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Amid political upheaval, FL college students establish roots elsewhere

Education has been a hot political topic in recent years, and now some Florida college students say the impact has become personal.
Amid political upheaval, FL college students establish roots elsewhere
Posted at 11:36 AM, Oct 04, 2023

The start of a new school year is typically filled with anticipation and excitement. But for Brendan Hersh and Basil Pursley, the start of this school year has come with nothing but sadness.

"It does still feel like this isn't really my place, it's just somewhere I ended up," said Hersh, who is in the middle of his junior year.

Until a few weeks ago, neither of these college juniors had ever been to Massachusetts. But over the summer both say they were forced to transfer from New College of Florida after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis targeted the tiny school on the shores of Sarasota Bay.

DeSantis claimed the progressive school was indoctrinating students with leftist ideology. He then overhauled the 13-member Board of Trustees in what's been described as a "war on woke." Florida's Republican governor then installed conservative figures on the school's board. The college has scrapped the college's office of diversity, equity and inclusion as well as moved to abolish its gender studies department.

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"We saw it coming and hoped we could watch it from the sidelines, but it came for us," Hersh said. "And I think this is going to be a very common thing going forward. There will be a lot of people swept up in this."

The openly gay couple say they lost their housing over the summer amid an influx of recruited student-athletes. Hersh and Pursley are now enrolled at Hampshire College located in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Hampshire offered any New College student in good standing the option to transfer, bypassing the traditional admission process.

Hundreds of students have transferred from New College this year, worried about DeSantis' control on education there.

"I can't shake this feeling that I didn't get to make the choice for my education," Pursley said about the ordeal.

According to officials at Hampshire College, 35 students have transferred from New College this semester — including Libby Harrity, who was the former Student Senate president at New College. She too had never lived outside of Florida but as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, told Scripps News she no longer felt safe at New College.

"The state of Florida is under attack. I was forced to come to a state I've never lived in before, to go to a school I've never been to before just because the governor has a problem with gender studies," Harrity said.

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Hampshire College announced in March it would be offering the same in-state tuition rates New College students received in Florida. It's a move that is costing the school millions in revenue, but President Ed Wingenbach believes this is about more than just money.

"It has not generally been the case that state governments have been willing to ban entire fields of study. It starts with and finishes with politics," Wingenbach said. "What's happening with New College and with higher education is about the political objectives of the most authoritarian part of a political party."

"I hope we serve as an example for colleges and universities that care about academic freedom," he added.

Scripps News reached out to New College to comment on this story — only to learn their communication director had been fired on Monday. But the current president has said he aims to present a "classical" education for students and argues that the previous approach was a hodgepodge that limited a full range of ideas.

For students who have left, though, they say they've gotten a lesson of a different kind.

"This is a very important wake-up call that things are rapidly changing and shouldn't be complacent," Pursley said.

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