New College of Florida Interim President Richard Corcoran, center, listens during a meeting of the school's board of trustees, alongside trustee Matthew Spalding, left, on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, in Sarasota. The board approved a $1 million pay package for Corcoran, but the school has yet to find a way to cover that amount. [ REBECCA BLACKWELL | AP ]

New College of Florida has finally found a way to pay Richard Corcoran, who took over as interim president after the school’s board of trustees fired his predecessor in January.

At a Friday meeting of the New College Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the school financially, vice chairperson Dan Stults explained that the school will exploit a loophole in state law that allows them to use mostly public funds to cover Corcoran’s expenses until June 30, when the 2022 fiscal year ends.

For now, that takes the pressure off the foundation to come up with additional funds to cover the president’s salary. The board has not arrived at a plan to cover Corcoran’s nearly $1 million annual compensation package.

Corcoran, a former state education commissioner, receives a base salary of $699,000 — more than double that of his predecessor Patricia Okker and making him the third-highest-paid president among Florida’s public universities, not including bonuses and other stipends.

Under Florida law, only $200,000 of a university president’s salary can come from state funds. The rest typically comes from private donors through the school’s foundation.

However, state law does not restrict how the $200,000 state-funded portion must be allocated throughout the year. That allows New College to use the entire amount to cover most of Corcoran’s compensation until the end of the fiscal year.

Corcoran’s compensation from February through June totals approximately $265,000, Stults said.

That leaves just $65,000 to be covered by the foundation, which will come from a pool of funding that is not already earmarked for certain scholarships or other uses.

When the board of trustees approved Corcoran’s contract in February, board chairperson Debra Jenks said that the foundation has the money to cover Corcoran’s compensation, but did not identify where the additional funds would come from.

Future funding of the foundation has come into question, as many current New College donors have signaled their intention to withhold more than $29 million in future donations after Gov. Ron DeSantis began transforming the school’s leadership, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported.

Parents and donors expressed concern at the start of the meeting that the foundation’s funds will go toward their intended purposes.

Hannah Galantino-Homer, the mother of a third-year New College biochemistry major, said she worried about her son’s scholarship funding in coming years and asked the board to vote against funding Corcoran’s funding package.

Stults assured the more than 70 participants who joined the meeting via Zoom that donor funds that had been earmarked for specific purposes would not be used to fund Corcoran’s compensation.

Funding for the 2022 fiscal year was not up for a vote during this meeting, but board members will be able to weigh in on Corcoran’s funding for the 2023 fiscal year, he said.

“There’s no question that we’ve lost some donors,” Corcoran said at Friday’s meeting. But said he would personally reach out to those who have expressed concern over the school’s direction.

The foundation had a $55.2 million endowment in 2021, the last year that tax disclosures were available. The foundation received nearly $6 million in contributions, including a $4 million gift from former trustee Bob Peterson — the largest gift in New College’s history, according to a statement from the school.

Corcoran signaled a pivot in the school’s core curriculum toward “traditional liberal arts courses” including philosophy, government and classical literature. Those priorities appear to align with DeSantis’ goal of creating a statewide “core curriculum” at public higher education institutions, centered on “the values of liberty and Western tradition.”

Foundation board members Sue Jacobson and Monika Van Buskirk asked Corcoran about his repeated references to Hillsdale College, the private Christian university in Michigan that has frequently been cited as a guidepost for New College’s new direction.

Van Buskirk asked what the school can learn from Hillsdale’s aggressive marketing, which Corcoran said he hopes to emulate with the help of Matthew Spalding, a Hillsdale dean who was appointed by DeSantis to the New College board of trustees in January.

“Hillsdale does do liberal arts branding and marketing.… I would probably put them at the top,” Corcoran said. “I have boxes of Hillsdale marketing materials, branding materials, so that we can start emulating that.”

Jacobson asked how Hillsdale’s ideology and explicitly Christian mission might square with New College’s commitment to general liberal arts, as a public university.

“When I mention Hillsdale it’s because they have chosen the path of being an excellent liberal arts school,” Corcoran said.

It’s a distinctly different path from the “defeated sense of mediocrity” that he said is pervasive at New College. “Half of our dorms are shuttered, and the reason is because they’re not even mediocre.”

Corcoran also addressed student recruitment for the 2023-24 school year. He said the university had already accepted about 1,200 students as of Friday’s meeting, but the number of students who followed up by enrolling was down by 11 over last year.

Also, he said, the school’s acceptance rate went up, which plays into criticism that it is not selective enough in choosing students. In 2021, New College accepted more than 74% of applications — among the highest rates in the state public university system.

The school’s stalling enrollment effort comes as colleges from across the nation are angling to recruit transfers from New College. Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, promised to match tuition and streamline the transfer process for incoming New College Students, the Herald-Tribune reported.

Corcoran dismissed other schools’ overtures to New College students as a ploy to stay afloat. He said New College just needs better branding to get enrollment up, by emphasizing its focus on traditional liberal arts and its waterfront campus.

Ian Hodgson is an education data reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

Education data reporter for The Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.