Audience members turn their backs on the New College of Florida board of trustees after the board voted to deny early tenure to five professors at a meeting Wednesday in Sarasota. [ MBR/SARASOTA HERALD-TRIBUNE/MIKE LANG | AP ]

New College of Florida’s board of trustees declined to grant tenure to five veteran faculty members on Wednesday, a controversial move that critics said stemmed from inappropriate interference from the Sarasota school’s interim president, Richard Corcoran.

The vote followed an unusually heated debate among the trustees, frequently interrupted by jeers and chants of “shame on you” from a crowd onlookers who sat through the nearly three-hourlong meeting.

Trustee Mark Bauerlein, who opposed awarding tenure, argued that it was too soon to evaluate the candidates, all in their fifth year of teaching. He said they could still be considered for tenure next year.

Critics of the decision said there is more at play.

“This unprecedented action (is) a further indication that this board is hostile to the current faculty and is intent on the destruction of the very academic program they are charged with supporting,” faculty union president Steven Shipman wrote in a news release following the decision.

Only four members of the 13-person board voted in favor of tenure for each candidate, including faculty representative Matthew Lepinski and student trustee Grace Keenan.

The five faculty members were chemists Rebecca Black and Lin Jiang; oceanographer Gerardo Toro-Farmer; Islamic scholar Nassima Neggaz; and Hugo Viera-Vargas, who studies Caribbean music. All were described as excellent researchers and teachers by dozens of colleagues and students who spoke before the board.

At the end of the trustees meeting, the typically reserved Lepinski addressed his colleagues: “I am concerned over the direction this board is taking.… I wish you the best, but this is my last board meeting.”

He later announced that he was also leaving his position in the computer science department at the end of the term, the second professor from the department to do so in recent weeks.

The tenure casescame under scrutiny earlier this month after Corcoran circulated a memo recommending that the board vote to defer or deny tenure to the five faculty members under consideration. He cited “extraordinary circumstances,” including “a renewed focus on ensuring the College is moving towards a more traditional liberal arts institution” and “current uncertainty of the needs of the divisions/units and College.”

The memo, which has drawn criticism from the faculty union leaders and national organizations advocating for academic freedom, also referenced the school’s recently overhauled board of trustees and administration.

In January, Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed six trustees with a mission to reform the small liberal arts college. In its first two meetings, the trustees voted to terminate then-President Patricia Okker and dismantle the school’s office of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Corcoran’s memo wasn’t the first time he’s inserted himself into the tenure process. In March, he scheduled a private meeting with the faculty members, urging them to withdraw their applications for tenure ahead of the trustees’ meeting that month.

Attending the private meeting was interim provost Bradley Thiessen, who approved the applications of all five candidates in February while standing in as interim president prior to Corcoran’s arrival.

“Congratulations on this milestone moment,” Thiessen wrote in a Feb. 24 letter to each of the candidates. “Ever since New College was founded, our success has depended on the excellence of our faculty, and I am honored to recognize your accomplishments as a teacher and scholar.”

Keenan, the student representative on the board, grilled Thiessen on his prior endorsement.

“Are there any requirements that these candidates did not meet?” she asked him at Wednesday’s meeting.

“Not all the hurdles are a clear yes or no,” Thiessen said.

The impact of the vote goes beyond the five faculty, said Shipman, the faculty union president.

“We have 20, 25 (tenure track faculty) watching this decision and they’re going to be nervous after what they just saw,” Shipman said. “I can’t speculate about whether or not they’ll stay (at New College) but I would not if it were me.”

Also discussed at the meeting was the school’s 2023 Accountability Plan, outlining its priorities in the coming year.

Previous years’ plans have detailed New College’s emphasis on individual learning, community and innovation. Chief among this year’s priorities Corcoran said: “Students. Students. Students” and “Money. Money. Money.”

“Our historical enrollment is unacceptable,” the 2023 plan states. It was drafted by Corcoran and Thiessen.

“We currently sit at 691 and have never been beyond 875,” it says. “Our historical freshman enrollment hovers around 200. This will change.”

Earlier this year, state lawmakers approved $15 million in additional funding earmarked for recruiting students, faculty and addressing long-needed maintenance issues on the school’s campus. The plan set a goal for 195 incoming students for fall 2023, a number the school hopes to increase to 320 in the next four years.

Corcoran said he hoped improved infrastructure, new course offerings and athletics will help turn the school’s low enrollment numbers around, adding that recruiting for school’s new baseball program, announced earlier this month, was already underway.

Another new priority for the school is to “be a beacon of free speech to the nation,” the plan states. To achieve that aim, it says, incoming freshman will be required take courses in “the importance of free speech and inquiry,” and the school will host lectures on “the status of free speech nationally and around the world.”

The plan also states: “No other college or university in the country has implemented such a forward-thinking program, combining the best of the past and the promise of the future.”

On whether the school will achieve those goals: “I don’t see how that’s possible after today,” Shipman said. “When a student asks ‘What classes can I take next year?’ and you can’t answer because you don’t know what faculty you will still have, that doesn’t create stability.”

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

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