Fight to secure tenure at New College continues
Set up of various drums lining the steps to College Hall for the Sur la Bay performance led by Hugo Viera-Vargas. Photo by Gaby Batista.

Fight to secure tenure at New College continues

Tenure, as the Office of the Provost at Florida State University defines it, is awarded to professors when “the community of scholars has judged the candidate to have excelled in teaching, research and service [and] that it has confidence in the individual’s judgment.” The governing New College Board of Trustees (BOT) reviews tenure applicants each year, and historically 30 percent of faculty have been awarded tenure after five years of work at the institution. On April 26, 2023, under “extraordinary circumstances,” five faculty members were denied tenure—despite meeting all requirements and having been approved by then-Interim President Brad Thiessen. In 2024, faculty and students waited nervously as the April 11 BOT meeting approached. This year, seven faculty members were on the list to be approved or denied by the Board. Provost David Rancourt had recommended that each faculty member, Professors Rebecca Black, Tania Roy, Athena Rycyck, Lin Jiang, Nassima Neggaz, Gerardo Toro-Farmer and Hugo Viera-Vargas, be approved for tenure. Black, Jiang, Toro-Farmer, Viera-Vargas and Neggaz had been denied the previous year. The outcome: each professor, with the exception of Viera-Vargas, was granted tenure.

This decision followed the April 2 Academic Affairs meeting where President Richard Corcoran had initially suggested the denial. A string of public comments in support of Viera-Vargas preceded discussion among the trustees on whether to move forward with the initial recommendation to approve or follow through with President Richard Corcoran’s recommendation of denial.

The discussion began with thesis student and then Student Trustee Grace Keenanfocusing on the quantitative criteria for Viera-Vargas. “In the Academic Affairs committee, we clarified that the only point in which this tenure case was denied was at the President’s level, but all other levels it was approved,” she said during the April 11 BOT meeting. “We also clarified that the only reason for the denial of tenure was the quantitative data—the average number of students he [Viera-Vargas] had taught in his classes. My comment regarding that was that it does not make sense to me that the only reason we would deny tenure is low class sizes when that is something we specifically market and something we specifically encourage our faculty to do.”

Corcoran then clarified that the focus was solely on the quantitative metrics, rather than the many qualitative metrics Viera-Vargas had offered in the aforementioned Academic Affairs committee meeting, because “if you don’t have the quantitative metrics, I didn’t have to go there.”

Chair of the BOT Debra Jenks confirmed that there were no remaining questions among the Board—then recognized Professor of Gender Studies and French Language and Literature Amy Reid, who had her hand raised. “This is about our fiduciary responsibility. Our responsibility to the faculty as a whole, our responsibility to this specific faculty member, to our students and to the processes that govern our university. Yesterday, I had a lengthy conversation with Vice Provost [Brad] Theissen because I had some concerns about the data that was used. As a matter of fact, we found that there were a couple of mistakes in the data that was used to calculate the numbers that you were given for Dr. Hugo Viera-Vargas’ classes.

“I had gone carefully through Viera-Vargas’ FAAR  [Faculty Annual Activity Report] forms that faculty fill out every year that list the activities we sponsor with students,” Reid continued. “Because the data I had did not line up with the numbers that we saw in the letter from President Corcoran, I sought out expert advice to confirm that the numbers I had found were correct.”

Reid then specified what criteria she had discovered that was unaccounted for. “[Over] four Independent Study Project [ISP] periods, 33 ISPs [sponsored]. That’s above average in the number of January projects that a faculty member would normally sponsor… I also note that in the numbers that were carefully counted, two classes of Viera-Vargas’ were excluded. Module classes that he co-taught with another faculty member in music were not counted in the numbers. So, according to Vice Provost Theissen, if you actually calculate the numbers in the classes that Viera-Vargas taught, and the tutorials and ISPs he has sponsored, in most metrics he is in the third quartile. That’s a much different metric than what we were given.”

Reid dove into further detail about what exactly Viera-Vargas has done to warrant tenure, including assisting students to publish in academic journals, something she said is not as common in the Humanities, plus mentoring students in their academic pursuits and bringing Caribbean cultural practices and performances to campus.

Corcoran swiftly responded, reiterating that without the necessary quantitative metrics having been met, qualitative metrics are “not even in discussion.” He then rebutted the statement about the co-taught courses, saying they were included in his recommendation of denial as footnotes and “did not change my opinion.”

“We are going to be the most preeminent liberal arts school in this country,” Corcoran concluded. “I have no doubts we’re going to get there. This is such a low bar. If you deny the recommendation, we’ll never get there.”

Trustee Ron Christaldi then inquired if the Board moved forward with Corcoran’s recommendation for denial, could Viera-Vargas reapply the next academic year.

“I know the answer, and no, he’s not,” Reid responded.

The roll call vote to approve Corcoran’s recommendation to deny Viera-Vargas’ tenure was passed 10-2. Trustees Ryan Anderson, Mark Bauerlein, Lance Karp, Charles Kesler, Sarah Mackie, Don Patterson, Christopher Rufo, Matthew Spalding, Jenks and Christaldi all voted aye, while Reid and Keenan were the only dissenting votes.

Beyond the debate about whether qualitative metrics should be considered, other factors could be perceived to contribute to Corcoran’s recommendation of denial. Most prominent is the August 2023 lawsuit filed by Viera-Vargas, along with the United Faculty of Florida (UFF) and its New College chapter, challenging the passing of SB 266 and its specifications that prevent arbitration of grievances filed by faculty members through the UFF and its chapters.

“This year I did a drumming ISP with Hugo as well as taking another class with him,” thesis student Liam Carrillo-Rodriguez wrote in a letter dedicated to Viera-Vargas, and later shared with the Catalyst. “I feel like I not only have a lot of knowledge on a lot of cool things, but also on how to be a better person. And the more I got to know him, the more he became not just someone I look up to, but also someone I would like to be like when I grow up. My only regret is not having been able to take more classes and do more projects with him. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for everything and screw all these people for what they’re doing to you.”

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