Thuy Thi Nguyen, our nation’s first Vietnamese-American college president and leader of California’s Foothill College, was recently ousted by the college’s Academic Senate in an unprecedented vote of no confidence. The Senate, which gives recommendations to the District Board of Trustees on academic and professional matters, accused Nguyen’s administration of prioritizing equity over educational competitiveness.
Foothill is a Bay Area-based college with a decisively progressive outlook in both its professoriate and student body. It was rated by Niche as #751 of 854 for “Most Conservative Colleges in America” and #24 of 32 for “Most Conservative Colleges in California.” But even here, an obsession with race and equity at the expense of educational quality has backfired.
It should come as no surprise that educators at a local junior college where about half of the predominantly minority student body require financial assistance are alarmed by its leader’s emphasis on ideology over education. Like most other community colleges, Foothill College focuses on helping its largely part-time students develop practical knowledge and skills in order to be more prepared for either four-year college degrees or technical jobs. In the 2019-2020 academic year, among the 1,992 degrees and certificates awarded by the college, 812 were technical and occupational certificates and 675 were associate degrees for transfer. Practically speaking, the majority of Foothill students are working to better situate themselves in the real world rather than pursuing lofty social justice goals.
Nguyen became president of Foothill College in July 2016 and immediately pivoted her leadership toward racial equity. Her vision for race-focused higher education has concrete ramifications for the school’s STEM disciplines, which she argues have been designed with biases to “weed out a determined certain superiority of race and gender.” Her proposed solution was to “introduce a scientist of color, or a female scientist, or an LGBTQ+ scientist” in Foothill’s science classes. She also advocated for racial pairing in teaching:
For instance, if the instructor of color is a chemistry instructor, this student of color is more likely to stay in that chemistry class. [Not only] successfully finishing that chemistry class, but also majoring in chemistry. The instructors themselves serve as a vehicle for encouragement for students of color to stay in STEM. This is more reason the focus on diversity in STEM is really, really critical for faculty diversity in teaching STEM.
What’s more, Nguyen institutionalized a culture of equity as the college’s top strategic objective in 2019-20, in an effort to become “a racially equitable college… with particular focus on prioritized disproportionately impacted groups.” She promoted diversity, equity, and inclusion through hiring a director of equity and then elevating that position to a dean of equity for race-centered social justice work. More recently, Nguyen discussed the need to “center” race in faculty hiring as the first and foremost tool to close student equity gaps.
But her gambit for equity has not translated into growth for the small college: full-time-equivalent (FTE) enrollment declined from 13,627 in 2016-17 to 11,570 in 2019-20, even though the school has a 100% admissions rate. Nguyen’s over-the-top dogmatic theatrics fit so poorly with the institution’s pragmatic mission that the majority of the Academic Senate voted to not renew her contract.
Ron Painter, a professor of chemistry, reflected upon a conflict his department had with Nguyen when she circumvented the department’s insistence on having a math prerequisite for the first-quarter general chemistry course. In the name of equity, President Nguyen wanted to eliminate most prerequisites, even if that meant some students wouldn’t have enough math preparation for the general course work. Professor Painter criticizes Nguyen’s disregard for rigor and faculty input in his written comment to the Foothill–De Anza Community College District Board:
She has called STEM faculty “gatekeepers” who are only interested in perpetuating white superiority in our disciplines. My colleagues and I are committed to equity in our classrooms and work hard every day to ensure that all of our students succeed regardless of their backgrounds. To be called these things is frankly a slap in the face and shows a flagrant lack of regard for the work we do.
In response to mounting criticisms from Foothill’s largely progressive and racially diverse professoriate, allies of President Nguyen did what good racial justice warriors always do: they played the victim card. The Silicon Valley Education Foundation, where Nguyen serves as a board member, argues that not everybody is ready for Nguyen’s pioneering equity work, “especially in a place like Silicon Valley.” In other words, the woke epicenter of the West Coast is not woke enough for President Nguyen’s vision.
Framing her presidency as a treasure for the larger Vietnamese community, the Vietnamese American Professional Women Association of Silicon Valley calls her ousting a move “on the wrong side of history” that perpetuates “racial inequity and systemic racism,” and condemns “in the strongest term [sic] any attempt to tarnish or diminish in any way one of our community’s most precious assets.” This accusation is certainly disconnected from reality. After all, the acting president, chosen to replace President Nguyen after the vote of no confidence, is also an Asian-American woman.
Many current and former minority faculty members have come out in support of the vote. A fellow Vietnamese immigrant and former colleague, Lan Truong, served as Foothill College’s dean of counseling and resigned under Nguyen’s leadership:
I resigned not because I didn’t love my job, where I left behind a tremendous division and a college I hoped to retire at. I left because of Thuy Nguyen. She did not support us and she undermined our success. I want to make sure that this is not about race.
All things considered, it is bizarre for a successful Ivy League graduate who made $354,153 in salary plus benefits in 2020 to be associated with oppression or inequity of any shape or form. At any rate, President Nguyen should have reflected upon her experience of fleeing a repressive regime as a toddler—which she frequently cites as inspiration for her lifelong devotion to equity—as a cautionary tale for why America should continue to stand strong against the winds of radical Marxism that blow through and around our contemporary educational systems.
If we remove equity’s political connotations and focus on the word’s original meaning of fairness and justice, we must recognize that it is only equitable for a community college to be free from ideological interference and to fully educate its mostly underprivileged students in their chosen fields. Anything that deviates from this core goal is unjust, inequitable, and unfair.