The newly remade board of trustees at New College of Florida voted Monday to give the Sarasota school’s interim President Richard Corcoran a pay bump of nearly $400,000 over his predecessor.
The board decided that Corcoran, a former Florida House speaker and state education commissioner, will receive a base salary of $699,000, plus an annual housing stipend of $84,000, a $12,000 automobile stipend and an annual retirement supplement of $104,850.
Former New College President Patricia Okker, who was fired last month amid a conservative transformation of the board, had a base salary of $305,000. Her housing stipend was $40,000 a year.
Corcoran, 57, stepped down in April as the state’s education commissioner and joined the lobbying firm Continental Strategies in May. The New College board selected him as the school’s interim president last month. He is scheduled to start the job March 1.
Grace Keenan, the student trustee, was the only board member to vote against the move.
Debra Jenks, the board’s new chairperson and one of six new trustees named by Gov. Ron DeSantis last month, said the school’s previous leadership had been given opportunities to “remedy the failings of the school.”
Some of the new trustees have previously said that a main reason for taking over the college was its financial situation, which they described as precarious. Jenks added Monday the school had an “unattractive mix of low return on investment programs” and “frankly one-sided education.”
She said, “Richard Corcoran has a background in education, in higher education. He also has political ties to help us secure necessary funding for the school…. He will be the person who can take us from where we are now to where we need to be.”
The board did not accept public comment before the vote, deciding to wait until later in the meeting to hear from the 17 people who had signed up to speak.
Keenan, the student trustee, asked if the board was certain they could afford what they were offering Corcoran. Jenks confirmed it had been checked with the university’s foundation.
Keenan also asked why Corcoran’s employer announced in a letter that he would become interim president — news that came before the Jan. 31 meeting where board members ended Okker’s contract and appointed Corcoran, calling him a “friend.” She asked if the state’s open meetings law had been violated.
New trustee Matthew Spalding, a dean at the conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan, said ending Okker’s contract had been pre-negotiated and he called Corcoran prior to that meeting.
“The implication that friendship is somehow unethical, I just wanted to clarify that,” he said. “I did call my friend Richard Corcoran, who I’ve known for some time, but also known to be working in Florida education, a trusted colleague of the governor, Legislature and all the people we need. So I don’t think that’s an unethical matter at all. In fact, I think it’s perfectly appropriate.”
Okker had held the New College president’s job since 2021. Before that, she was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Missouri since 2017.
Corcoran attempted to become Florida State University president in 2021 but was not selected amid criticism that he didn’t have the right experience for the job. He also faced conflict-of-interest questions because, as education commissioner at the time, he sat on the Board of Governors, which approves presidential selections at universities.
After he left the commissioner’s post, Corcoran was appointed by DeSantis for another term on the Board of Governors, but he resigned Jan. 31 when he was selected for the New College job.
Several virtual audience members who spoke after Monday’s vote objected to the trustees’ procedures. Others spoke against Corcoran.
Jennifer Wright, a parent of a New College student, referenced Corcoran’s handling of a major contract in Jefferson County.
Corcoran faced questions last year after a Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald story revealed that top education officials, including one of Corcoran’s deputies, tried to steer a contract to a politically connected company to help consult Jefferson County’s schools. He was education commissioner at the time.
“Mr. Corcoran is bad choice for interim president,” Wright said. “He has a terrible record of leadership and questionable moral judgement.”
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat who attended a protest with New College students last month, told the board they would be paying Corcoran about $1,000 per student, compared to Florida State University’s president, who she said earns about $24 per student.
“You just hired the indoctrinator-in-chief — congrats,” Eskamani said. “Stop using the public dime to fund your grift.”
The board expects to conduct a national search to fill the president’s job permanently, but no timetable has been announced.
Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.