One by one, speakers at a Wednesday meeting of the New College of Florida trustees approached a podium with a plea.

The way they delivered the message differed. Some screamed or used expletives to decry the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, who this year installed several far-right wing voices to the New College board.

Others were polite, gushing over the quality education they’ve received at the public liberal arts institution. But their request was the same: Grant five faculty members tenure.

In prior years at the college, a tenure vote would not have been controversial. The professors had already been endorsed by their colleagues and other institutional leaders.

That was before a DeSantis associate — former Florida House speaker and education commissioner Richard Corcoran — took over as interim president in February. Corcoran, citing “current uncertainty of the needs” of the college, recently urged the board to reject the five professors up for tenure consideration.

That’s exactly what trustees did, turning down the professors’ applications, despite the outcry from students, faculty and alumni. The board has final approval on tenure bids.

The trustees’ action spurred broad criticism – echoing national-scale complaints that in recent months have swamped the college on the Sarasota coast — that academic freedom there is deteriorating. 

Wednesday’s tenure denials already had a tangible effect. In a dramatic end to the hours-long affair, one of the trustees, computer science professor Matthew Lepinski, announced in a huff it would be his last meeting and that he would leave the college entirely. Lepinski is not a DeSantis appointee.

New College supporters fear similar departures and other ramifications as a result of the college’s new direction, and DeSantis’ higher ed policies at large. 

The politicized topic of tenure

New College’s tenure saga is reminiscent of another higher education scandal in 2021. It involved the board of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the state’s flagship institution, which declined to take a tenure vote for Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Hannah-Jones too had been backed by her faculty peers, and the board’s snub represented an extreme break in precedent. News media reported at the time that conservative critics, including megadonor Walter Hussman, had objected to Hannah-Jones’ work leading The 1619 Project, an account in part of how slavery defined American culture.

Though the Chapel Hill board ultimately offered Hannah-Jones tenure, she opted to take a tenured position at Howard University, a historically Black institution in Washington, D.C.

Since then, tenure has emerged as a political target for Republican lawmakers. States like Florida, Texas and North Carolina have proposed tenure bans at public institutions, claiming the traditionally lifetime appointment licenses professors to perform poorly without consequences.

Tenure supporters like the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, argue faculty need its protections to pursue potentially unpopular scholarship, free from political or corporate influence. 

States that have weakened tenure have seen repercussions. After Wisconsin gutted tenure protections through state legislation, its flagship institution, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was forced to spend millions — at least $16 million in the 2015-16 academic year — to retain top faculty who fielded job offers. 

What’s going on at New College?

DeSantis’ moves to reshape New College brought out a coalition of students, faculty and alumni who characterized them as a “conservative takeover” of the institution. 

The new board has also fired the previous president and eliminated diversity programs, a hallmark for a campus once considered to be highly LGBTQ friendly. DeSantis has sought to make New College the “Hillsdale of the South,” referring to a prominent conservative institution in Michigan that eschews federal funding.

Meanwhile, New College students, parents and others have campaigned to “Save New College,” and made Wednesday’s tenure vote part of their fight. 

For about an hour, speakers approached the board, each given one minute to weigh in on the tenure requests and the board’s methods overall. The meeting was mostly tame, though on a couple of occasions trustees threatened to remove audience members who interrupted proceedings. 

One of the new trustees, Mark Bauerlein, said the tenure bids raised concerns because the five professors — Rebecca Black, Lin Jiang, Nassima Neggaz, Gerardo Toro-Farmer and Hugo Viera-Vargas — were asking for approval one year ahead of the typical six-year schedule when they would come up for it.

Other trustees, however, pointed out the professors met the tenure requirements, so timing should matter little. 

Ultimately, trustees rejected the tenure requests in five separate votes — all 6-4 — one vote for each faculty member under consideration. Lepinski was among the trustees who voted in favor of granting tenure.

None of the professors responded to a request for comment Wednesday. 

After the votes, the audience broke into screams of “shame on you,” and the meeting adjourned. 

Outside groups weigh in

AAUP’s national branch did not immediately release a statement after Wednesday’s votes.

However, the faculty organization’s president, Irene Mulvey, in a statement Tuesday castigated trustees’ interference in academic matters.

Their efforts are “an egregious violation of widely-accepted standards of collegiate shared governance,” Mulvey said. “American higher education is organized around the principle that decisions about teaching and research must be made by academics with scholarly expertise in the appropriate field.”

Free speech advocates also blasted the New College board. Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, said in a statement “out-of-state political operatives” have hijacked the board. On Twitter, he called its actions “despicable.”

Young, in a statement last week, had criticized Corcoran in particular, saying the interim president’s push for the board to turn down the tenure bids undermined academic freedom. 

“With each new censorious action, the Board of Trustees demonstrates that its vision of New College as a ‘Hillsdale of the South’ does not include intellectual freedom or quality academic instruction,” Young said Wednesday.

The faculty members were pursuing tenure a year early, and so they have the opportunity to request it again. However, trustees who voted in favor of their tenure appeal raised concerns that the college might change the requirements for landing it.

A New College spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.