Devyn Rolls, a student at New College of Florida. Photograph by Jeffery Salter for Hammer & Hope.
As part of his attacks on Black studies, gender studies, and academic freedom in classrooms across Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis made a particular target of New College of Florida. On January 6, DeSantis’s office announced the appointment of six new members to the board of trustees. By including vocal opponents of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs; antiracist curriculums; and gender and sexuality studies, DeSantis packed the board with a group of ideologues in order to remake the college in the image of conservative Christian colleges like Hillsdale. Shortly after one of the first board meetings of the year, the Florida Board of Governors appointed a seventh member, securing a conservative majority on the 13-member board.
The new board fired Patricia Okker, the president, and installed a Republican operative and former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, Richard Corcoran, as the interim president. They dismantled the office that supported the college’s already limited diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and fired the office’s gender-nonconforming chief diversity officer and dean of DEI, Yoleidy Rosario-Hernandez. They also fired Helene Gold, a beloved research librarian and outspoken critic of the new administration. They denied tenure to five faculty members who had been recommended for tenure at every level of the academic process. They began preparations for a “core curriculum” in favor of so-called virtue courses that will give students a “beautiful foundation in virtue.” They are spending part of the nearly $50 million budget — the largest in several decades — hiring an athletic director and coaches on a campus with few sports or facilities to support them. The college community faces near weekly changes to the campus infrastructure, curriculum, and staffing.
At the Board of Trustees meeting on August 10, the members started the process to abolish the gender studies program, a move students and faculty members denounced. Soon after, Nicholas Clarkson, the only faculty member with a full-time appointment in that program, submitted a resignation letter stating, “Florida is the state where learning goes to die.” The chaos has continued, with the administration scrambling to move mostly returning students into nearby hotels due to a shortage of student housing. The loss of nearly 40 percent of the faculty has meant cancelled classes, leaving students unsure how to meet requirements for their majors.
Erik Wallenberg, a visiting assistant professor of history at New College of Florida, was denied a contract renewal by the interim president despite being asked back by the social sciences division. On June 23, 2023, Erik interviewed rising third-year student and incoming Black Student Union Vice President Devyn Rolls.
Erik: Can you tell us how you reacted when you first realized what was happening with the new board of trustees coming into New College?
Devyn: My first two years of being at New College, I worked at the airport Starbucks across the street. Ten-hour shifts, three days a week. I was making drinks for customers, and I felt my phone just blowing up in my back pocket. I look around to see if my manager’s there, and I pull my phone out, scrolling through the group chat. I’m seeing “Ron DeSantis, Ron DeSantis.” Then I told my manager I’m going on my 30-minute break, and I read about who was appointed to the board. I don’t know why, but my first instinct was to laugh. I was like, “This is rich. This is comedy gold.” Because I’m not going to say I expected it, but I live in Florida, and I go to a predominantly white institution [PWI]. What are these people doing? This is absolutely ridiculous. This is like a comedic novel. I didn’t understand what was going on completely.
Then I get home that night, and I call my mom. I had sent her a bunch of news articles with the breaking news and information on all the new board members. We’re on the phone talking about it, and she’s like, “I don’t think you should stay there.” I was thinking maybe I should. I’ve got to stand my ground. I’ve gotten this far. You’re not about to take me out the game. My mom’s first instinct was to pack up and go. But I was thinking that I’ve put so much money into this. I’ve put in so much studying. “One more semester” is the thing that I keep saying to myself now.
The Black Student Union is the reason why the student government still has a DEI training. I was just thinking I’ve built things here, and I’m entitled to this school. Nobody can change my mind about that.
Erik: So your mom was like, “Let’s get you out and keep you safe and find something better for you,” and your instinct was to stay and fight. What did you do then? Did you have a Black Student Union meeting or strategize with other students?
Devyn: Our intention from the start has always been to protect Black students. There’s probably only been one week I’ve been at New College where I haven’t had contact with the Black Student Union. Whether we had a meeting of three people — the first meeting that I ever went to had three people — or 40 people, the goal has always been to create and maintain space for Black and marginalized people on this campus. So our first instinct was you’ve got to stay safe.
During the 2020 uprising I was under the age of 18, and my mom was like, “You’re not going out there.” My friends were out there with the Tampa Police Department brutalizing them. They were shooting rubber bullets at my friends, and I told my mom about it. She was like, “Yeah, you got a curfew now. Don’t you dare.” I get where she was coming from — I disagree a little bit, but I get where she was coming from. But watching and participating in the events of summer 2020, we knew that the police across the country were tracking people. We knew that the police were brutalizing people in broad daylight on camera.
New College is a PWI, so you’re a little bit more protected in that sense. But if something happens, you’re the first person to go down. Whether that means mass doxing — people on the internet finding the speech that someone wrote, where they live, their family members — now you’re the person who’s being harassed on the internet, people are showing up outside of your house graffitiing your stuff, and you’re the person whose family is having people knock on their door. So you need to be safe. That was our first instinct. If you’re going to go out, be safe about it.
The second thing was we’re always going to be here for you, every single week. You can come in and tell us about everything that happened this week. We will talk about it, because I feel like in some senses it’s gotten a lot harder. The Black Student Union knew from the get-go this is a dangerous situation. They’re trying to hurt us. They’re trying to cause harm to us. And we will always be here to make sure that you can talk about it.
Erik: There was some of that on our side, too. Some faculty said, “Well, let’s wait and see what happens.” A group of us thought that all you had to do is to look at any of these people and know that they’re coming in with an agenda to remake the college from the top down, and they don’t care who gets in their way or what casualties they cause. They don’t care what disasters they leave in their wake. And we have to respond to that. So our question was how do you get more people to see that and take real steps to organize in reaction?
How did your semester change from the beginning through to the end? Did your life on campus change? Did your relationship to faculty or other students change?
Devyn: It was a lot of grieving. First, the initial shock hit. That quickly wore off and turned into grief. I remember going into a faculty member’s office for office hours; we were talking about an essay that I had written. And she was like, “How are you doing?” We write about tough subjects in that class: the 2020 protests, the previous Black Lives Matter uprisings in the country, as well as the extrajudicial killings of Black people. So I was sitting in her office talking about my essay, and I just burst into tears. I was like, “Everything is going wrong. And it’s so horrible here. And no one cares about us.” I kind of don’t know about my future here. I’m stressed. My blood pressure was so high.
By the time we got to the very end of the semester, every week at BSU we had check-ins where we would go around the room and ask everybody, “How’s your week doing on a scale of one to 10? How are you right now?” And I remember this friend said, “They didn’t tenure the two chemistry professors. I don’t know who’s going to be in charge of my thesis. So it doesn’t look like I’m going to graduate on time.” I was sitting there wondering, “Are my professors going to be here?” It’s gone from me just being generally pissed off and very aggravated toward New College to realizing the precarity of the situation. The place I know, with the faculty and staff I need for my senior thesis, may not be here when it’s time for me to graduate. I may not be able to complete my education, because I won’t be able to do my thesis. My friends may not be able to do the same either.
Erik: Can you tell us about when this board of trustees came onto campus to have these meetings? There are Proud Boys all over Florida, and there was fear they would come onto campus. How did students respond to that?
Devyn: I remember the first time that I was concerned that fringe right-wingers would come onto our campus was when trustee Christopher Rufo and then-trustee Eddie Speir came to campus in January. And we had a senate meeting within the student government, and that was the discussion. Nothing else on the agenda got addressed.
Once they had their full board of trustees, the board limited how many people could come to their meeting and how long they could speak. They have a ton of cops. They use metal detectors on you, essentially creating a locked-down perimeter. As a Black student, I find the police make me uncomfortable. These trustees were basically just disrespecting me by being on my campus. They’re tearing apart my campus from the academic side, and then they have the audacity to bring it over to the residential side, where they can cause unrest and bring all of these dangerous people onto my campus. And they think that they can get away with it. That’s the worst part.
Erik: The feeling on campus, both of having the neo-fascist right wing present and then having the huge police presence, was awful. It was so clear that it was about protecting that small group of board members, as if we were threatening them. And we all know where the violence comes from. It doesn’t come from our side. It comes from the fascists and their police. I remember one of the last board of trustees meetings of the semester, the one where they refused to grant tenure to the five faculty members; there was a protest before. But then a group of students, mostly students of color, came to the front door of the building where the board was meeting and just started chants against what they were doing. They started this spirited response to what we knew was going on inside that building. It was a really inspiring moment for me. We knew that they were on campus to deny this group of faculty tenure, we knew that they were coming for this campus — they had been doing it all semester — and the students were refusing to just roll over and accept it. They showed that there was going to be a response, that we’re going to make our displeasure known before, during, and after that meeting. You were there, weren’t you?
Devyn: I was there. I had a meeting that night that I didn’t get to. I was at the protest before the meeting. So then the board of trustees are going in, and we’re just standing around. I’m like, “Hey, guys, you know, it would be really, really funny if we all went home and got pots and pans and speakers, and we waited until they came out of the meeting so that we could confront them.” And everyone agreed. So we went home, got our pots and pans, our speakers.
After watching the whole meeting, everyone was really fired up. The board of trustees wrapped up that meeting very quickly. We ran out and started executing our plan. The campus police were acting a little crazy that day. The moment that there is a group of people, even if it’s just 20 people and five cops, they get freaked out. They immediately assume they need to protect whatever they’re standing in front of, and they start pushing people around. And that’s what happened that day. As the trustees were riding away in their limousine golf cart, we were chanting at them. One of them was recording this on her phone and laughing. Her sitting on a golf cart recording a bunch of students saying, You are disrespecting our campus, you are hurting us, and giggling made me think that these people are crazy.
Erik: That’s my recollection, too. When the board took that vote, it was clear they were going to get out of there in a hurry. The police escorted those members who voted against tenure out a side door onto a waiting golf cart limo surrounded by police. It was Debra Jenks who was filming us. What I remember is that everyone was shouting — students, faculty, community members — following their golf cart and just shouting “Shame!” at them. It was such a shameful display in the meeting, and then to see them scurry like rats out the side door crystallized it for me. In those moments it becomes apparent that they know what they’ve done is wrong. We know that they know that what they’re doing is wrong. Anyone seeing that scene couldn’t help but realize that these people know they’ve done wrong, and now they’re trying to escape. They’re trying to get away from the consequences. They won’t even face us. They won’t be forced to explain what they’ve done because they know that they’ve done a terrible thing.
Devyn: I also think that it helps them to paint New College students as a vicious mob. No one came out with weapons. They immediately scurried away. No one was going to do anything to them physically — we just wanted them to have to see these people that they’re causing immense harm to. They know what they’re doing is hurting people, and to be confronted by that may as well be physical violence to them. But those from the outside just presume that they’re running away because New College students might physically hurt them.
Erik: As students are trying to respond to these attacks on education and assert the right to have access to Black history and gender studies in Florida but also across the country, do you have any advice for them? And do you have any plans for how you’re responding in the coming year?
Devyn: You’ve got to talk to people one on one. First, if you’re at a public institution, don’t use your institutional email and try not to attach your name to anything that you’re doing. This requires strategy. Most of all, it requires talking to people that you may not have spoken with before and people that you may have ideological disagreements with. Because at the end of the day, it’s us versus fringe right-wing fascists. We may have disagreements. “Oh, this person is a Marxist-Leninist, and I’m an anarcho-syndicalist.” Have you considered that the board is out for both of you? For this one moment you just have to learn to agree to disagree with the people around you and stand together as a united front. Talk to other clubs. You have to reach out and extend invitations; you have to accept invitations from people you normally may not run with. Because they’re out to get all of us; they’re out to hurt and cause immense harm, and they likely already have. Regardless of whatever ideological differences we have, you have to learn how to work with other people.
So what are we doing? Are we doing property destruction? Or are we doing property creation? It’s tough to find that middle ground, because some people are like, “We want to have food trucks. We want to do chalk and draw pictures.” That’s not my prerogative. I firmly believe that if there’s a board of trustees meeting happening on our campus, on the residential side, directly behind where I live, then we need to respond. The fact that they think they can show up where I live, where their presence invites people like the Proud Boys, and think that they can get away with it is ridiculous. No, they need to face the consequences of their actions. We need to disrupt in whatever capacity we can without getting arrested.
The other big thing is, where’s the money? There’s been a lot of donations to Save New College. I believe if you’re getting donations, it should be used as a bail fund. It’s a mutual-aid fund. Instead a lot of it was used on public relations. I asked, “Why are we using it on P.R. if we haven’t done anything wrong?” They can’t do a smear campaign against us. Also this is a college, and there are people who are either learning about or doing P.R. right now. That’s not a good use of our money. So there are big ideological and organizational differences within NCF. But at the end of the day, I can’t just decide that these people aren’t listening to me, they’re not doing what I want them to do, so I’m going to go off and not do anything or start my own organization to oppose these changes to NCF. It’s not a good use of our power. I believe that even though I have ideological differences within these organizations, and even though the Black Student Union has said time and time again that some people are not showing up for us in the way that they should be, it’s our business to change that. We have to go into the group ourselves and fix that. We have done that before within the student government, so we can definitely do it again.
Erik: Do you have any plans for organizing when you come back in the fall? Have students been talking? Anything we should look out for and any ways that people can support you all?
Devyn: Keep your eye on New College. The thing that I’ve been most worried about is people just kind of letting it fade into obscurity. Because in this country, our news cycle is extremely quick. Second, since the college administration’s DEI office has been abolished, I will have a larger role in student government. All of the DEI is now my and my co-chairs’ domain, because the college cannot dictate what the student government does. We’ve been talking about doing occupations, trying to rally more support from the student body, because there is a general consensus that this sucks. With all the sports and new students coming onto the campus, I’m worried about a lot of class tensions occurring. So I’m trying to help the campus stand together instead of fall apart.
Devyn Rolls is studying English at New College of Florida. They are in their third year preparing to serve as the Black Student Union vice president and the New College Student Alliance’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion co-chair.
Erik Wallenberg was a visiting assistant professor of history at New College of Florida from 2022 to 2023, teaching classes in U.S. history and environmental history. He is acquisitions editor at Science for the People.