“Like jumping off a cliff”: Matthew Lepinski on Apr. 26 and beyond
A headshot of Matthew Lepinski, taken from the New College website.

“Like jumping off a cliff”: Matthew Lepinski on Apr. 26 and beyond

Associate Professor of Computer Science Matthew Lepinski first came to New College in 2015, as Computer Science was in the process of transitioning into a full-fledged Area of Concentration (AOC). After working to build this AOC alongside the Applied Data Science Graduate Program and bringing courses on Python programming, cryptography and computer security to students, Lepinski was elected Chair of the Faculty in Spring 2022. The Chair’s role includes an appointment to the New College Board of Trustees (BOT) as Faculty Representative, and he joined the board last summer.   Now, nine months later, Lepinski is stepping away from his role as a campus leader—and from New College entirely. 

The Apr. 26 BOT meeting sent shockwaves through the campus community. Lepinski quit his position on the spot, citing the board’s decision to deny five faculty members’ tenure applications and the resulting destabilization of the curriculum. More and more students and faculty are expressing  a lack of faith that the DeSantis-appointed trustees and the new administration will work in their best interest and keep New College’s unique academic offerings on the table.

On Apr. 30, Lepinski agreed to sit down with the Catalyst in a Heiser Natural Sciences Complex classroom to talk through the decisions he made that day, and where both he and New College might go from here.

Q: Was stepping down from the board and stepping away from New College something you’ve been considering for a while, or was everything that happened on Apr. 26 more spontaneous?

A: Like many people, I had some concerns about the future of the college and how I might fit into it, but I was optimistic that we could make things work. And so, I went into the meeting on Wednesday fully expecting that I would continue working here at New College in the fall. But on the other hand, yeah, I had thought about the fact that if the meeting went really poorly that I’d have to think about whether or not this made sense. 

Because I think it was an important meeting, and again, as all of the students who spoke at the beginning of the public comment period indicated, there were good reasons why this meeting was important to our students and the future of the college. If there was something in the meeting that I could point to, something that was done or said that I could point to and say, when talking to a student, ‘Look, there’s reason to believe that this board can compromise, there’s reason to believe that the student concerns are being heard,’ then I would have tried to continue to find a way forward. 

The stories that the students told at the beginning of the meeting were touching. My fellow faculty members who spoke at the beginning of the meeting made very persuasive cases as well. And there’s just no sign that the board was listening. It got to the end of the meeting and I just kind of felt that there was no way I could continue to be helpful.

Q: Can you tell me what motivated you to announce that you would be stepping down at the board meeting, then and there?

A: It’s so hard to get myself back to that moment. I was disappointed in what the board was doing; I was frustrated that our current students… didn’t seem to be considered by the board. I was thinking, ‘What am I going to tell students after the board meeting that would give them hope that things would get better?’ It felt a little bit like jumping off a cliff, like I got to the point where I just couldn’t see a productive way forward and I knew that it was time for me to go. 

I leaned into the microphone and I started talking, and I made the decision that I was going to get up and leave. But the moments around there in my memory are a little bit foggy. I can remember making the decision and I remember walking out, but I actually didn’t remember the words I had said—I had to go and watch the video to remember exactly what I said. It was like the moments between when I made the decision to step off the cliff and then when I hit the ground. My brain was just kind of going on autopilot and I just said what was in my heart, and I left.

Q: You talked about not feeling confident in the direction that the board was going. What direction would you say that is?

A: Obviously, we’re in a time of change. We all understand that when there were changes in leadership in January that the school was going to change, and I was hopeful that this could be a direction of change that was very thoughtful and concerned with the wellbeing of students who are working through our current academic program, and that the change would be done with [their] wellbeing… foremost in our mind. In addition to thinking about the new students who will come in the future, I was hopeful that the board would also be prioritizing  our current students who are partway through… And I just didn’t feel that was the direction the board was going, and that saddens and disappoints me.

Q: Why do you think that the board voted in the way that they did [regarding tenure]?

A: I really don’t know. I wish I knew why they did it. For example, to tenure an incredibly talented biochemist or historian who is also a woman of color sends a strong message… that we still value the contributions of the incredible members of our current community, and the board chose not to send that message and I’m not sure why.

Q: What’s next for you after this semester?

A: I’m still working with a couple of thesis students who need to bacc and again, helping them to get over the finish line and graduate this term is kind of the top priority. Probably it’s most likely that I’ll go back to industry. I worked in industry for about ten years before I came to New College. I have really, really loved my time here, but maybe it’s time to think about options other than higher education. It would be difficult for any other school to compete with the experience of teaching students here at New College. We have some amazing students here—it was the students who convinced me to leave an incredibly well-paying job in industry and come here to teach, and it’s the students that are bringing me to tears as I’m thinking about heading out the door.

Q: Is there anything else that you might want to say to students and faculty, maybe those that are still staying behind?

A: I’m hopeful that the board will adjust course for the wellbeing of the students and the faculty members who love this school and are going to be here next year. I am hopeful that the board will think about the path forward and will look for more ways that we can look to find some common ground and support both the students who are here as well as the students who are going to be recruited in the future. I always look for reasons to be hopeful, but it’s just so hard to know at this point.

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