The Washington Post
Ousted Florida college diversity leader: ‘I am the first casualty’
The top diversity officer at New College of Florida has been fired, as a newly appointed crop of conservative trustees delivers on its promise to root out diversity programming from the small liberal arts institution in Sarasota.
The dismissal of Yoleidy Rosario-hernandez, who uses ze/ zir pronouns, comes on the heels of a vote by college trustees to eliminate New College’s Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence. The move, while expected, signals a broader remaking of New College, which Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has identified as a staging ground for a larger “antiwoke” agenda that has become a central platform for his likely presidential bid. In January, DeSantis appointed six new members to the college’s board, including conservative activist Christopher Rufo, a vocal critic of college diversity programs.
Rosario-hernandez spoke with The Washington Post about zir recent termination and what it may say about the debate over college diversity efforts in Florida and across the nation. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Describe what you did at New College.
A: What I did at New College was supervise the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence, which entailed a number of different responsibilities from working with students, working with faculty, working with staff on diversity and inclusion efforts and initiatives. We worked on civil rights discourse, creating spaces where students can feel welcomed on campus.
Q: Why are diversity, equity and inclusion programs, commonly known as DEI, important on a college campus?
A: Diversity, equity and inclusion spaces and offices are critical to the survival of higher education institutions across America and globally. Historically, marginalized folks have been erased, ousted out of educational spaces. We’ve always had to fight to have access and get the privilege of being at institutions that weren’t necessarily built for us.
Q: These programs have become targets of conservatives. How would you describe the criticism of DEI and to what extent do you think it’s off-base?
A: In higher education, DEI is really under attack at the moment. When I think about what has been happening, particularly at New College, it’s sad to see that. For the most part, my whole career has been in higher education. I went to do a master’s in student affairs with a concentration in multicultural education, because I know it works. I am someone who grew up in New York City with very little resources. My parents worked so hard and never thought that I would be able to go to college. It was because of the diversity office at Dickinson College and because of the mentors that believed in me that I was actually able to succeed.
Q: How were you informed that you were being fired? Walk me through that day.
A: I got a call at 3:16 [p.m.] on [March 3], saying, “Can you please come in at 3:30?” I said, “I can’t, I’m in a meeting, but I can be there at 4.” We started the meeting at 4:10. … President [Richard] Corcoran said, “Unfortunately, because your office has been abolished, we no longer need your services.”
[Among the four people who worked in New College’s diversity office, all but Rosario-hernandez were reassigned to other duties. In response to a request for comment about RosarioHernandez’s termination, a university spokesperson wrote, “The Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence has been abolished and the position is no longer necessary.”]
Q: How did you feel in that moment when you were fired? A: Most of all, I felt proud of myself for at least being able to share that they have been treating us [the diversity office’s staff ] indecently and not like humans. There was no respect of the people who work there.
… I was proud to say, ‘ This is not OK.’ And to be able to walk away with my dignity was really important to me.
Q: What would you say has been the most painful part of this experience?
A: I have to think about how am I going to sustain my family after all of this, and that has been very difficult to navigate. Professionally, I am in mourning because I see that the DEI is being attacked, not only at New College. I am the first casualty in many ways.
Q: You identify as transgender, right?
A: I do identify as BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color] and trans, yes.
Q: Have you felt targeted in any way because of that? Do you think that your dismissal has anything to do with your identity?
A: I definitely 100 percent think that I have been mistreated because of my identity.
I am the only trans person in our team and I am the only one who got canned.
Q: Have you given any thought to legal action?
A: I have, and I am pursuing those channels.
Q: People see what’s happening at New College as part of a larger story. Why do you think that is? A: People should be paying attention to what’s happening at New College of Florida because they could be next. Their institutions can be next, their state can be next. This is a very authoritarian and scary time where we’re seeing a lot of people’s rights being removed and revoked and there’s an abuse of power. And so we need to be alert. We need to be aware of what’s happening so that we can hold our political appointees accountable for their actions.
Q: Could you articulate for me what you think new trustee Chris Rufo’s definition of DEI is and how it differs from your own?
A: I don’t think he even knows what diversity, equity and inclusion is. I see it as community. He sees it as divisiveness. … I see it as being inclusive. I see it as people of color having a seat at the table. I see it as queer people having a seat at the table. I see it as White people having a seat at the table — all of us coming at the table to make a better environment and better community because we all thrive and succeed when there’s different ideas at the table. I think he has one idea, and that is white supremacy.
[Ru fores ponded to RosarioHernandez’ s statements in an email to The Post on Friday. Rufo said he had done extensive reporting on DEI and had “an indepth understanding of how it promotes racial division, scapegoating, and discrimination .” RosarioHernandez’ s“false and inflammatory comments to The Washington Post,” he wrote, “are further confirmation that President Corcoran made the right decision” in terminating Rosario-hernandez’s employment. Rufo added that he hoped this “period of unemployment” would give Rosario-hernandez “the opportunity to develop real work skills, instead of fomenting hysterical racial grievance narratives.”]
Q: Rufo would say that these programs pit people in two camps against each other, dividing people between oppressors and oppressed. Could you respond?
A: If you look at how DEI has traditionally worked across the U.S., it does the total opposite. It brings people together. It creates spaces for people to work across their differences. It has introduced things like restorative justice where people who are harmed are able to sit down with people who have harmed them and have a conversation to get to a place of healing.
Q: How does this story end? A: I think the story ends with a blank page, a page that we still have to write. And so this is an opportunity for us to wake up and figure out what else needs to be written for the future of New College. I’m going to continue to do the work because it is important. It is more important now than ever.