New College Visiting Prof. Out of Job—Rufo's Public Remarks Suggest Politics the MotiveBreaking News
tags: Florida, critical race theory, Ron DeSantis, Christopher Rufo, New College of Florida
Erik Wallenberg won’t be teaching at New College of Florida next academic year. The circumstances suggest he might be the latest target of the state’s partisan battle over higher education.
In March, Wallenberg and a colleague wrote an opinion essay criticizing an attempted ideological overhaul of their campus. This year, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, stacked the board at New College, a small public liberal-arts institution, with a cohort of conservative activists — including Christopher F. Rufo, known for waging a national campaign against critical race theory.
“What the DeSantis administration is trying to do, in brief, is force a conservative Christian model of education onto our public college,” Wallenberg and his colleague wrote in Teen Vogue.
Their commentary soon attracted the attention of Rufo, who called Wallenberg and his colleague “pure left-wing Mad Libs” on Twitter.
At the time, Wallenberg, a visiting assistant professor of history, was awaiting news on whether his contract would be renewed. He continued opposing his institution’s sudden political shift, helping organize a teach-in on academic freedom and bringing a prominent Black historian and DeSantis critic to campus. Meanwhile, turmoil continued at New College; at one board meeting, five faculty members were denied tenure and a professor resigned on the spot in protest.
Last month, Wallenberg learned that New College wouldn’t be renewing his faculty appointment. He said the head of his division told him that the decision was made by Richard Corcoran, New College’s interim president and a former Republican speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.
Rufo shared on Twitter last week that Wallenberg wouldn’t return in the fall, and seemed to connect the contract nonrenewal to the professor’s political views and criticism of New College’s administration. “It is a privilege, not a right, to be employed by a taxpayer-funded university,” Rufo wrote. “New College will no longer be a jobs program for middling, left-wing intellectuals.”
Rufo’s remarks prompted the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression to get involved. FIRE on Thursday declared the decision a violation of Wallenberg’s First Amendment and academic-freedom rights, warning of a chilling effect that would prevent “any reasonable faculty member from expressing views, extramurally or in class, that might cost them their jobs.” Wallenberg said he had not been in touch with FIRE but appreciated its efforts; New College did not return a request for comment.
The Chronicle spoke with Wallenberg about his experience. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Teen Vogue essay was your first experience publicly opposing change at New College. Why did you and your colleague write it?
We decided that we needed to write something to our students, who were really struggling over the course of the semester. We had to make time at the beginning of our classes for them to talk about that, and we could see how this crisis was weighing on students. We wanted to write something that addressed the history of what some of their fears were — in particular, losing access to curriculum, things like Black freedom studies, gender studies.
Shortly after it was published in March, Rufo tweeted a criticism of the essay, screenshotting your CV and your colleague’s and writing, “Luckily, both are visiting professors.” What was your reaction to that?
I certainly didn’t expect him to be civil or interested in an actual conversation. But I was shocked by the fact that as a trustee, he had no sense of what his role is and should be, and that he would so blatantly attack two faculty members. He demeans the fact that we would publish in Teen Vogue, which has a very large readership of young people, which is why we chose to publish there. In his criticism, there is nothing of substance — nothing of what we’ve actually written in the articles that we’ve published. It’s just based on some buzzwords that he pulled out.
Do you have any regrets about the essay, looking back on it now?
I have no regrets. I stand by what we wrote. What we wrote has been confirmed in a lot of ways. There were a lot of faculty who were hopeful that this new Board of Trustees wouldn’t really disturb our teaching as much as it has. I think everyone’s realized how bad things really are.
Did the nonrenewal come as a surprise to you?
A major part of teaching U.S. history, to me, is teaching the construction of race and racism in policy, law, and practice. Knowing that that is something that the governor has spoken out against teaching and said we shouldn’t be talking about those things, I was certainly expecting that the board would try to not renew my contract.
I think the reason is clear if we go by Christopher Rufo’s tweets; it suggests that the reason they did not renew my contract is because of what he perceives as my politics and what he sees as my publications. But I will also say I would like more information. I would like to actually hear Corcoran give a reason why he refused to sign that contract renewal.