In January 2023, Governor Ron DeSantis appointed six new members to the New College Board of Trustees. In their first meeting, the board fired President Patricia Okker and installed Richard Corcoran (former education commissioner of Florida during the Covid-19 pandemic) as interim president. Their goal? To transform the small, liberal institution of New College into a conservative college and solidify DeSantis's political position as a candidate at the forefront of the anti-woke movement.
As part of the New College Challenge hosted by the New College of Florida under the direction of former-president Okker, universities from all over the United States were invited to propose solutions that could improve New College's environmental, social, and economic resilience. While nearly all the students opted to focus on environmental resilience and economic partnerships with local businesses, my studio partner (Miranda Clark) and I chose to focus on the political and cultural climate of the campus.
Throughout the duration of the studio, news articles reported on student protests, rapid changes in school policy and administration, the charged nature of the board of trustees meetings, and the state of mental health on the college campus. We chose to engage with this dynamic situation, imagining how social resilience, forms of protest, and tactical urbanism might help preserve the essence of New College. After all, what does it mean to "save" an institution from climate change if the students that define its character are displaced?
For context, New College is one of the highest producers of Fulbright scholars in the country and ranked 12th nationally for students that continue on to earn PhDs. The small student-to-faculty ratio, intimate campus, and rich eclectic social environment both attracts and develops students into critical thinkers and activists.
In order to get a sense of New College's unique educational environment, I arranged interviews with prominent alumni such as Derek Black (the godson of David Duke and former white supremacist-turned-activist), current students, professors, and facilities managers. Through these interviews we learned about challenges with the physical infrastructure of campus and deferred maintenance, the new emphasis on athletics programs by the new interim-president, and the administration's decision to defund student organizations and gender-related academic studies. Combined with in-depth research of student publications and social-media posts I built up a profile of New College's challenges, nature, and core experiences. This was represented through the creation of a board-game, titled: "There's a New Circus in Town." Cards detailed key players that sought to protect or destabilize the current campus environment, and action cards captured unique instances that affected the well-being of students on campus.
We brought the board game down to New College for students, faculty, and administration to play and interact with, leading to their student newspaper (The Catalyst) writing a publication about our project. The site visit not only allowed us to gain a sense of the campus environment, but also granted opportunities to engage with different student groups. I learned that key spaces on campus (Four Winds Café, Pollinator Garden, and Native Medicinal Butterfly Garden) were all developed through independent student projects. Through mapping workshops and conversations with students I also learned about the timing of student activity on campus; zones of active use; the disconnect between the residential and academic sides of campus; and the dearth of opportunities for social engagement and connection between students, faculty, and the college administration.
After seeing the board game, one of the students thanked me for "caring about our crazy little college."
Returning to Yale, my group decided to use the analogy of a hurricane, something all-too-familiar to the Florida locale, to represent the current political climate of the campus and depict ways that students and faculty could foster social resilience and engagement to reclaim the campus. In order to project possible futures, we developed newspaper prints on both the national and regional level that characterized the events happening not only on campus, but across the country.
The New York Times piece introduces the severity of "Hurricane Richard," (named after Richard Corcoran) by using existing photos of hurricane damage and sea-level rise to indicate that these events are all-too-familiar and already in-occurrence. Possible solutions are hinted through the reference to Eric Klinenberg's studies on social resilience, and the map provides commentary on "worsening weather" by listing of instances of abortion protection repeals, mass shootings, and anti-LGBTQ legislation).
On the regional level (Sarasota Herald-Tribune) the context of the Sarasota community and New College is introduced. The aftermath of the storm on the local community is highlighted, and student initiatives are introduced as key avenues for relief efforts. Sponsor placement and advertisements hint at historic factors and key players that contribute to the environmental and political crisis (British Petroleum sponsorship, Brad Pitt's Katrina debacle, sales for water-logged cars, tourism).
Using the New College student newspaper as a medium, we reframed existing conditions (such as the presence of mold in buildings, degrading infrastructure, student disconnect, and lack of social cohesion) as products of the hurricane. This allowed us to subtly critique existing policies on deferred maintenance and campus planning that had contributed to these issues.
Highlighting student initiatives, we then transformed buildings and student spaces on campus to serve as aid/relief centers. The goal of this was to emphasize the active role that students should play in addressing the situation, featuring tactical-urbanism interventions like scaffold-cities and floating classrooms. The two-campus divide from the Tamiami Highway and resulting campus disconnect was both posed and solved through the representation of the collapsed overpass bridge and ferry-routes to navigate the flooded corridor.
While not shown here, additional publications tracked the transformation of these aid-spaces into community assets and the strengthening of social tied between students, faculty, administration, and the local community.
Despite our efforts, this project was still limited to that of a student project. While our professor presented our work to students, faculty, and administration at New College ultimately the administration continued with their plans to overhaul the college and the collective student response never materialized. I ran into one of the students that I spoke with on campus months later, at Hampshire College. They had transferred from New College after being expelled for spitting on trustee Chris Rufo's shoe. We reminisced about the memories, I shared photographs, and later they wrote an email expressing their thanks and how much our efforts meant to them.