Faculty members at New College of Florida have taken the unusual step of censuring the school’s board of trustees for “disregarding their fiduciary duties,” according to a letter sent to college leaders Monday.
About 80% of the faculty voted in favor of a motion listing 13 complaints against the board, which was revamped on Jan. 6 when Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed six new trustees to change the direction of the small, liberal arts college.
Since then, “we’ve just experienced one thing after another that illustrates that the board members are not fulfilling their fiduciary duties,” said Liz Leininger, a faculty member who raised the motion on behalf of a colleague.
The Sarasota school said in a statement that many of the complaints were false. It said “resistance to change” is a common reaction to transitions. And it predicted the concerns would subside “once the faculty see how all of the changes we are making at New College are moving us in a direction of improvement and future stability for our campus.”
Leininger said faculty leaders chose a censure instead of a vote of no confidence because they are hoping the board will correct specific behaviors.
The motion states in part that trustee Matthew Spalding, a dean at Hillsdale College in Michigan, communicated with former Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran outside of public meetings to pave the way for Corcoran becoming New College’s interim president in February.
It states that trustee Christopher Rufo, an activist who has designed several conservative education policies, “refuses to cooperate with public records ... requests related to his work” at the school.
It also says Rufo, trustee Mark Bauerlein and Eddie Speir have not to their knowledge “disclosed financial conflicts of interests related to school partnerships, other governing boards, or income from subscriptions to their writings or test products.” Speir was initially appointed to the board by DeSantis, but recently failed to win approval from the Florida Senate.
The censure motion further states that, when a board majority voted to deny five faculty members tenure, they did so without explanation “or evidence of having read the tenure files or understanding tenure processes at the college, as is their duty.”
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It also says Rufo and Speir “regularly make disparaging and unprofessional” comments about New College faculty, students and staff on social media, and their writings diminish the college’s standing.
Leininger said some faculty spoke against the motion during debate, saying they feared the trustees would retaliate. New College faculty union president Steve Shipman said in a statement that the group was prepared to defend its members if that happened.
Such an action would be an unfair labor practice, Shipman said.
“Regardless of what happens,” he said, “the union will defend our members’ rights as we work to preserve the best features of New College — academic freedom, student-directed learning, and the collaborative pursuit of knowledge by both students and faculty.”
On Twitter last week, Leininger and Alan Levine, a member of the Florida Board of Governors, debated what happens if a trustee does not act in the best interests of a university.
Levine said the board could not remove a trustee unless it was part of an ethics investigation. But Leininger said New College’s bylaws state that the governor can remove a trustee if the Board of Governors recommends it.
In an interview, Levine said he encouraged faculty to report any behaviors they felt were violations to the ethics commission, but that nothing he had seen so far rose to that level.
“I understand the change is difficult,” Levine said. “The faculty are entitled to their opinion. And I would never be somebody that would criticize them. If this was how they feel, then they have a right to express that. But, as the Board of Governors, we have an opinion, too, and the Legislature has an opinion. And our opinions are not irrelevant.”
The opinion of state officials, he said, is that change was urgently needed at New College, which has seen lagging enrollment.
“It may be a rough process,” Levine said. “But we believe, at least from where I sit, I’ve never taken an action on this board as a member of the Board of Governors to harm an institution. ... It’s to enhance the student experience and to enhance their potential when they graduate.”
Leininger said the censure is a reflection of the uncertainty that faculty members have felt over the past few months.
She said they are grateful for the state’s $15 million allotment to recruit new faculty and students, and for the almost $50 million in total funds that will go to the school.
“But unfortunately that’s coming at the expense of our own careers and our own livelihoods,” Leininger said. “So we’re worried about which of us faculty or staff members will be let go without explanation. We’re worried about our students feeling safe on campus.”
Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.