It had been three days since the Board of Trustees (BOT) voted to dismantle the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence (OOIE) on Feb. 28. As part of that decision, all former staff members of the OOIE would be transitioned into other departments. For former Dean of Diversity Yoleidy Rosario-Hernandez, that meant assuming the role of Associate Dean of Housing and Residential Life in Student Affairs.
Ze reached out to administrators from the President’s Office the day the OOIE was abolished on Mar. 1, hoping to engage in an open dialogue about the work previously performed by the OOIE, dispel misconceptions about the office and establish a working relationship toward a common vision of a healthy campus. Many of the team members Rosario-Hernandez worked with in the OOIE were uncertain about their future work. As a leader, Rosario-Hernandez said that ze wanted to understand what Interim President Richard Corcoran’s plans were and how former OOIE staffers could participate in that vision.
The following day on Thursday, Mar. 2, an email invitation to a Google Meeting with Corcoran and then-Chief of Staff Bradley Thiessen appeared in Rosario-Hernandez’s inbox. It seemed that Rosario-Hernandez would get the opportunity to meet eye to eye and clarify zir new role starting that Monday.
“But that Monday never came,” Rosario-Hernandez told the Catalyst in an online interview.
“In fact, on that Friday, Mar. 3, I got a phone call at 3:15 asking if I could come in [for a meeting with Corcoran] at 3:30,” Rosario-Hernandez continued. “That meeting was very, very short. And in that meeting I was presented with, you know, ‘We no longer need your services.’ And I was fired that day.”
In the nearly three weeks that followed Rosario Hernandez’s termination, not a single announcement has been made to the New College community by the current administration regarding the personnel choice or the reasons behind it. Some of the students, faculty and staff who worked closely with Rosario-Hernandez first learned ze had been fired only after it was reported on in the Washington Post and Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Mar. 10 and Mar. 13 respectively.
“The actions versus what was being said in front of the media were two different things,” Rosario-Hernandez said. “You know, even my firing was done in the dark and still hasn’t even been announced to the community. And it wasn’t announced, really, until the Washington Post article came out and other news outlets reached out and wanted to know my story. I was at a community event [on Mar. 16] and they said, ‘Wait, you got fired? I thought they were just going to transition the staff.’ And I said, ‘They did. They transitioned everyone but me.’”
Until zir sudden termination, the plan for Rosario-Hernandez following the dismantling of the OOIE was to be transferred to another department—just like the other three staffers that worked there.
Trustee Christopher Rufo’s initial Jan. 31 proposal titled “Abolish DEI Bureaucracies” originally called for an approach that would have disbanded the office immediately, without conducting any research regarding the work performed by the office.
After it was suggested by various board members during that Jan. 31 meeting that some of the work performed at the OOIE may not be related to Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and may be legally mandated for the functioning of the institution, the BOT asked staffers to assemble a report on the extent that DEI work existed at the college and what functions the OOIE was responsible for.
Thiessen presented that report, titled “Implementation of DEI Changes,” to trustees at the BOT meeting on Feb. 28. This report made recommendations for the OOIE staff to be transferred to other departments and retain only their essential functions.
For instance, the Assistant Director of Access Leadership at the OOIE would be made the Assistant Director of Access Leadership in Financial Aid, the Director of Community Outreach at the OOIE would be made the Director of Outreach in Student Activities & Campus Engagement (SAUCE) and the Program Coordinator at the OOIE would become the Assessment Coordinator in Institutional Research. Rosario-Hernandez would shift from Chief Diversity Officer and Dean of DEI at the OOIE to Associate Dean of Housing & Residential Life in Student Affairs.
The office of Student Affairs and Housing & Residential Life are notoriously understaffed at New College. These shortages have been widely reported, with the duties of the office frequently being offloaded to other departments and staffers who try to fill in the gaps. As per the report brought before the board, Rosario-Hernandez’s new role in Student Affairs would “lead food service contract negotiation process; provide conflict mediation; supervise housing and Res Life staff; [and] update student code of conduct to comply with Board of Governors (BOG) regulations after the transfer.”
Despite the new role effectively presenting a demotion, Rosario-Hernandez was willing to take the position of Associate Dean of Housing & Residential Life.
The only explanation provided by Corcoran for the decision to fire Rosario-Hernandez from zir new role as Associate Dean of Housing & Residential Life was an email to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that said, “The OOIE has been abolished and the position is no longer necessary.”
Yet, this explanation doesn’t account for the fact that Rosario-Hernandez was slated to join another office at the school unrelated to DEI work, an office that is also in great need of additional staffers. It also doesn’t account for why the three other staffers from the OOIE were allowed to transfer to other departments, but Rosario-Hernandez was fired instead.
It is within the contractual rights of Corcoran to fire Rosario-Hernandez. School administrators are not part of the faculty or staff union and can be fired without cause because they are part of management. It also falls within the authority granted to the Interim President at the board meeting on Feb. 28. The motion before the BOT originally contained the language, “Direct the Interim President to eliminate OOIE and transition staff to new positions.” Rufo proposed an amendment to the motion that changed the language to instead include, “Allow the president to make all necessary personnel decisions.”
Yet, it is not clear how this personnel decision could be considered necessary or what Corcoran’s motivations were in firing Rosario-Hernandez. Corcoran and Thiessen did not respond to requests from the Catalyst to clarify why the decision was made to terminate Rosario-Hernandez instead of placing zir in Student Affairs as the recommendations presented by Thiessen initially called for.
Rosario-Hernandez indicated that ze felt the decision may have been discriminatory and based on zir openly identifying as transgender.
“The only difference between me and my staff in terms of work is how we identify,” Rosario-Hernandez said. “And one of the biggest differences was my gender identity. I’m the only one on our staff who identifies as a trans-fluid individual. I really do think that given the rhetoric that was being shared in terms of ending pronouns and disrespecting people who have different gender identities, I can’t think but know in my heart that that’s one of the biggest reasons. I was seen as… I had to be made an example of.”
Rosario-Hernandez further indicated that ze would be consulting with legal counsel to investigate zir rights and would keep the possibility of a lawsuit on the table. However, ze added that more than anything, ze wants to “right the wrongs that are happening at New College, regardless of whether I have a case or not.”
Rosario-Hernandez confided the heavy emotional toll that the months-long job insecurity, charged rhetoric and eventual termination caused for zir and zir family. Yet, ze plans to move forward with a new project to benefit the surrounding area rooted in transformative justice and community building, called “Mosaic Movements.”
Mosaic Movements is a local non-profit organization kickstarted by Rosario-Hernandez, dedicated to “allowing our community to continue DEI education through the arts, civil discourse and cultural exchange.” It will help to generate programs focused on performance, film and multimedia work, connecting communities through the creation of art and other initiatives. The project has found its first major backer by partnering with Peace Education and Action Center.
“I thought this would be the perfect time to launch Mosaic Movements,” Rosario-Hernandez said. “We’ve partnered up with the Peace, Education and Action Center in Sarasota, an organization that’s super active in creating community justice and creating spaces for the community to have civil discourse and for people to learn across differences.
“It’s going to be a multimedia framework where artists are going to be engaged in community dialog and help the community build itself through civil discourse, through dialogue and through cultural exchange,” ze continued. “And so I’m really excited about that. We’ve asked folks if they could help us out and donate. Whether it is funding or, you know, following us on Facebook, on YouTube [and] on Instagram.”
When asked what kind of work the project tries to create, Rosario-Hernandez responded with the following example:
“One of the projects that I have been working on is a [series of] documentary [shorts] called Warriors [of Sarasota]. We documented the stories of BIPOC women in the area who have been really doing so much amazing work in our community—supporting youth, supporting elders, documenting history. We had the opportunity to sit with so many different people to share their stories, whether they were LatinX or identify as Black women. Folks from the diaspora to share their stories of how they’ve positively impacted our community. We are so proud because we actually got [our main feature from] the documentary [series] accepted into the Sarasota Film Festival. And we’re going to keep moving forward.”
When asked how the community has been reacting to zir project, Rosario-Hernandez responded in this way:
“We have had such an overwhelming amount of support and love from the community. It makes me so proud to be part of the Sarasota community—not just the community, but seeing how many people have poured their love across the U.S. It’s great to see not only the love but also people in action and support building a collaboration of artists who are also engaged and helping me. It has been a blessing to say the least.”
Those interested in learning more about the project or donating to support Rosario-Hernandez can find it here.