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New College trustees board deserves praise for refusing to be a rubber stamp for faculty

Herald Tribune – Critics of change at New College of Florida have recently pointed to the decision not to grant early tenure to five professors as evidence that something is amiss. They have also perpetuated the misperception that in the Board of Trustees’ actions to approve Richard Corcoran as interim president there was a violation of at least the spirit of Florida’s Sunshine Law.

As to the tenure issue, I served two terms as a trustee of New College and twice as a board member of its affiliated New College Foundation. It is, in fact, the legal responsibility of the trustees to decide issues of tenure.

Those who find something nefarious in the trustees’ decision point to another fact: that it is extremely rare for tenure applications to be denied. That is true. But why has this been the history of tenure decisions?

The answer is that trustee boards have historically been rubber-stamping organizations on tenure decisions: They have rarely (if ever) exercised independent judgment on the issue – and they have rarely (if ever) considered each application on its true merits. That is what the New College faculty and college faculties all around America have come to expect in the name of “faculty self-governance,” which they claim is essential to “academic freedom.”

They are wrong.Those who supported tenure being granted to the New College professors under consideration have justified that belief by pointing to the approval of the former provost and an interim provost. But the fact is they did not want to give the new Board of Trustees a real opportunity and ample time to review the applicants’ files. And they also wanted to push through these tenure approvals against the recommendation of the college’s interim president, who was likewise expected to merely be some sort of token figurehead on the issue.

But taking such an approach would have been highly irresponsible of the trustees; it would have been a violation of their fiduciary and statutory duties given that tenure a very serious decision. In reality, tenure is a grant of long-term job protection that doesn’t exist in society outside of life appointments to the federal judiciary.

Faculties don’t rule the roost

It all boils down to a singular question about the governance of public colleges: Do they belong to their faculties –whereby the professors are justified in expecting a Board of Trustees to serve as a rubber stamp – or do they belong to the citizens of the state?

In Florida, the trustees – who are responsible for an institution created by its citizens through their elected representatives – have an obligation to the people to think about their decisions. Should tenure be given at all? That’s an open question. But what should not be questioned is this: Tenure is a privilege that should not be casually granted to all professors; in fact, it is one that should only be given to professors who the trustees believe can play vital roles in helping the college thrive and grow.

Faculties have grown accustomed to thinking they rule the roost inside colleges – but they don’t, and the decision by the New College Board of Trustees to deny tenure sent that clear message. The decision also served as a clarion call to boards around the country to show the necessary courage to responsibly serve the citizens of their states –and to no longer serve as rubber-stamping tools for their faculties.

No lack of transparency

As to the insinuation that the trustees either violated the Sunshine Law or used loopholes to get around it, even the best intentioned of these critics simply misapprehend how the process works.

Liberals have long dominated most public university and college boards in Florida, so they see nothing invidious when they naturally agree with each other. But when conservatives naturally agree with each other while making policies, liberals will suddenly and predictably proclaim that such decisions must have been reached solely through “collusion” – and must have been driven solely by “the lack of a moral compass.”

The appointment of Richard Corcoran as New College’s interim president was a natural outcome of a process that required no “collusion” among the trustees. Corcoran was a well-known conservative while serving as the speaker of Florida’s House of Representatives.  He was well known among conservatives as a proponent of educational reform.  And Corcoran was well known for his past role as Florida’s education commissioner, a position he was appointed to hold by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Indeed, once I heard that Gov. DeSantis wanted Corcoran to lead New College, I knew that my fellow conservatives – including those on the school’s Board of Trustees – would support the idea. And I state this as someone who worked very hard to help former New College President Patricia Okker try to develop a vision for the school that was consistent with the goals set out by the governor and the Florida Legislature.

Just because others fail to share your views does not mean they also fail to possess good faith and goodwill. It would serve Florida, Sarasota and New College itself well if more people would begin to recognize this fact – and begin to embrace it.

Robert Allen Jr. is a corporate international lawyer who lives in South Florida. He is a former New College of Florida board trustee and graduated from New College in 1978.


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