Five months after being placed on paid administrative leave amid a rift with faculty members, Foothill College President Thuy Nguyen wants to come back to lead the community college and is asking the district's board to renew her contract for next school year.
Nguyen told the Palo Alto Weekly that she has seen Foothill make progress on various fronts in recent years, particularly around racial equity, and she wants to help that work continue.
"I don't want to see it recede," Nguyen said. "I really want to be a part of the college and work together — and so that's why I'm very much interested in coming back to get the work done."
The Foothill-De Anza Community College District board of trustees voted unanimously in October 2021 not to renew Nguyen's contract, which expires at the end of June. She was subsequently placed on paid administrative leave and former Foothill President Bernadine Chuck Fong took over as acting president.
The board's decision came after the college's Academic Senate passed a vote of no confidence, which said that under Nguyen's leadership, faculty voices had been ignored except to rubber-stamp decisions that had already been made.
A series of letters from community groups and local leaders, including the Asian Law Alliance, Vietnamese American Professional Women Association of Silicon Valley, local NAACP chapter and former state Assembly member and Foothill-De Anza trustee Paul Fong are now urging the board to reconsider and to immediately reinstate Nguyen, who was the first Vietnamese American college president in the country.
"President Nguyen has been an effective champion of racial equity and, in this time of national racial reckoning, issues of racial equity and systemic racism must be addressed at Foothill College," the nearly identical letters state.
The topic of Nguyen's reinstatement and contract renewal is on the agenda for the Monday, April 4, board meeting, although it is unclear whether the trustees will take any action on the matter. The item was placed on the agenda in response to the letters urging the district to reinstate Nguyen. According to the meeting agenda, the board plans to adjourn to closed session following any comments by the public.
Board President Patrick Ahrens would not comment on the record about Nguyen's employment and Academic Senate President Kathryn Maurer did not respond to requests for comment. District spokesperson Becky Bartindale said in a statement that the district is limited in what it can say, beyond that the board believed not renewing her contract "was needed to allow the college to move beyond a state of conflict and to establish the conditions under which administrators, faculty, staff, and students could work collaboratively to achieve student success with universally equitable outcomes."
Last fall, dozens of faculty members wrote letters to the district's board raising concerns about Nguyen's leadership. One letter was signed by 37 faculty members of color and argued that the no confidence vote was the result of Nguyen's refusal to meaningfully work with the faculty senate's leadership.
"We recognize that institutional inequities, racism, and unconscious bias are a reality that so many women of color in leadership roles face," the letter reads. "However, we reject the idea that this vote of no confidence is a result of such realities."
Letters supporting Nguyen, on the other hand, point to her long track record of working to tackle racial inequities and say that her leadership is needed at Foothill College. Some of the letters also reference a May 2021 independent evaluation of Nguyen, which is quoted as stating that people responded to Nguyen differently than they would a white person in the same position.
The district declined to release the evaluation, citing the privacy of personnel records and Nguyen similarly declined to share the full evaluation, citing the privacy concerns of another employee referred to in the evaluation.
Members of the president's cabinet at Foothill College wrote a letter to the board ahead of next week's meeting opposing the efforts of external groups to seek Nguyen's reinstatement.
"Efforts by outside political action groups, or elected officials, to press our board for the benefit of one individual, undermine our college community and the progress we are making to better serve students and improve the campus climate," the letter states.
Nguyen said she welcomes further discussions with the faculty, and while she knows it will be difficult, she believes it's important for her and faculty members to come back to the table and engage in honest conversations.
"It will take fortitude. It will take a lot of love and compassion, but this is the work, and I need to model it," Nguyen said.
Before being hired at Foothill in 2016, Nguyen served as interim general counsel in the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office.
She earned her undergraduate degree from Yale University and law degree from University of California, Los Angeles. Nguyen and her family came to the United States as refugees after the end of the Vietnam War.
According to her biography on the college's website, she is the founding chair of the board overseeing California's community college to law school pathway program, which she helped initiate. She also received the Diversity Award from the State Bar of California in 2016.
Nguyen said she is dedicated to work around racial equity and recognizes how hard it can be, but believes Foothill has the ingredients necessary to make real change.
"It's extraordinary to see the way students are transformed by the education we provide," Nguyen said. "I feel like it would be such a loss if we can't get this together and come together."