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Richard Corcoran stays as New College president amid shake up in FL’s higher ed leadership


Richard Corcoran stays as New College president amid shake up in FL’s higher ed leadership

Oct 03, 2023 | 5:04 pm ET
By Jackie Llanos
Richard Corcoran stays as New College president amid shake up in FL’s higher ed leadership
Gov. Ron DeSantis and New College of Florida's interim president Richard Corcoran at a Board of Education meeting July 14, 2021. The picture was taken when Corcoran was the education commissioner. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

Former Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran will remain at the helm of New College of Florida, a public liberal arts university based in Sarasota. The university’s Board of Trustees voted during a Tuesday meeting to keep Corcoran as the president following months of backlash over fundamental changes in higher education.

The decision comes two months after Corcoran — who also has been a Florida House Speaker — made it to the shortlist of candidates for the job. The other two candidates were Tyler Fisher of the University of Central Florida and Robert Gervasi, former interim president of the University of Mount Union in Ohio.

Meanwhile, Broward College, a community college in South Florida, appointed Henry Mack III as its interim president during a Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday. The college continued the trend of picking Gov. Ron DeSantis’ political allies to lead public universities and state colleges.

Mack is taking over after former president Gregory Haile resigned in September. The South Florida Sun Sentinel reported that Haile faced growing criticism from members of the Board of Trustees appointed by DeSantis.

Mack, currently an education lobbyist, worked at Broward College as an associate vice president before DeSantis picked him as a chancellor of the Florida Department of Education.

All but two members of the Board of Trustees elected Corcoran as the sole finalist to start contract negotiations for the top position. Student trustee Grace Keenan voted for Fisher, and professor trustee Amy Reid voted for Gervasi. In fact, Reid moved to delay the vote to no avail.

Student concerns

During the meeting, Keenan brought up students’ concerns about the presidential search process, namely that students only had one 45-minute chance to meet with the candidates. She said that in a survey gathered from students, they clearly preferred Fisher.

“For Mr. Corcoran, the top comment was that despite being interim president, he had not come to speak to the students to open himself up for conversation about the presidential search his entire time as interim president, yet Dr. Fisher did. I don’t think there’s any excuse for that,” she said.

On the other hand, New College trustee Christopher Rufo, who attended the meeting virtually, cited Corcoran’s character as the ideal quality for the job. He was the only person clapping after Corcoran was announced as the next president.

“We’ve engaged in this ambitious and very difficult and challenging process of reform, renewal and reinvigorating the institution. While I think that all three candidates are certainly qualified, under normal circumstances, all three would be great potential leaders of a small liberal arts college,” Rufo said. “We are in a time that requires a specific type of character. Ultimately, that’s why I’m supporting Richard Corcoran. He has demonstrated the unique kind of character that we need. The problem with New College, which is really the problem in so many other universities, is that there is an ethos of go along to get along, not rocking the boat, not disturbing the status quo, and conforming to any of the ideological pressures from within and also from without.”

New College has garnered national attention since the beginning of the year when DeSantis reshaped the Board of Trustees and Corcoran became the interim president. Just a day before the board appointed Corcoran as the president, the university fired the vice president of communications and marketing, according to Florida Politics.

Fundamental changes

The changes at New College have been so profound that professors and students filed a lawsuit two months ago, in which the university’s trustees and Corcoran are defendants, over free speech and academic freedom.

Ahead of the Board of Trustees meeting, the group Students Against Fascism in Education held a rally to voice their concerns about Corcoran’s appointment, fifth-year Yesenia Gonzalez said.

“It felt pretty obvious to me that it was going to turn out this way given that the Board of Trustees looks the way that it does, and they’re all on [Corcoran’s] side since they were appointed by Ron DeSantis, the conservative governor,” Gonzalez said. “But I find some solace in the fact that we are still doing the hard work of making sure that our student voices are heard, even when it’s very clear to me that the current administration and Board of Trustees are trying to silence us.”

But throughout Corcoran’s interim tenure, New College regularly faced criticism over its new direction including moving to scrap the gender studies program and establishing an athletics department. The school joined Monday The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and will begin competing next July.

Reports of declining academic rigor plague the reputation of the university. A third of faculty left by July, according to the Tampa Bay Times, and the newest class had a lower GPA and SAT and ACT scores than the previous year, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

For both Corcoran and Mack, the appointments fulfill their previously unaccomplished desire to lead a Florida higher education institution. In 2021, Corcoran was a candidate for the presidency at Florida State University. Earlier this year, Mack almost got the spot at Florida Gulf Coast University.

Additionally, the presidential search at Florida Atlantic University remains halted by a state investigation launched in July. FAU and the search firm leading the process deny wrongdoing but obtained legal counsel, Florida Phoenix previously reported.