Former and current New College faculty share concerns about present, future of institution

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New College
New College of Florida in Sarasota. By Seán Kinane/WMNF

New College of Florida has continued to make local and national headlines. Most recently, five faculty members were denied early tenure, a trustee resigned and another faculty member was fired.

Former New College faculty have concerns about the present and future of the institution.

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Former Trustee Matt Lepinski said he didn’t plan on resigning from New College during the Board of Trustees meeting on April 26. 

But when the board decided to deny early tenure to five faculty members without discussing the merits of the cases or the impact the decision could have on students, Lepinski said he couldn’t see a way forward. 

“I could no longer see a way for me to personally be effective in championing the needs of our current students when it’s clear that other things were being prioritized,” Lepinski said.  

Lepinski, who was also an associate professor of computer science and faculty chair at New College, said he was hopeful before the meeting that the board would give some sign they were open to compromise. 

Still, Lepinski said he’d already spent time considering his future at New College. 

The board’s decision at their April meeting indicated to Lepinski that current students wouldn’t be able to have “the type of strong educational experience” they were promised upon admission. 

He quit on the spot. 

“I’m very concerned about the direction that this board is going, and the destabilization of the academic program,” Lepinski said, “and so I wish you the best of luck, but this is my last board meeting. I’m leaving the college.”  

Lepinski said the college’s decision to deny early tenure to five faculty members and fire librarian Helene Gold have raised questions about job security across campus. 

“Anyone who doesn’t have an iron-clad contract or the protections of tenure is wondering who’s going to be fired next Monday,” Lepinski said.  

Lepinski and Gold said the recent removal of gender-neutral bathroom signs at the library also indicates current students aren’t being prioritized. 

Gold, who was also the associate dean of academic engagement at New College, said all of the library’s gender-neutral bathroom signs were removed the week before she was fired. All of the signs had been replaced with gender-binary signage, and Gold said no one at the library was notified of this change. 

The gender-neutral signs were removed just days before Florida lawmakers passed a bill requiring people to use bathrooms that align with their sex assigned at birth.

Gold said actions at New College and the state level all contribute to the decreasing safety in Florida for the LGBTQ community. 

Current and former faculty agree that controversies surrounding New College have been “incredibly disruptive” for faculty and students during this academic term.

Gold said the library is the center of New College’s campus, both geographically and socially. She’s met with many students every day while at the library and understands the significant impact the past few months have had on their learning. 

“Students are having a difficult time completing assignments on time,” Gold said. “They’re having a difficult time focusing on their summer plans, on upcoming research, graduate school applications, defending their senior, fourth-year theses.”

Sarah Hernandez is an associate professor of sociology and Caribbean and Latin American studies at New College. She said she’s been setting aside time in her lectures for students to vent. 

Creating this space for students allows them to then focus on the course’s subject matter. Though, Hernandez said the students are very resilient. 

“That’s part of the work we’re doing,” Hernandez said, “teaching them the skills, teaching them the ways in which they can build and strengthen their resiliency, so they’re able to get the work done and they’re able to push forward and learn.”

Gold was told she was fired last week because of “reorganization” at the institution, but Hernandez said the college hasn’t provided any clarity on what “reorganization” means for faculty or the future of the college. 

When I asked Lepinski, Gold and Hernandez last week what they believe the future holds for New College, there was silence. 

Hernandez said the silence was, in part, because it’s impossible to know.

“What I can, at least, I see for myself, I stay here, I stay at New College because I believe that the students do need somebody who will be there for them,” Hernandez said, “and I am here for my students.”

From her own experience of attending a small liberal arts institution like New College, Hernandez tells her students they need to be prepared for change. And the only way to be prepared for change, she said, is to understand the world around you — for all that it is.

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