“Shame on you,” shouted those attending the Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting on Apr. 26, as each faculty member seeking tenure “failed” their run, in the words of Chair Debra Jenks (‘80). Following a grievance filed by the New College Chapter of United Faculty of Florida (NCUFF) after Interim President Richard Corcoran added a memo recommending denial to each of the tenure candidates’ files, six of the ten trustees present voted to deny the five professors tenure. Those voting to deny gave no specific academic reasons for their decisions. Corcoran has since acknowledged that the board meeting was difficult for everyone, “not least for himself.”
A hearing was held on Apr. 24, where six other faculty members of NCUFF presented their argument for why they were pursuing grievance, and evidence to support the argument to both the New College Human Resources Department (HR) and Interim Provost & Vice President for Academic Affairs Bradley Thiessen. Faculty Union President Steven Shipman said that HR thanked them afterwards and stated they had 30 days to give a decision to the union.
“We’re supposed to receive a written response within 30 days,” Shipman explained after the hearing. “If they don’t, we can escalate it. Normally, contract issues are a step by step process. You go to your supervisor, and then the President. We’re already at the President. Step two would normally be different people, but it’s the same people in this case. After that is arbitration.”
Arbitration would require the union to go to a neutral third party to try to resolve the issue, providing the information that was presented to HR at New College: “It’s like a full legal trial without a jury,” Shipman explained.
If the college disagrees with the case presented, the union has a certain time limit to escalate to step two, which requires another meeting and another subsequent waiting period of 30 days.
“The candidates were made aware of the memos [at] 5 p.m. on Apr. 21,” Shipman continued. “We filed the grievance 8 a.m. the following Monday, and now they are saying to wait a month,” Shipman continued. “So these things don’t happen quickly. They can draw this out if they want to. And the issue is that in 20-odd years, this hasn’t happened. So we’re dealing with unclear instructions. And that means the faculty involved have a lot of uncertainty about their jobs.”
Parents, students and fellow colleagues of those running for tenure had advocated for the BOT to vote yes.
“On what grounds is a vote other than yes justified?” Associate Professor of Sociology and Caribbean and Latin American Studies Sarah Hernandez asked the board during public comment at the Apr. 26 meeting.
“This is the first time this issue has come before the board,” General Counsel Bill Galvano said at the meeting, referring to Corcoran’s own recommendation to deny tenure to these candidates.
“From a procedural standpoint, there’s not a gap,” Galvano later continued. “The New College faculty handbook and the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) control this, and the participants that did those agreements are required to act under those agreements. The requirement is simply this: if the President wants to have an opinion contrary to that of the Provost, the President is required to notify the Provost in writing and delineate the extraordinary circumstances that he determines are the basis for his contrary opinion.”
When pressed further on the topic at the BOT meeting, Corcoran responded, “You’ve got a brand new president, a brand new provost. You have literally a change in direction. Let’s just defer it one year.”
A press conference was organized by NCUFF and held after the BOT meeting in front of the Hamilton classrooms (HCLs). Shipman made the first statement on behalf of the union.
“NCUFF condemns this unprecedented action as a further indication that this board is hostile to the current faculty and is intent on the destruction of the academic program they are charged with supporting,” Shipman said.
Shipman further explained that for academics, tenure offers the possibility of job security as a trade-off for low salaries and a difficult career path and is necessary to attract qualified people to do research and teach students. The tenure candidates were each hired with a promise of being granted a fair evaluation and due process according to a clear procedure detailed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
“Today’s decision, to our knowledge, is the first time that the New College trustees have gone against the recommended outcome of our extensive review process and is an unprecedented disruption of that procedure and an abdication of the responsibility of the board to support the college,” Shipman said.
Despite standing in their fifth year, one year early, the candidates met or exceeded the expectations of the review process at every stage as judged by those charged to evaluate their work at New College and by external experts in each candidate’s field. The union finds the board’s denial of their tenure at this stage to be a nakedly political action, and one that severely undermines the integrity of New College’s academics while presenting a dark future for the college’s ability to attract and retain quality faculty.
“This is one step towards the downfall of higher education in Florida,” Shipman declared. “While this is one hostile action in a small college in Florida, we emphasize that similar activities are occurring at colleges and universities across the United States. Anyone interested in maintaining a higher education system free of political coercion needs to pay attention to what is happening at New College and take steps to protect their own institutions.”
Associate Professor of Computer Science Matthew Lepinski agreed. “I think it really damages the existing academic program when we as a school aren’t giving permanent positions to faculty members who are making great contributions,” he told the group. He explained that it harms the school’s ability to recruit other great faculty members when they’re told they’ve done good work at other schools and they can come to New College and can come up for a fair run at tenure based on the contributions that they’ve made to the school, but that doesn’t happen.
Lepinski joined the BOT toward the end of summer in 2022 as Chair of the Faculty, and resigned from the board at the end of the contentious Apr. 26 meeting. He has had tenure at New College for eight years.
“I thought there could be a path forward with this board where we could focus on the things that unite us instead of the things that divide us,” Lepiniski said. “I was very disappointed today that the board is not prioritizing the stability of our academic programs and the experience of our current students.”
Lepinksi said that he hadn’t expected the tenure outcome, assuming instead that given the quality of the tenure cases before the board, at least some of them would be approved. “I thought we’d at least have some more in depth discussion about the individual cases and that some of the cases would shine through even for this board,” he explained.
“We’ve actually been one of the strongest schools in the state as far as evaluating our tenured faculty members and making sure they contribute to the college at a high level even after they get tenure,” Lepinski continued. “I don’t see that there was a whole lot of risk involved in tenuring these great candidates because if they aren’t contributing at the same level as the school continues to evolve we would find out on the post-tenure review, which is what we’ve always done even as New College has changed and evolved.”