The meeting of New College of Florida’s Board of Trustees on Wednesday afternoon began with a full hour of fierce criticism from members of the community, as dozens of professors, students, and parents lambasted what they view as a hostile takeover of the institution by a Republican governor with likely presidential ambitions. It ended with the chairman of the faculty resigning from the college.

The issue eliciting the strongest protest was whether five professors who had already cleared the usual hurdles to achieve tenure would be approved by the board — what is normally a perfunctory step. But the college’s interim president, Richard Corcoran, had let it be known that he didn’t want those tenure cases to be approved, citing general upheaval at the college and its new direction. The board acceded to Corcoran’s wishes, voting down the professors one by one, each by a count of six votes to four, before adjourning to chants of “shame on you” from those assembled.

The smallest college in the state’s university system has drawn outsize attention ever since Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, installed six trustees committed to reshaping its curriculum and upending its image. At a recent Republican Party breakfast in Michigan, DeSantis bragged that his chosen trustees had fired the president and “eliminated DEI and CRT.” It’s true that the previous president, Patricia Okker, was shown the door, as was Yoleidy Rosario-Hernandez, the college’s top diversity officer (though what exactly it would mean to eliminate critical race theory from a college is not clear). DeSantis also said he didn’t think anyone had heard of the institution before, referring to it as “New College of Sarasota.”

Corcoran, a DeSantis ally and former Republican speaker of the the Florida House of Representatives, took over as interim president in February. Since then he has spoken excitedly about New College’s future, saying that he wants it to be the No. 1 liberal-arts college in the country, to more than triple its size — currently a little under 700 students — and to add an intercollegiate-sports program. A strategic statement submitted by the administration to the board was brimming with enthusiasm but short on details. The statement said the college should “add world-class faculty,” and its plan for enrollment growth offered the following call to action: “Students. Students. Students.”

The string of firings and pronouncements has been greeted with pushback from students and faculty members. At the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting, those wishing to make a comment were each given a minute to speak. One student told board members that “the student body does not support these things and does not support you.” An alumnus who graduated from New College a half-century ago said the board was “not just hurting my college, you’re hurting our state.” Two speakers invoked the Nazis. One student screamed an expletive at Corcoran and was asked to leave the room. A mother of a New College student said she had “faith that karma will come for all of you.”

The trustees absorbed statement after statement from those worried and angry about the proposed reforms at the college. Perhaps the best-known trustee appointed by DeSantis, Christopher Rufo — who has called for conservatives to “lay siege to institutions” in order to rid them of left-wing activists — attended remotely and was visible on a projection screen behind the other board members. He hovered over the proceedings silently, except for voting “aye” in lockstep with his fellow DeSantis appointees.

The most consequential votes centered on the five professors who were up for tenure: Rebecca Black and Lin Jiang, both professors of chemistry; Nassima Neggaz, a professor of history and religion; Gerardo ToroFarmer, a professor of coastal and marine science; and Hugo Viera-Vargas, a professor of Latin American studies and music. They were each up for tenure in their fifth year, technically one year earlier than usual, though they had all checked the necessary boxes, according to their fellow faculty members and the prior president.

We’re really nervous and uncertain. There’s a feeling of distrust. They say things, but what are they going to do?

Although they were denied this year, it appears that they might be granted tenure next year, assuming that they’re willing to stick around after being publicly turned down by the board. The president of the college’s faculty union, Steven Shipman, called the situation “uncharted territory” and pointed out that, in the last decade, about a third of faculty members had been granted tenure in their fifth year. But the decision on tenure for those five professors could have a ripple effect on faculty members deciding whether they still feel comfortable at New College. “We’re really nervous and uncertain,” Shipman said in an interview. “There’s a feeling of distrust. They say things, but what are they going to do?”

For his part, Corcoran played down the significance of the tenure denials, noting that they could come up for approval again and saying that it made sense to wait and see how reform at the college worked out in the coming months. “Change is scary, but there’s nothing that anyone can constructively point to from that podium that has done anything but protect New College and strengthen it,” he said, an assertion that was met with laughter from some in attendance.

After the five professors were denied tenure, the crowd erupted into chants of “shame on you.” Just before the meeting was adjourned, Matthew Lepinski, a board member, faculty chairman, and associate professor of computer science, unexpectedly announced his resignation from all of those positions. Lepinski has been at New College since 2015. “I’m very concerned about the direction that this board is going and the destabilization of the academic program,” he said. “So I wish you the best of luck, but this is my last board meeting. I’m leaving the college.” He then stood up and walked out of the room.


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