SARASOTA — More than nine months after Gov. Ron DeSantis directed a leadership change at New College of Florida, the new trustees he appointed chose a familiar face to be the school’s next president on Tuesday.
They voted overwhelmingly to give the job to interim president Richard Corcoran, the former Florida House speaker and state education commissioner who earlier this year began to transform New College into what he calls a classical liberal arts school. He was chosen over two other finalists.
Board of trustees member Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist, said Corcoran was best suited to “re-establish public authority over the public system” and “radically shake up the institution.”
“New College is still in a situation of crisis,” Rufo added. “Under normal circumstances, all three (finalists) would be great potential leaders of a small liberal arts college. We are in a time that requires a specific type of character.”
Board member Matthew Spalding, who chaired the search, said he also believed all three candidates were qualified but that Corcoran was best suited to restore New College’s mission.
Amy Reid, the faculty representative on the board, asked to reopen the search, saying the school had afforded limited opportunities for students and faculty to meet the candidates.
She said Corcoran’s strengths were his political connections, “but he has failed to build campus consensus over these past months.”
Corcoran was tapped to serve in the interim role on Jan. 31 after the newly appointed board of trustees ousted then-President Patricia Okker in one of its first acts.
On Tuesday, five members of the public spoke against his candidacy before the board vote.
“The fabric of this institution has been shredded in nine short months,” said Kathleen Cody, a member of the college’s charter class in 1964. “Is this anything other than a rubber stamp for Gov. DeSantis and his plan to destroy or hire any questioning of his repressive agenda? I’m just sad.”
Corcoran was present for the trustees’ meeting but left the room when they started discussing the president’s job. He was not available for comment afterwards.
His selection won’t be official until it’s approved by the Board of Governors, expected in November. But it clears the way for salary negotiations to begin.
As interim leader of the State University System’s smallest school, Corcoran is among its highest paid presidents with a base salary pay of $699,000. He also receives an annual housing stipend of $84,000, a $12,000 automobile stipend and a yearly retirement supplement of $104,850, plus a bonus of up to $104,850 if he meets performance targets.
For the permanent president’s job, the New College trustees previously approved a total compensation range of between $893,641 and $1,547,324.
Corcoran’s interim presidency was not warmly received, with students and members of the community protesting regularly.
Earlier this year, the trustees voted to eliminate the women and gender studies program, denied faculty tenure without explanation and eliminated the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion department. A third of faculty departed in recent months.
Meanwhile, Corcoran has touted record enrollment numbers, fulfilling a pledge he made when he took the job. And in his last pitch for the permanent job, he shied away from talking about culture war issues, focusing instead on recruiting and fundraising.
“I think he’s done a great job of getting us where we are today,” said Lance Karp, a New College trustee appointed by the State University System Board of Governors in 2021.
“I know things are not perfect and we have a lot of work going forward,” he said. “But as a trustee prior to the beginning of this year, I would say that unfortunately we had some challenges and headwinds facing the school and campus prior.”
The other two finalists were Robert Gervasi, the former president of two small universities, and Tyler Fisher, a professor at the University of Central Florida’s Honors College. Neither was invited by the board to attend Tuesday’s meeting.
Before the meeting, students rallied outside the room where deliberations were to begin. Fisher, who came at the invitation of students and alumni, spoke about his thoughts on the future of New College. He chatted with students before the meeting, with some wishing him luck.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Fisher said he was honored to be invited and came for closure and to allow students another opportunity to amplify their voices.
“I know the word on the street is that it’s something of a foregone conclusion,” he said. “But I’ve learned a lot about New College through this process. There’s these things that need to be preserved about the college. And I hope that our state will commit to preserving the unique features of this college.”
Gaby Batista, a third-year thesis student who helped organize the rally, said the last year has been full of stressful changes to the fabric of the campus, but hoped the future includes more coming together as a campus.
“I just hope we can come out of the meeting like every other meeting that has happened so far, where horrible decisions have been made, to just still feel a sense of community regardless of what happens,” Batista said. “It’s completely out of our control. We can have as many rallies as we like, but in the end it’s not our decision.”
Student trustee Grace Keenan told the board that Fisher was the students’ top choice for president, based in part on surveys. Corcoran, she said, was their last choice.
According to Keenan, students have complained that Corcoran has not interacted much with them since being named interim.
Trustee Ryan Anderson said he worried that Fisher did not have enough experience for the top job, but encouraged the university to consider hiring him in another capacity given his popularity with students.
Divya Kumar is a higher education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.