies Staff Resign from New College of Florida, ‘The State Where Learning Goes to Die’


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Nicholas L. Clarkson, former assistant professor of gender studies at New College of Florida, has announced his resignation from the school, which used to be known as the most progressive public college in the state. Clarkson was the only full-time gender studies professor at New College.

Just last week, political allies of Gov. Ron DeSantis voted to begin the process of dismantling the gender studies program and abolishing the major—the latest in an ongoing public battle between the governor and the liberal arts school.

“I have loved teaching at New College,” Clarkson wrote in a letter addressed to interim president and former Republican House speaker Richard Corcoran. “But now Florida is the state where learning goes to die.”

Prior to the decision, DeSantis had appointed six new members to the college’s board of trustees, all of whom were ultra-conservative. One of them was Christopher Rufo, the right-wing activist leading the attacks on critical race theory. The final vote was 7-3. (The board also voted to request nearly $2 million from the Florida legislature to fund an “anti-cancel culture” center at New College.)

Clarkson’s letter—which you can read in full below—connects the dots between trans bans, the end of gender studies, abortion bans, and larger attacks on diversity and gender.

“Eliminating gender studies is a reactionary attempt to prevent cultural shifts that scare you,” wrote Clarkson, a trans man who transitioned almost two decades ago. “Gender has changed before, and it is changing again. You can’t keep your kids from being gay or trans. You can only make them hate you and themselves.

“Gender studies offers the vocabulary, conceptual frameworks, and practice tolerating the discomfort of the unfamiliar that would help us all navigate change more gracefully,” he continued. “But that’s why you canceled it.”

Over 40 professors have already resigned from New College in light of these attacks, according to Clarkson, who calls the mass exodus “an indictment of [Richard Corcoran] and the trustees’ actions, as well as the state’s regressive politics.”

“You’ve already destroyed the New College I loved, and I won’t work in an environment characterized by censorship, refusal of accountability, blatant disregard for students’ wellbeing, and consistent denigration of both my work and my personhood,” Clarkson’s resignation letter concluded.

The attack on higher education in Florida has been receiving pushback not just on a local and statewide level, but also from many national organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA).

“We know that this fight is not just about curriculum or lesson plans. It is not just about what is happening in the academy or in pre-K through 12th grade education. At its core, this is a struggle for the heart and soul of this nation,” said Karsonya (Kaye) Wise Whitehead, president of NWSA. “This is the fight at this moment, and NWSA is prepared to resist, to push back, to speak out, and to support our members until the end,” she said of the organization, which primarily supports feminist and gender, women’s and sexuality studies programs, and can use its reach and platform to speak up for members in contested parts of the country.

“If we let them win this battle, they will never stop attacking us, threatening us and intimidating us,” Wise Whitehead continued. “The anti-woke cabal will never stop coming for us.”

Read the letter in full here or below.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Dear Mr. Corcoran,

I am writing to inform you that I’m resigning from my position as Assistant Professor of Gender Studies, effective today.

I have loved teaching at New College. I became a professor because I love reading, learning, talking about ideas, and seeing others’ faces light up when they talk about something they’re passionate about. I’ve taught a handful of individual students at other schools who shared my excitement about learning, but at New College, it’s part of the culture. New College students are more creative, thoughtful, curious, hard-working, and inspiring than any other students I’ve taught. I’m so grateful to have had five years to cheer them on and see them progress from their first uncertain attempts to speak up in class to embracing their brilliance while completing theses. I’m grateful to the robust community of colleagues who have shared resources, experiential wisdom, and conversations about the scholarship of teaching and learning that have supported my continued growth as an educator.

But now Florida is the state where learning goes to die.

First, the claim that enslaved people—bought and sold as property, forced to work without pay, subjected to brutal violence, and separated from family among many other horrors—gained anything from slavery is a shameful lie.

Second, you and the new trustees regularly fail to offer evidence for your claims or demonstrate that you’ve done the reading. Students deserve leaders who are willing to read with an open mind, ask questions about things they don’t understand, and offer evidence to support their claims, as I expect students to do in all of their work. The tenure “discussion” is one example. None of the trustees who voted against tenure said anything specific about any of the candidates. I wonder how many of them could even name one of the five people they voted against that day.

A more recent example is last week’s vote to eliminate Gender Studies. Trustee Spalding claimed “Gender Studies does not grow out of the Humanities… It’s interdisciplinary, but it’s not the combination of existing actual disciplines like Political Economy… You read the website. I have no idea what it’s about.” What arrogance to conclude, on the basis of one paragraph on the internet, that a field of study should be eliminated because your limited conception of interdisciplinarity can’t hold more than two fields together at once.

Because my research and teaching draw from history, sociology, literature, law, philosophy, political science, and psychology, I have to understand the conventions of each of those disciplines to be able to successfully weave them together to answer complex questions about gender and sexuality. All disciplines have their blind spots. Interdisciplinary scholars translate between them and fill the gaps. I’ve learned that what I call “interdisciplinarity,” corporate recruiters call “cross-functional communication,” an uncommon and valuable skill. I am very good at this, and I’m good at teaching it. It’s a disservice to students that you’ve eliminated the interdisciplinary program that is best prepared to teach them this skill.

More importantly, though, eliminating Gender Studies is a reactionary attempt to prevent cultural shifts that scare you. Gender has changed before, and it is changing again. You can’t keep your kids from being gay or trans. You can only make them hate you and themselves. Gender Studies offers the vocabulary, conceptual frameworks, and practice tolerating the discomfort of the unfamiliar that would help us all navigate change more gracefully. But that’s why you canceled it.

Finally, you and multiple trustees are complicit in the state’s attacks on trans people, making it impossible for me to live my life here. I transitioned 19 years ago, and all of my legal documents identify me as male. I have lived in red states all my life and have long tolerated many forms of homophobia and transphobia, but I can now be jailed for using the bathroom in my workplace. I’m banned from telling students the pronouns I’ve used (he/him) for the entirety of my adult life. I recently had to sign a disgusting ten page consent form that the Department of Health filled with outright lies so my doctor can continue prescribing testosterone, before learning that she, like so many other qualified medical professionals, is fleeing this state where medicine goes to die.

In March, The Advocate reported that Florida neo-Nazi groups are finding it much easier to recruit as a result of anti-drag hysteria. This year’s legislative session also included bills that allow for unpermitted concealed carry and make it more difficult to track gun and ammunition sales. The Pulse massacre happened in Orlando, only a two hour drive from campus. The violent intent of this legislative agenda is crystal clear.

You and multiple trustees have ensured that New College will not be a refuge from this violence. Trustee Rufo has been a key figure in fomenting homophobia and transphobia nationally by repeatedly referring to LGBT people as “groomers,” resurrecting a vile myth from the 1940’s and 50’s. Trustee Anderson has written books with hateful and melodramatic titles such as When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment and Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom. You, Mr. Corcoran, have fired multiple prominent LGBTQ faculty and staff, ripped gender-neutral bathroom signage off the walls, and canceled the Pride Living-Learning Community, throwing away their books.

Furthermore, with no consultation with any relevant committees or individuals on campus, you unilaterally decided to turn beautiful student murals into bland beige walls and replace grass with astro turf in front of ACE, likely invalidating the building’s LEED certification and supplying a steady stream of microplastics to pollute the bay. What a blight on this beautiful campus. I’ll take color, creativity, and life over the beige walls and astro turf of a “citadel of normalcy” any day.

For these reasons and many more, I join 40 of my former colleagues in leaving. This exodus is an indictment of your and the trustees’ actions as well as the state’s regressive politics. I am reluctant to leave my colleagues and students behind, but you’ve already destroyed the New College I loved, and I won’t work in an environment characterized by censorship, refusal of accountability, blatant disregard for students’ wellbeing, and consistent denigration of both my work and my personhood.


Nicholas L. Clarkson

Cc: Amy Reid, Director of Gender Studies
Maribeth Clark, Chair of the Division of Humanities
Brad Thiessen, Interim Provost

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Roxanne Szal (or Roxy) is the managing digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.
Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.
Karon Jolna, Ph.D., is a scholar-activist with two decades of experience in nonprofit feminist media and higher education. Currently she serves as program director and editor at Ms. magazine, leading its efforts to bring women’s, gender and sexuality studies analyses and voices to a broader national audience. Previously she served as a lecturer of gender studies at UCLA and research scholar at UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women. Jolna was among the first cohort to earn a Ph.D. in women’s studies at Emory University. Canadian-born, Jolna currently lives in Los Angeles.