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Why Didn’t Hugo Viera-Vargas Get Tenure?

The respected New College of Florida professor got caught up in DeSantis’ culture war.
new college protests AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File
New College of Florida students and supporters protest ahead of a meeting by the college's board of trustees, on the school campus in Sarasota, Fla., Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.
Published: September 22, 2023

Key Takeaways

  1. Viera-Vargas’s tenure application checked every box, but was denied at the final step by the newly installed college president — a politician and close ally of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
  2. Thanks to a new state law, Viera-Vargas can’t go to arbitration. The only person he can appeal to is... the new college president.
  3. The new arbitration ban on faculty isn’t just unfair—it’s illegal, according to a United Faculty of Florida lawsuit.

Hugo Viera-Vargas is at least two things: a historian and a musician. And, when he arrived at New College of Florida in 2018, as an assistant professor of Caribbean and Latin American studies and music, he found an academic home that embraced both of those identities. 

“It was an amazing place,” he says. The boxes that faculty usually live in—history or music—didn’t exist. Viera-Vargas began teaching a variety of interdisciplinary courses that focused on the intersection between race, gender, and music in Caribbean and Puerto Rican societies. 

Photo of Hugo Viera-Vargas
Hugo Viera-Vargas

For a while, it was great. Students flocked to Viera-Vargas' classes on hip-hop in the Americas and music of the African diaspora. They realized that music isn't just entertainment—it’s a window into history and a reflection of identity. As one of just two or three Latino professors on campus, Viera-Vargas also was a sought-after mentor among the college’s non-White students. “They’re knocking on my door because I look like them—and I love that. It is important to me,” he says.  

Off campus, he performed locally, recorded frequently, and traveled to schools up and down the East Coast, providing grant-funded music workshops to a range of students.  

But, in 2023, Viera-Vargas became a third thing: A victim of Florida politics. And, thanks to that, he also became a fourth thing: a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed last month by his statewide union, the United Faculty of Florida, against the Florida Board of Governors and trustees at New College. 

Things at New College stopped making sense, Viera-Vargas says. “And that’s why I decided to become a plaintiff.” 

What Happened to New College?! 

New College always was a standout in Florida’s university system. With fewer than 800 students, it’s the tiniest institution in the system. It’s also the only liberal arts college and, until this year, it ranked a competitive 76th in the nation. (The latest rankings show New College plummeted 24 spots this summer.) Regionally, the campus also was known as a welcoming, safe space for LGBTQ+ students. 

That ceased early this year when Gov. Ron DeSantis announced plans to transform New College into a “Hillsdale College of the South.” Hillsdale is a Christian college in Michigan. In January, DeSantis fired six New College trustees. The new majority subsequently fired the college president and replaced her with a politician, eliminated the diversity office, scrapped the gender studies department, fired an LGBTQ librarian, and voted to deny tenure to four faculty members of color, including Viera-Vargas.  

Photo of Andrew Gothard
Andrew Gothard

Since then, chaos rules at New College. Nearly 40 percent of faculty have left, causing numerous course cancellations this fall. Today, trustees must not only answer to the union’s lawsuit, but the U.S. Department of Education has launched a formal investigation into allegations of discrimination.  

Meanwhile, DeSantis’ assault on higher education isn’t aimed at New College alone. It’s one thing after another, and it’s systemwide, pointed out UFF President Andrew Gothard in Inside Higher Ed. In 2022, DeSantis passed a law requiring faculty and students to participate in annual ideological surveys, and his “Stop WOKE Act” explicitly forbid Florida faculty from teaching about race and racism. (Thanks to UFF’s advocacy, a federal judge temporarily halted its enforcement.) 

Then, in May 2023, DeSantis signed SB 266, a law enabling the governor and his allies to ban specific books and courses; to defund diversity offices; to drastically limit what can be taught in general education courses; to hire new presidents in secret; to enable those hand-picked presidents to hire and fire faculty at will; and to make it impossible for faculty unions to enforce their contracts. 

With all of that, faculty have good reason to be fearful— but they’re not giving in, says Gothard. “I’m really proud of how our union is responding. We’re working together at every step,” he says. “We’re not going to roll over.” 

In addition to last month’s lawsuit involving Viera-Vargas, UFF and five of its members at the University of South Florida filed a second lawsuit this month. While each case rests on different facts and circumstances, both are fundamentally about what it means to be a union member, says Gothard. 

Check, Check, and... 

When faculty apply for tenure, their application generally rests on a three-legged stool: teaching, research, and service. For Viera-Vargas, who earned a Ph.D. in history from Indiana University, it was check, check, and check.  

At every step of the tenure process, Viera-Vargas's application for tenure was met with enthusiasm and approved to move on. His departmental colleagues were supportive. His provost was a resounding yes. The interim president, the one who preceded the takeover, also submitted a letter of recommendation. When it came time for the final step—approval by New College's trustees—it should have been a slam dunk.  

desantis culture war
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs legislation banning state funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at Florida's public universities, at New College of Florida in Sarasota, Fla. Credit: Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP

But shortly before the trustees voted, a key person added a letter to Viera-Vargas' tenure file, recommending disapproval. It was Richard Corcoran, the former Florida Speaker of House turned New College president.  

His reason? “A renewed focus on ensuring the College is moving towards a more traditional liberal arts institution,” he told trustees. Along with Viera-Vargas, the board also voted to deny tenure to chemists Rebecca Black and Lin Jiang; oceanographer Gerardo Toro-Farmer; and Islamic scholar Nassima Neggaz.  

Immediately after the vote, the faculty representative on the board—a computer scientist described as “typically reserved” —told the other trustees that he’d had enough. He became the second New College computer scientist to resign in as many weeks.  

Viera-Vargas filed a grievance, through his union. The last-minute opposition hadn’t provided him with an opportunity to respond—an opportunity his contract guarantees. No matter. Corcoran denied that too, and then refused to go to arbitration. The new state law? It includes an arbitration ban on university campuses. 

From King Solomon to Judge Judy 

The practice of arbitration is as old as the history of man. Indeed, one of the earliest arbitrators was the Old Testament’s Solomon, note law scholars. More recently, in 1786, the new nation had its first labor arbitration over the wages of seamen. Since then, third-party neutral arbitration has been the foundation for enforcing contracts.   

But DeSantis would end all that. The new law states that faculty grievances “may not be appealed beyond the level of a university president.” In other words, if Viera-Vargas wants to appeal the president’s decision to deny him tenure, he needs to take it up with… the president. 

“There is no other area in American society where a person who breaks the law gets to decide that they didn’t break the law,” says Gothard.  

This isn’t just wildly unfair—it’s illegal, say UFF leaders. Faculty’s right to arbitration has been protected for decades under Florida’s Public Employee Relations Act. It’s also guaranteed in the legally binding contracts that unions and universities have negotiated, including the current contract between New College and the New College United Faculty of Florida.

What’s at stake isn’t just Viera-Vargas' job status. It’s whether or not Florida faculty can freely investigate the state's big issues. It’s whether or not Florida’s students will have the freedom to learn.  

Faculty's rights also are enshrined in the Florida Constitution. States Article I, Section 6, which states, “The right of employees, by and through a labor organization, to bargain collectively shall not be denied or abridged."  

The ban makes it impossible for faculty to effectively bargain an enforceable contract; hence, it violates the state Constitution, the lawsuit states.  

“Without [arbitration], in reality, we don’t have contracts,” says Gothard. And that’s likely the point for DeSantis and the people around him. The arbitration ban isn’t just about arbitration. It’s about disempowering unions and silencing faculty, staff, and students. 

What’s Next?  

Without tenure, Viera-Vargas puts his job at risk whenever he aims to provide a complete and honest education to his students.  

Across the state, Florida faculty and graduate students are tackling the most pressing of problems—climate change, construction safety, food insecurity, emerging viruses, and much more. (Meet some of those Florida faculty who are making their state a better place to live and work!

They are able to do this work because they have the academic freedom to explore new ideas, even if some politicians don’t like those ideas. And they have academic freedom because they have unions and contracts that protect them. With the arbitration ban, all of that work is at risk. What’s at stake isn’t just Viera-Vargas' job status. It’s whether or not Florida faculty can freely investigate the state's big issues. It’s whether or not Florida’s students will have the freedom to learn.  

“We think the damage of this provision [the arbitration ban] is so clear and so evident, and will have such a wide-ranging impact across university system, that the courts will move quickly to stay the arbitration ban and uphold our right to uphold our contracts,” says Gothard. “We hope the courts put their foot on the accelerator.”


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