“What is happening at New College can happen anywhere”—making gender studies and its study of power dynamics more necessary than ever, says Dr. Viki Peer.
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In the fall of 2022, I was hired to teach a one-time special topic course in the following spring semester for the gender studies program at the New College of Florida—a small liberal arts honors college in Florida. For years, the school was known for its academic excellence and welcoming environment, but has recently become known for the hostile conservative takeover orchestrated by Governor Ron DeSantis (R) and other Republicans hellbent on ending decades of progress and inclusion.
As a prospective adjunct, I had pitched a course titled “Gender and Disability” that would consider social, political, historical and geographic dimensions that shape how gender, (dis)ability and race are understood in contemporary U.S. society. I was excited to teach for this special college and could have never predicted what was to come.
My first conversation with Dr. Amy Reid (the director of the school’s Gender Studies program) was at the beginning of December, and we discussed our excitement for being able to offer this class to New College students.
Less than a month later, as I worked to prepare materials and assignments for the upcoming semester, I learned about the cherry-picked conservatives being appointed as president of the school and as members of the school’s board of trustees.
I was asked during a phone call in January with a concerned but courageous lead faculty member if I, amid this uncertainty impending hostility toward the gender studies program, was still interested in teaching this course. I was worried how this administrative takeover would trickle down and who/what would be collateral damage—but I was still excited to teach for the program.
Little did I know, the gender studies program would be eliminated by the end of summer.
The takeover at New College is a damning example of administrators and politicians using their power to carry out their own political agendas, leaving students, faculty and staff in the crossfire.
On the first day of class, my students—many of whom openly shared their queer and/or disabled identities—were asking questions about the new trustees, what changes might occur in the coming days, weeks and months, and what students could do to intervene and try to save the school they loved.
In the months that followed, these brave, scared and hopeful students organized with and protested alongside their professors, parents, and peers. They fought for their right to have access to a variety of academic concentrations as well as their right to live and learn in a safe and supportive environment, the kind of environment New College had always been for them.
At the beginning of each class session, we would do short check-ins. Some days students wanted to discuss a recent board meeting, student-led protest or news article. Other days, students were so overwhelmed with what had been going on that they didn’t want to discuss anything at all. These students had, after all, come to New College because of its reputation for fostering a learning environment where all students felt a sense of belonging and were encouraged to expose themselves to numerous perspectives in order to improve and refine their critical thinking skills.
Through the August decision to eliminate the gender studies program, the conservative majority Board of Trustees have continued their crusade to discourage intellectual curiosity and create a culture of exclusion and fear.
I teach gender studies for multiple institutions of higher education, and I know that a good college education is one where students have ample opportunities to take classes from all different types of disciplines and figure out, for themselves, which ideas and perspectives they find the most relevant and useful. Gender studies courses are designed to be opportunities for students to do this difficult, reflective work.
The spirit of critical thinking, compassion and creative resistance is still alive at New College among the faculty, students and staff who remain.
The takeover at New College is a damning example of administrators and politicians using their power to carry out their own political agendas, leaving students, faculty and staff in the crossfire. The hostile environment created by these new administrators—at their meetings, in their comments to the press, during their campus visits—has been salt in the open wound they caused.
Despite firing the college’s former president, denying tenure to five of the five veteran faculty members who could have been granted it at the April Board of Trustees meeting, and now dissolving the gender studies program, the spirit of critical thinking, compassion and creative resistance is still alive at New College among the faculty, students and staff who remain.
When the school’s primary gender studies faculty, Dr. Nicholas Clarkson, resigned at the end of summer, he wrote, “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.”
What is happening at New College can happen anywhere, making gender studies and its thoughtful and methodical study of power dynamics as relevant and necessary as ever.
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