New College student Ella Luasty, 19, was among those protesting the appointment of a new board of trustees at New College on Jan. 31 in Sarasota. The school has since launched an effort to hire new faculty and recruit more "mission-aligned” students. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

In an unprecedented move, New College of Florida Interim President Richard Corcoran has asked seven faculty members to withdraw their applications for tenure ahead of the school’s April board of trustees meeting, according to Steven Shipman, president of the school’s faculty union.

The seven had already been approved by all levels of school administrators, including Corcoran’s predecessor Bradley Thiessen, who was present at a March 15 meeting where the request was made, Shipman told the Tampa Bay Times.

The push comes as Corcoran directs a dramatic change of course at New College, where Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed six new members to the board of trustees in January. The group arrived with a mandate to overhaul the Sarasota school by offering a “classical education.” They are aided by $15 million in state money to hire new faculty and recruit students who agree with the new direction.

DeSantis has taken a dim view of tenure, saying at a recent news conference that “unproductive tenured faculty” were “the most significant deadweight cost to a university.”

Tenure protects faculty from political interference from their research, teaching and community service. It also offers job security and higher pay for the one-third of instructors in Florida’s public universities who achieve tenured status.

Approval from the board of trustees is the last step in the tenure process for the seven New College faculty members, who had worked toward the goal for five years. Along the way, multiple colleagues described them as outstanding teachers and researchers.

Details of Corcoran’s request, which have not been previously reported, came out during a meeting between Shipman and Thiessen later the same day. Corcoran has no authority over the tenure applications since they had already been approved by his predecessor, Shipman said.

New College of Florida Interim President Richard Corcoran, center, listens during a meeting of the school’s board of trustees on Feb. 28. At left is new trustee Matthew Spalding. [ REBECCA BLACKWELL | AP ]

New College spokesperson Christie Fitz-Patrick said she had no knowledge of the meeting between Corcoran and the seven faculty members. Neither Corcoran nor Thiessen responded to multiple requests for comment.

Thiessen has played key roles during the transition, serving as interim president in the weeks after the remade board of trustees fired the school’s prior president, Patricia Okker.

Shipman, a New College chemistry professor, did not name the seven faculty members, saying they and the union are still deciding how to move forward. They represent a range of research areas, including science and technology fields.

Multiple faculty members familiar with the situation declined to speak with the Times on the record, saying they feared retribution. They are among many tenured faculty at Florida’s public universities who say they face an increasing threat to their careers as Republican lawmakers push to erode their protections.

Last April, DeSantis signed a bill into law requiring public university leaders to review professors’ tenure every five years. A bill introduced in February would go further, allowing university trustees to call for a tenure review “at any time.”

Earning tenure is difficult and many applicants fail or withdraw during the process, said Andrew Gothard, president of United Faculty of Florida. But the seven New College faculty had already passed reviews from colleagues, administrators and external experts in their fields.

“All the people qualified to make this decision had approved the candidates,” Gothard said. “That the president — who has little to no academic qualifications himself — has stepped in shows that something is at work that is outside how these faculty should be ethically evaluated.”

Corcoran’s request comes at a tumultuous time for the school. In the weeks since the new trustees were installed, they moved quickly to oust Okker before dissolving the school’s office of outreach and inclusive excellence and firing the dean of diversity, excellence and inclusion. Former school provost Suzanne Sherman, who clashed with two of the new trustees over school safety in February, also stepped down last month.

Eddie Speir, one of the new trustees, requested in February that the board declare a state of financial emergency, during which it could terminate the contracts of tenured faculty.

“We will be shutting down low-performing, ideologically-captured academic departments and hiring new faculty,” another trustee, Christopher Rufo, said in a Feb. 28 tweet. “(S)ome current students will self-select out, others will graduate; we’ll recruit new students who are mission-aligned.”

Rufo, who regularly rails against diversity offices and critical race theory, has advised DeSantis on education policy, sometimes appearing with the governor at news conferences.

While the churn in New College staff has been significant, Corcoran’s request represents the new administration’s first concrete action directly impacting faculty, Shipman said. How the board votes at its April 26 meeting would be one of the first clear signals of the school’s new direction.

“The dominant air is uncertainty,” he said. “We’ll be watching very closely.”

Ian Hodgson is an education data reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

Education data reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.