For their tireless efforts to support academic freedom, New College of Florida faculty, librarians, student reporters of The Catalyst, and the Defend New College and Save New College student and alumni organizations have collectively been named the 2022 recipient of the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award. The award is given annually by the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and cosponsored by Sage, a global academic publisher of books, journals, and library resources.
In January 2023, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis appointed six new members to the Board of Trustees of New College of Florida, a small liberal arts honors college located in Sarasota. These appointees included a conservative activist; a professor and dean at a private, conservative Christian school; and a professor and editor of a conservative publication. The new members arrived with a mandate from the governor to overhaul the school toward "a more traditional liberal arts institution."
The revamped board of trustees dismissed the school's president and its dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion and dismantled the office that housed all diversity initiatives. Board members stated that they will target programs in gender studies and ethnic studies for closure.
In response, New College faculty, staff, students, and alumni mobilized to fight the changes, which they described as a "hostile political takeover." Their efforts include working to place educational freedom on the national political agenda, and in conjunction with the Open Society University Network, developing strategies to keep certain subjects taught at New College and in Florida, should classes be cancelled by the board or departments be dismantled by the state legislature. They have collaborated with the Ohio State Chapter of the American Association of University Presidents (AAUP) to help share tools and strategies to fight SB83, Ohio's version of Florida's HB999, a bill that would ban state colleges and universities from using funds to "promote, support, or maintain any programs or campus activities that espouse diversity, equity, or inclusion [DEI] or Critical Race Theory rhetoric."
In addition, the group has staged walkouts and protests and testified in front of the state legislature against the appointment of the new trustees and proposed legislation. The organizers plan for more events in the months ahead that "center around educational and intellectual freedom and in direct response to statewide efforts to limit what can be taught in public classrooms across all levels of education."
A reception to honor the defenders of New College of Florida will be held next month during the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago.
The Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award is presented annually to individuals or groups who have furthered the cause of intellectual freedom, particularly as it affects libraries and information centers and the dissemination of ideas. It was established in 1969 by the iSchool's faculty to honor Robert Downs, a champion of intellectual freedom, on his twenty-fifth anniversary as director of the School.