A small liberal arts school that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has sought to transform into a bastion of right-wing thought is now facing a federal civil rights probe.
And conservatives in the state are up in arms.
The Republican governor hasn’t hidden his desire to transform New College of Florida into a place hostile to inclusive learning plans that address social inequality. In January, he appointed a bunch of conservatives to the public college’s board of trustees, and he has said he wants the Sarasota school to be a “little Hillsdale” — a reference to Hillsdale College, a Midwestern school known for right-wing indoctrination.
The new board wasted no time in ousting the school’s president, closing down its diversity, equity and inclusion office and moving to abolish the gender studies major.
There has been an exodus of students from New College, which has traditionally been welcoming to LGBTQ students in particular, and the school has seen more than a third of its faculty leave.
New College is now facing federal scrutiny. In a letter Friday, the U.S. Education Department said its Office for Civil Rights is investigating allegations that the school has discriminated against people with disabilities.
That makes two civil rights complaints filed against the school recently, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The newspaper reported that the disability discrimination complaint was filed Aug. 24, two days after the Education Department received a complaint alleging that New College leaders had created a hostile and discriminatory environment for LGBTQ students, ethnic minorities and students of religious minorities.
The newspaper said the federal department has not responded to questions about whether it is also investigating the earlier complaint. In a statement provided to the outlet, a spokesperson for New College appeared to criticize the LGBTQ-related complaint and said both complaints are “without merit”:
We are aware of the anonymous complaint that was purportedly sent to the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice, a complaint that was first sent to the media and was never sent to the college. The anonymous complaint details many false claims meant to grab headlines, and it is important to note that the only claim that is being looked into is the disability compliance claim, of which we are confident the DOE will also find to be without merit.
A document published by The Daily Caller, a conservative outlet, appears to include the LGBTQ-related complaint. The document has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News.
The purported complaint includes claims that New College officials replaced gender-neutral bathroom signs with signs that don’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that school officials — including right-wing activist Christopher Rufo, who’s on the board of trustees — have insulted students, parents and faculty by labeling them mentally ill and deliberately misusing pronouns.
And DeSantis appeared on Fox News on Monday, claiming the Biden administration is “basically saying that there’s a civil right to have things like gender studies and pronouns in our colleges and universities.”
The Biden administration has said no such thing. In fact, the Education Department’s letter to New College says “opening an allegation for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination with regard to its merits.”
But the mere fact of being under review was clearly enough to roil DeSantis and company. They apparently don’t want anyone meddling with their efforts to meddle with Florida’s education system.