Faculty members provide commentary following tenure denial
The podium that community members stood before in order to deliver public comment during the Apr. 26 Board of Trustees meeting. Photo by Sophia Brown

Faculty members provide commentary following tenure denial

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The Catalyst invited members of the New College faculty to provide written statements, opinions and commentary following the Apr. 26 Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting and the denial of five of their colleagues’ tenure applications. Here, they speak on the work they perform at New College, the actions of many of the trustees over these past few months and why they feel that the academic integrity of the institution is both at risk and worth preserving now more than ever.

I teach Neuroscience and Animal Behavior at New College. As some but not all readers will know, it is much harder to maintain an active research program at a small liberal arts school than at a research university. We have a fraction of the resources, don’t typically have graduate students or post-doctoral fellows and have a much higher teaching and advising load. Despite this, many of my colleagues and I maintain productive lines of research. I love teaching, but my first passion is science. Then why am I at a tiny college with no resources? Because, contrary to the fanciful narrative put forth by the Governor’s office and a majority of our current trustees, New College affords more freedom to research and teach what you want and how you want than any other academic institution, small or large, with which I’m familiar—no department chairs, no curriculum committees, remarkably flexible curriculum.

This freedom allows novel and creative research by faculty and students to flourish. The blatantly political refusal of the BOT to tenure our qualified colleagues is a direct attack on that freedom. Open-minded and talented scholars will be far less interested in teaching at this college henceforth.

Peter F. Cook, Associate Professor of Psychology, Biopsychology and Neuroscience

Shortly after Gov. DeSantis announced the overhaul of our New College BOT, President Okker briefed the faculty on her conversations with incoming board members. We knew we were about to embark upon a period of significant change, but some of us found modest reassurance in three principles that were mutually endorsed by all parties: academic excellence, respectful discourse and transparency. It was an initial patch of common ground that we could build upon. Pat’s remaining time as our President was short, but more than three months into our transition I see little indication of any of these principles being honored by the new regime.

We cannot maintain—much less strengthen—our academic quality without actively trying to retain our best faculty. Mutual respect is built upon a foundation of understanding and appreciation, even when we disagree. Caricaturizing and misrepresenting one another to external audiences (sometimes in furtherance of separate agendas) only fuels an escalating cycle of animosity. And finally, what happened to the commitment to transparency and governing in the sunshine? Internal and external transparency have been worse than abysmal. Unless all parties rediscover and seriously commit to the principles originally endorsed, I see a bleak road ahead.

Frank Alcock, Associate Professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies

BOT’s 2023. BOT #1: President Okker. BOT #2: Outreach and Inclusive Excellence. BOT #3: Tenure

Getting to my seat was a lengthy process for BOT meetings this year. As I walked up to Sudakoff, every step I took led to a new conversation or greeting with someone.  Faculty, emeriti/ae, students, alumnae/i, parents, staff, administrators, board members, affiliates, neighbors—decades of connections enveloped me. People who have helped me in myriad ways, who have made me think and question, whom I’ve helped. This includes the people up for tenure, the people with whom we made contracts; these are people we searched for, mentored, respected, honored, learned from, supported, evaluated and wanted—it turns out desperately—to continue to nurture our students and community.

As I listened to my colleagues speak on Apr. 26, I heard rationality, heartache, outrage, love, fear, anxiety, optimism, anger, despair, shock, pride, confusion, guilt and awe. Are these the symptoms of a community before dispersal? Our community connections are pulling taut—to breaking? Perhaps. But I should not leave out hope. And I should not leave out gratitude. Because I heard and felt and feel those too—every day I spend in the embrace of these connections.

Heidi E. Harley, Peg Scripps Buzzelli Endowed Chair in Psychology, Director of Environmental Studies

They Didn’t Do the Reading

One thing I love about teaching at New College is that my students almost always do the reading. They show up to class ready to discuss the reading, pose questions about the reading and debate the reading with an intent to learn. Sadly, what I witnessed at the BOT meeting was far worse than anything I’ve seen in a New College of Florida classroom. Most of our trustees came to the meeting with their minds made up on tenure. Anyone who’s taught before saw all of the hallmarks of: they did not do the reading. How do I know? The trustees had nothing substantial to say about it. To be fair, administrators were quite late to assign the reading as the full packet was only posted on the website hours before the Apr. 26 meeting. The trustees had a chance to learn about the reading from guest speakers who made public comment at the meeting—but unfortunately most of them decided to visibly ignore the speakers during public comment.

Sometimes, a few students do the reading and it’s up to them to carry discussion. Trustees Matt Lepinski and Grace Keenan actually did the reading. When they offered arguments and statistics related to the reading, the other trustees had little to say in response. Trustee Bauerlein only made vague references to publication records without naming any specifics or further insights into the files. And in the end, the majority of trustees voted how they were told to vote by higher-ups. It is ironic that for all of their talk of “indoctrination” and “laziness” in the classroom, the trustees gave us a master class of what that looks like in practice.

Liz Leininger, Associate Professor of Biology

Whether intended or not, the message received on Wednesday by a faculty that has been starved for communication and relegated to reading tea leaves was clear: our work and dedication to the past and future of the college has no apparent value to the current administration.

Chris Kottke, Associate Professor of Mathematics

Two days before the BOT meeting, the last Anthropology Commons event
for this semester took place in the Anthropology Lab. It was fully packed. We heard presentations from students and from faculty whose research was supported by some of the most prestigious funding agencies in this nation.

“Be mindful of the fire ants!” someone shouted when we stepped out of the Lab afterward for a group photo. A student who was just accepted into the CIFAS Field School in Ethnographic Research Methods in NYC was walking barefoot on the grass, not fearing the ant colony close by.

The barefoot spirit is one of the defining characteristics of New College. This public liberal arts college has certainly been under-resourced, without glass and steel structures or fancy mealplans, but I would not exchange these selling points for the artsy, unconventional, creative and intellectually motivating students with whom I feel privileged to work. They are among the most precious assets of New College.

Walking barefoot is certainly an adventure, but it also sets one free from bondage. In contrast, following the beaten path will lead us nowhere because our very identity will be erased.  Will “moving towards a more traditional liberal arts institution” serve the interests of New College? I doubt it.

There are nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, but New College is a unique species in this vast ecosystem. Let one hundred flowers bloom.

Yidong Gong, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, International and Area Studies, and Health, Culture and Societies (HCS)

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