Though he'd been an outspoken critic of New College's recent anti-"woke" overhaul, the axing of his teaching position made little sense to Wallenberg from an academic standpoint. The social sciences department had been supportive of his planned return for another year, he had received positive student evaluations, and he had just published an American history research paper.
"They have no U.S. historians in the department, and they need someone to teach U.S. history, " Wallenberg tells New Times. "They asked if I would come back, and I said I would definitely be interested, so they said, 'Great, we'll send over the offer letter to the provost's office,' and then the head of the social sciences division told me that it was being held up by interim president Richard Corcoran."
Each week, the division head would check in with him.
"Sorry, sorry, still no word," Wallenberg claims he was told. "We're trying."
After six weeks, Wallenberg says, he found out he was the only one of around a dozen visiting professors whose offer letter Corcoran opted not to sign.
"This was after all of the visiting appointments were held up by Corcoran, who said he wanted to review them all, which is, as I understand it, outside of the norm of the hiring process for the college," Wallenberg tells New Times.
While Wallenberg says Corcoran refuses to explain why he did not extend the offer, a few potential reasons are obvious to anyone monitoring what's been going on at New College. For one, Wallenberg has been one of the most openly critical professors on campus regarding Gov. Ron DeSantis' takeover of the small liberal arts college.
In January, DeSantis appointed six members to the New College board of trustees, including Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who proclaimed upon being enlisted, "We are now over the walls and ready to transform higher education from within."
"Under the leadership of Gov. DeSantis, our all-star board will demonstrate that the public universities, which have been corrupted by woke nihilism, can be recaptured, restructured, and reformed," Rufo said.
The new board promptly canned New College's president Patricia Okker. Corcoran, DeSantis' former education commissioner, was recruited and hired to take her place.
Wallenberg says there was a breaking point where he felt he had to ramp up his public opposition to what was happening at the school.
"Once they start bad-mouthing students and speaking down to them, that was sort of a line that I felt like I couldn't be silent," he says. "That's not how you teach. That's not how you engage students."
On April 20, Wallenberg had Black historian and outspoken DeSantis critic Marvin Dunn speak to his class for a lecture about Black history in the state and threats to educational freedom. Wallenberg says the social sciences division head supported Dunn coming to campus.
The history professor also helped set up a lunch for faculty to meet and chat with Dunn, along with another lecture at the North Sarasota Library. New College's student newspaper Catalyst wrote two articles before and after Dunn's "Teach the Truth" lectures on and off campus.
Dunn's presence on campus was bound to ruffle feathers among DeSantis' newly installed college higher-ups. The professor emeritus at Florida International University was one of the plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit in August 2022 to block DeSantis' so-called Stop WOKE Act, which restricts the teaching of systemic racism in public schools. And he has not held back in his opposition to the governor's education agenda. (He recently told New Times, "We will not allow DeSantis to kill our history. We just won't allow it.")
During his nearly two-hour meeting with a dozen faculty members, Dunn says, they developed a plan for him to teach at the college next fall.
"I wrote to the president of the college a lot back in March and asked him to offer a free virtual Black history course, bringing in top scholars from all over the country to appear in this lecture series," Dunn says. "He never responded to that request, and the faculty members and I agreed we're going to do the lecture series whether the president likes it or not."
Dunn tells New Times he was outraged when he heard Corcoran declined to sign Wallenberg's contract renewal.
"It just reinvigorates me to want to live in Sarasota, academically speaking," Dunn says. "I feel I must be a presence on the campus next year."
In March, Wallenberg co-authored an op-ed in Teen Vogue titled, "New College of Florida: the Conservative Christian Takeover by Ron DeSantis, Chris Rufo," alongside fellow visiting professor Debarati Biswas. The piece blamed "the DeSantis administration for trying to force a conservative Christian model of education" and criticized the six new trustees' agenda.
In response to the article, Rufo took to Twitter and posted the professors' resumes from the New College website. He called them "pure left-wing Mad Libs."
"Luckily, both are visiting professors," he wrote.
Despite the turmoil on campus, Wallenberg says he still wanted to return out of appreciation for his students and fellow faculty and to ensure, at the very least, that a U.S. history teacher would be around to teach.
Let's look at their CVs. Oh: "How to Subvert the Capitalist White-Supremacist University," "radical Black feminism," "queer theory," "Staging Environmental Racism," "radical theatre and environmental movements."— Christopher F. Rufo ⚔️ (@realchrisrufo) March 7, 2023
Pure left-wing Mad Libs. Luckily, both are visiting professors. pic.twitter.com/98ZlZdVdLm
"[Students have] been asking me what I'd be teaching in the fall, and I told them I probably wouldn't be coming back given the situation," Wallenberg says. "They were disappointed and trying to figure out what classes they could take in the fall since I'm the only one who teaches U.S. history. I was interested in continuing also because I think that the imposition that this new board of trustees and interim president are forcing on the college needs to be resisted in any way it can."
He argues that hiring decisions should be left to the divisions and departments, not the board of trustees or the president's office, who do not have expertise on the matter.
"It's a dangerous step right now with how politicized New College has become," Wallenberg tells New Times. "The political appointees, the new hires, whether it's the head of admissions, the head of the foundation — they're all politically connected to the Republican Party, Richard Corcoran, Ron DeSantis... The people of Florida should be deeply concerned about this."
Corcoran ran the Florida Department of Education (DOE) in 2022 when DeSantis and the Republican legislature overhauled the Sunshine State's public schools with the Stop WOKE Act, as well as the Parental Rights in Education bill, which clamped down on classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity. Corcoran, a Pasco County native, resigned from the DeSantis-appointed DOE position in May 2022. He previously served as speaker of the Florida House from 2016 to 2018, and was once the chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio during Rubio's Florida House tenure.
In a recent interview in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune about his gig at New College, Cocoran echoed DeSantis' plan to eliminate what they perceive as leftist indoctrination in the Florida college system. He claimed, "It is important that higher education is not dominated by a self-aggrandizing few who want to co-opt the education system to force their personal beliefs [on students]."
For his part, Wallenberg is now exploring all his options about a path forward, speaking with various professional organizations and considering filing a grievance through the union. However, he understands he may have no choice but to leave the college he hoped to protect.
"We're looking at some options here, but with the way they've set up this system, they can get away with quite a lot. That is very disturbing," Wallenberg says.
New College did not respond to New Times' request for comment. Dunn says his nonprofit, the Miami Center for Racial Justice, is hiring Wallenberg.