The New College of Florida Board of Trustees on Thursday moved forward with a plan to request $2 million from the state Legislature to set up a “Freedom Institute” aimed at combating “cancel culture” in higher education.

Unions, New College Of Florida Professor Challenge State Law

Faculty unions and a New College of Florida professor who was denied tenure have challenged the constitutionality of a new state law that did away with arbitration in university employment disputes.
New College Of Florida (File Photo)

Faculty unions and a New College of Florida professor who was denied tenure have challenged the constitutionality of a new state law that did away with arbitration in university employment disputes.

The United Faculty of Florida, its New College chapter and professor Hugo Viera-Vargas filed a lawsuit Thursday in Leon County circuit court alleging the law violates collective-bargaining rights and unconstitutionally “impairs” an existing union contract.

The issue centers on a change, approved this spring by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature, that prevents arbitration of grievances filed by faculty members over issues such as tenure denials. The law (SB 266) says grievances “may not be appealed beyond the level of a university president” or a person designated by the president.

The lawsuit said the change upended decades of unions negotiating grievance procedures that allowed arbitration if disputes could not be resolved at universities.

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“The arbitration ban cannot survive any level of constitutional scrutiny,” the lawsuit said. “There is no remotely sufficient governmental interest in this prohibition. Nor do the state’s means bear an adequate connection to any purported interest. Instead, the prohibition serves only to undermine plaintiffs’ constitutionally protected collective bargaining and contractual rights.”

The change came amid broader attempts by DeSantis and GOP lawmakers to overhaul the higher-education system and to curb public-employee unions. It also came amid an effort to revamp New College, a small liberal-arts school in Sarasota that is part of the university system.

Among other things, DeSantis this year appointed a slate of conservative New College trustees, who helped oust former school President Patricia Okker and replace her on an interim basis with Richard Corcoran, a former Republican state House speaker and education commissioner. Corcoran is now a candidate to become president without the interim tag.

Viera-Vargas was one of five faculty members denied tenure in April by New College trustees. Viera-Vargas appealed the denial, but Corcoran rejected the grievance in July and said the professor was not entitled to arbitration because of the new law, the lawsuit said.

Biographical information on the New College website said Viera-Vargas, an assistant professor, is a “cultural historian that focuses his research on the intersection of race and musical expressions in Puerto Rican and Caribbean societies.”

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“On information and belief, Viera-Vargas was denied tenure, in material part, due to President Corcoran’s disagreement with certain of the subjects Viera-Vargas teaches,” the lawsuit said. “Plaintiff Viera-Vargas now believes he must conform to the president’s views to keep his job at New College. The arbitration ban curtails Viera-Vargas’s academic freedom and forces him to engage in self-censorship.”

The United Faculty of Florida’s New College chapter and the school signed a collective bargaining agreement in March 2022 that will be in effect through June 30, 2024. The agreement includes a right to arbitrate grievances, according to the lawsuit.

The unions and Viera-Vargas are seeking a ruling that the new law is unconstitutional and are asking for an injunction. As an alternative, they would like a judge to block the arbitration ban from applying during the rest of the current collective bargaining agreement.

The lawsuit names as defendants the New College Board of Trustees and the state university system’s Board of Governors.

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