The Foothill-De Anza Community College District board of trustees declined to reinstate Thuy Nguyen as Foothill College's president at a Monday, April 4, meeting, despite a recent campaign to keep her on the job.
The board stuck by its unanimous vote in October 2021 to not renew Nguyen's contract, which expires at the end of June. The move came after the college's Academic Senate passed a vote of no confidence in Nguyen's leadership last fall, which stated that she had ignored faculty voices as president.
Following the board's October decision, Nguyen was placed on administrative leave. Bernadine Chuck Fong, who led Foothill from 1994 until her retirement in 2006, has come back to serve as interim president this school year.
In recent weeks, there has been a push by some in the community to get the board to reinstate Nguyen, with supporters arguing that faculty members were resistant to Nguyen's leadership as a Vietnamese American woman and specifically to her efforts to address racial inequities at the college. When Nguyen took the helm at Foothill in 2016, she was the first Vietnamese American college president in the country, according to her biography on Foothill's website.
The district's board took up consideration of whether to reinstate Nguyen and renew her contract this week at the request of Nguyen's supporters. Board policy allows members of the public to place items on board meeting agendas.
Dozens of people turned out to the meeting, filling most of the seats in the boardroom, and more than 20 speakers addressed the board, with roughly half in favor of Nguyen's leadership and the other half opposed.
Immediately after the speakers finished, the board went into closed session to deliberate. Board President Patrick Ahrens told the audience that the district's legal counsel had advised the board that the topic of Nguyen's employment status wasn't appropriate for public discussion.
After roughly 15 minutes, the board members returned and Ahrens announced that they took no action in closed session. That means Nguyen is still on administrative leave with her contract set to expire this summer.
After the meeting, Ahrens wouldn't comment on why the board didn't decide to take action on Nguyen's contract, beyond saying that the board appreciated the input of those who spoke on the issue. Nguyen was in the audience during Monday's meeting, but didn't address the board herself and declined to comment after the meeting.
Contrasting versions of Nguyen's leadership
Faculty members and other staff who spoke at Monday's board meeting largely opposed reinstating Nguyen as Foothill's president. They described their concerns as unrelated to Nguyen's work to address racial inequities, but rather based on her job performance. Faculty said she made unilateral decisions and created a hostile environment that led employee morale to suffer.
Foothill College counselor Leticia Serna told the board that Nguyen's dismissal was warranted and that the college is still trying to heal and move forward.
"Her request for reinstatement adds salt to our wounds. Thuy has a tendency of using race and gender to characterize how she believes our district is treating her. However, the issues we have consistently raised have nothing to do with her race and gender. This isn't an equity issue," Serna said. "The board of trustees' decision to let Thuy Nguyen go was based on her blanket lack of fair and effective leadership, and the hostile, retaliatory management environment that many of her employees endured under her tenure."
In contrast, those who supported Nguyen characterized the faculty members' opposition as the result of a reticence to truly address and confront issues of racism at the community college.
Paul Fong, a former Foothill-De Anza trustee, spoke in favor of Nguyen and pointed to the board's own goals stating that the district wants to address systemic inequities and institutional racism. Rather than support Nguyen in her work to address these issues, Fong said that the board and Chancellor Judy Miner couldn't take the pressures of mediation with the faculty and decided to terminate Nguyen.
"Are you serious about addressing these concerns of racial inequities or not?" Fong asked the board. "The board of trustees and chancellor should reinstate the president and have the Academic Senate and president resume their attempts at mediation."
Members of the president's cabinet wrote a letter to the board opposing what they characterized as a push by outside groups for Nguyen's reinstatement. Interim Vice President for Instruction and Institutional Research Kurt Hueg told the board that the letter from the cabinet was unprecedented in his 26 years as an administrator.
"We did it not lightly, but with the full support of our members because of how critical this situation is," Hueg said. "We put our full support in the Academic Senate and we put our full support in you to do the right thing for our students and for our college moving forward."
Some of those who supported Nguyen pushed back on the characterization that those who want her reinstatement come from outside the college. Groups like the Asian Law Alliance, local NAACP chapter and Vietnamese American Professional Women Association of Silicon Valley are among those who urged the board to extend Nguyen's contract. However, current and former students, as well as a faculty member, also spoke in her defense on Monday.
Foothill student Sara Song told the board that Nguyen worked with Asian students to hear and address their concerns in the wake of a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes over the past several years. Nguyen was approachable, supportive and willing to advocate for students' needs, Song said.
"Her devotion (to) racial equity really encouraged us to take the initiative to speak up for our own rights," Song said.