SARASOTA, Fla. — The New College of Florida trustees now dominated by conservatives appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis voted Wednesday to deny tenure to five professors, overriding concerns by faculty and students that the decision poses a threat to academic freedom.
The traditionally progressive public college in Sarasota, Florida, currently has only 659 students enrolled this year but has become the focal point of a campaign by DeSantis to rid higher education in the state of what the Republican governor calls left-leaning “woke” indoctrination on campuses.
The school's interim president, DeSantis ally and former state House Speaker Richard Corcoran, said in a memo to the trustees that he wanted the professors' tenure denied or delayed in part because of the administrative changes and because of “a renewed focus on ensuring the college is moving towards a more traditional liberal arts institution.”
“You've got a brand new president, a brand new provost. You have literally a change in direction,” Corcoran said Wednesday, noting the professors were applying for tenure a year early and could return again next year. “Let's just defer it one year.”
The trustees denied tenure for all five professors on identical 6-4 votes, with the new conservative board members in the majority. Shouts of “shame on you!” came from the audience afterward. One trustee holdover, New College professor Matthew Lepinski, quit the board after the vote and walked out of the room.
“I’ve very concerned about the direction this board is going. This is my last board meeting. I’m leaving the college," Lepinski said without further explanation.
Tenured professors can typically be fired only under extreme circumstances, such as professional misconduct or a financial emergency. Advocates for tenure say it is a crucial component of academic freedom but conservatives have begun targeting tenure around the country, often taking aim at professors with supposedly liberal views.
The five professors denied tenure are Rebecca Black and Lin Jiang, who both teach organic chemistry; Nassima Neggaz, history and religion with a focus on Islam; coastal and marine science professor Gerardo Toro-Farmer; and Hugo Viera-Vargas, whose specialty is Caribbean/Latin American studies and music.
All five began their applications for tenure in May 2022 and won approval of both New College faculty and the school's previous administration, which includes its current provost. Students, faculty and parents spoke at the trustees meeting in favor of granting tenure to the five professors, at one point breaking into a loud chant of “give them tenure.”
“Your disruptive agenda is clearly not in the best interests of the students,” said Joyce White, whose daughter attends New College. “Tenure and academic freedom go hand in hand.”
Several dozen protesters outside the meeting gave speeches and carried signs with slogans such as “Hands Off NCF" and “Defy. The Political Pawns Strike Back.” Banners were also unfurled from a nearby highway overpass that read ”Protect Professors" and “Resist Fascism.”
The new trustees previously terminated the school's president in favor of Corcoran and scrapped the college's small office of diversity, equity and inclusion. The administration is also starting sports programs, including baseball.
The conservative takeover has gained national attention, prompting a visit in April by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of California in which he sharply criticized DeSantis and the changes under way at New College.
“I can’t believe what you’re dealing with. It’s just an unbelievable assault,” Newsom said during a meeting with students and faculty.