New College of Florida interim president Richard Corcoran at the Tampa Tiger Bay Club September 15, 2023 (photo credit: Mitch Perry)
Although Richard Corcoran says he wants to transform New College of Florida into a classical liberal arts institution, he emphasized on Friday that he himself has never said that his goal is to remake the school in the image of Hillsdale College, the small Christian school in Michigan that has been connected to Republican politics.
“If you go back and read every article, every paper, every interview, you will never hear me say that,” Corcoran said on Friday to a crowd of 100 people who gathered at the Jewish Community Center for the monthly meeting of the Tampa Tiger Bay Club, a nonpartisan political club that has chapters throughout the state.
“I’ve never said we want to be the St. John’s of the South. The Hillsdale of the South. The Williams of the South. I’ve never said [that]. I don’t like any type of comparison.”
Corcoran, 58, is currently the interim president of the Sarasota-based public liberal arts college — part of the state university system — and is one of three candidates in the running to be named the fulltime president later this year.
While there have been widespread reports of faculty and students leaving New College of Florida in the wake of a takeover — which began in January when DeSantis jettisoned the majority of sitting board members and inserted conservative activists like Christopher Rufo — Corcoran said Friday that reports of a mass exodus from the campus have been widely exaggerated.
He said that despite the “horrible” publicity that the transition has created at the school, Corcoran says he has heard personally from professors at esteemed universities that they want to teach at New College.
“Some of those people are known very, very prominent in their state liberals, and some are moderates, and some are conservative. We don’t care. We want free speechers who are going to come, who are experts in their discipline and teach the heck out of these kids,” he said.
He acknowledged that there have been 36 faculty members who are no longer at the university, but says that some of those departures were retirements, sabbaticals, research leaves and leaves of absence. “Two-thirds of them had made whatever decision that was – resign, go on research, whatever decision they made, they made it long before any change happened at New College.”
Meanwhile, professors and students recently sued over free speech and academic freedom at New College of Florida, according to an 81-page brief filed August 14 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee.
Named as defendants are Manny Diaz Jr., state commissioner of education and a member of the university system’s Board of Governors; Brian Lamb, chairman of the Board of Governors; Eric Silagy, vice chairman of the governors; the 11 remaining governors; the New College Board of Trustees and its members; and Richard Corcoran, interim president of New College.
“Given its unique status as an honor college, dedicated to the liberal arts and attracting free thinkers from around the nation, New College is uniquely vulnerable to the censorship and pall of orthodoxy imposed by SB 266,” the lawsuit states.
While Corcoran spoke confidently and with enthusiasm, some members in the Tiger Bay audience weren’t buying what he was saying — particularly when he said that he wished that there was more kindness needed in this world.
Longtime Tampa activist Kelly Benjamin said that students, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community did not feel welcome any longer on the New College campus.
“I appreciate the line of questioning,” Corcoran responded, before adding, “and I’ll just say as nicely as possible, one hundred percent of what you just said is not based in fact,” eliciting giggles from the audience. Corcoran said emphatically that people of color hadn’t left New College, but in fact were now coming to the school. Corcoran didn’t provide specific numbers.
Shortly after that exchange, Tracy Fero, the parent of a New College student whose daughter transferred to another school out of the state because of her concerns about the new culture and administration, also challenged Corcoran. “Where is the kindness?” she asked. “I’m trying to figure that out. Because we don’t see it.”
After Corcoran left the event, Fero said she was angry and resentful that she had to move her daughter to Hampshire College in Massachusetts for the current school year.
“That wasn’t our first choice,” Fero told a group of reporters. “Thank God that there’s still some colleges that care about academic freedom. That care about students.” She went on to say that Corcoran was “riding the coattails” of what New College had previously enjoyed. “He’s going to destroy it,” she said.
Corcoran is an attorney and has had a longtime political career as a House Speaker, Education Commissioner and now the interim president of New College. In 2021, Corcoran applied for the Florida State University president job, but didn’t get it.
Corcoran is now pursuing the fulltime job at New College as president. The two other candidates are Tyler Fisher, a Rhodes Scholar who currently is a member of the core faculty in the Ph.D. program for texts and technology at the University of Central Florida, and Robert Gervasi, who was most recently interim president at the University of Mount Union, and was previously president of Ohio Dominican University and Quincy University. That’s according to a statement released by New College of Florida last month. All three candidates will be interviewed on campus next week, Corcoran said on Friday.
The announcement by the Tiger Bay Club that Corcoran was the invited speaker drew some heated discussion on social media in the days leading up to the event.
“I think this is disgusting. By having this jerk speak, Tiger Bay is condoning and criminalizing criminal behavior,” Susan Smith, the former president of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida, wrote on Facebook earlier in the week.
Speaking to reporters after the event, Corcoran said he was sorry if people didn’t believe what he said. “Facts are facts,” he said. “Water’s wet. Fire’s hot. That’s a fact, and what are enrollment is, what teachers left prior to any changes happening. All of those are facts, and all they’re verifiable. Nothing I said was untrue.”
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