Richard Corcoran, left, speaks with David Rancourt, the dean of students at New College of Florida, on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023 in Sarasota. The two were at a forum for faculty as part of the process to select the next president at New College, where Corcoran has served as interim president for six months. Corcoran is one of three candidates for the permanent job. [ YouTube ]

New College interim president Richard Corcoran is not looking to change the essence of the school, he told faculty during a moderated forum Thursday as part of his bid for the permanent job.

Avoiding the heated culture-war rhetoric of conservatives seeking to overhaul the school, he instead criticized his predecessors for not solving its enrollment and financial struggles. Corcoran was appointed to the interim role after a board of trustees with six new members appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis ousted former President Patricia Okker in January.

“I was literally naive in the concept when coming down” to the Sarasota school, Corcoran said. “(Are the problems) because there’s radical students? Is it because there’s this radical faculty? The absolute stark thing that slaps you in the face when you come here is how poorly this university was run on all levels.”

He added: “What needed to happen wasn’t to go in and change the fabric or the core of New College. It was really, in the six months I’ve been here, just institute real leadership.”

The former state education commissioner and Florida House speaker pitched himself as a president who would “hire the right people, put them in the right seats and get out of the way.”

He is one of three finalists who spoke to students and faculty at moderated forums this week — a prelude to Oct. 3, when New College trustees will select the school’s next president.

The other candidates are Robert Gervasi, former interim president at the University of Mount Union, and Tyler Fisher, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida and a faculty fellow at UCF’s Burnett Honors College.

Gervasi described himself at a forum on Tuesday as a classicist with experience in higher education and business. He said he considered himself a conservative on some matters and a liberal on others.

One of his first priorities, he said, would be trying to reshape the narrative of New College. He said he believed his background with advertising and public relations could help.His resume also includes time as president of OhioDominican University and Quincy University in Illinois.

“I think there are such good things about New College and new opportunities the world needs to know about,” Gervasi said.

He emphasized wishing to talk to people with differing opinions and spoke of a time when students at Quincy University wanted to stage a play in the school’s main theater that he believed encouraged marital infidelity. Gervasi told them to host it in a dorm instead.

The students held a candlelight vigil about free speech outside his house while he was asleep. Gervasi said he told them he wished they had let him know they were coming because he would have invited them inside to talk.

He also emphasized the study of ancient Greek and Roman civilization, with “curiosity as a core value.”

“I want to be part of that story,” Gervasi said. “I want to help move that story forward.”

Fisher, who invited students and faculty to separate, unmoderated sessions Wednesday, described himself as a “bridge builder.” As a product of Florida’s public higher education system, he said he sought to make New College a destination honors college.

He said he wanted to make the school “America’s leading mentorship university,” building on the culture of small class sizes and mentor relationships. He proposed subsidizing faculty meal plans and parking fees to create an “ethos of integration.”

In his first 60 days, he said, he would seek to further investigate the standards for admission and progress and ensure they were in line with other honors colleges in the state.

Fisher said he believed there was “a need to urgently restore trust” at New College.

“There needs to be respect for faculty as professionals … and there needs to be reciprocal respect for administration” he said. “That is the foundation upon which trust needs to rest.”

On Thursday, Corcoran told faculty he wanted to grow enrollment and galvanize support for New College among donors and state leaders in Tallahassee.

Had New College previously succeeded on those fronts, he wouldn’t be there and the Legislature “wouldn’t be breathing down your neck,” he said.

Corcoran’s first few months on campus have been marked by vehement pushback and frequent protests.

During his time as interim president, the school’s board of trustees has voted to eliminate the women and gender studies program, a move Corcoran said he supported at the time. The trustees have also denied tenure to faculty without explanation on Corcoran’s recommendation and eliminated the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion department.

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.