New College has faced various criticisms over the past few months for the seeming politicization of its leadership, starting with the DeSantis-appointed Board of Trustees (BOT) and their plans to hire FDOE Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran as Interim President, who also had no prior experience in college administration. And now, these criticisms have continued to carry over to Corcoran’s own personnel decisions—both recent hires and fires. For instance, it was announced that former Education Policy Development Director of the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) Kevin Hoeft would take on the role of VP for Enrollment Management on Mar. 8. This was shortly followed by the announcement that Sydney Gruters, District Director to Florida Rep. Greg Stuebe (R), would be the new Executive Director of the New College Foundation starting on Apr. 3.
Both of these appointees are significant for similar reasons—neither of them are known to have any prior experience in college admissions or fundraising, but both are most widely known for their explicitly political work and strong ties to the Florida Republican Party. However, not all of the new administration is necessarily “new.”
Dr. Brad Thiessen, an administrator who has been at New College for about six years and has circulated through a myriad of positions, was recently promoted by Corcoran to the roles of Interim Provost and VP for Academic Affairs on Mar. 20. This was coupled by the announcement that former Provost Suzanne Sherman had “stepped down” from the position after serving as a faculty member for over 30 years. Sherman was also known to have criticized Trustee Christopher Rufo for “putting the community at risk” by inviting his media team to campus back in January. It is unclear if these criticisms influenced her stepping down from her position.
Thiessen is now in a unique position as an administrator, as someone who has worked closely with students and faculty alike, and as someone who continues to collaborate with Corcoran and other new hires at the administrative level. While both Hoeft and Gruters both remain relatively mysterious administrators at this time, in part by still being so new, Thiessen sat down with the Catalyst to discuss some of the recent personnel changes at New College and his own new responsibilities.
Thiessen has had a busy couple of months on campus—while serving as immediate Interim President in February before Corcoran’s appointment, he also held four other job titles: Chief of Staff, Interim VP of Student Affairs, Accreditation Liaison and Director of Institutional Performance Assessment. Thiessen received compensation for his role as immediate Interim President on Mar. 24, and was paid the same rate as former President Patricia Okker for one month of work.
When asked how many positions he currently holds and whether he was still Chief of Staff during the time of this interview on Mar. 31, he answered “kind of.”
“I’m still, for the near future at least, overseeing Student Affairs, but that’s running well—as well as it can,” Thiessen said. “We need more staff in Student Affairs, but it’s operational. Still doing the accreditation work, the performance-based funding work as well. If I counted the job titles, I would probably depress myself.”
“Thankfully President Corcoran is a go-getter,” he later continued. “He has the whole team helping out.”
On Apr. 6, it was announced that Associate VP of Government Relations Christie Fitz-Patrick would also be taking on the role of Interim Chief of Staff, effective immediately.
He continued to elaborate that while the Provost and VP of Academic Affairs positions are technically two separate jobs, they overlap heavily at most universities. The combined job titles involve overseeing all academic divisions and interdisciplinary programs, the Center for Career Engagement & Opportunity (CEO), programs involving the Jane Bancroft Cook Library and the Study Abroad office, to name a few.
Thiessen also clarified that this was not necessarily a position he had volunteered for himself, but something that Corcoran had assigned to him due to his previous administrative experience.
“It’s like the Student Affairs [position], it was never my dream as a child to become a Provost or become a Student Affairs leader,” Thiessen said. “But if I’m able to help and able to provide some stability during a transition, during a period of uncertainty, I’m going to step up and try to help New College as best as I can.”
Current priorities in the Interim Provost and VP of Academic Affairs positions include filling about 12 vacant faculty positions in various divisions. Thiessen explained that mostly adjunct faculty and a few tenure track lines need filling—faculty in botany, marine biology, mathematics, computer science, history, political science and economics being some examples.
“That’s the priority—maintaining the integrity of the academic program is the job of the Provost, and to do that you need excellent faculty, and you need enough faculty,” Thiessen said. “[We’re] hoping to start hiring faculty, continuing visitors that we have, just filling the holes.”
He also added that Sherman—although no longer working within administration—has “the right to return as faculty.” Sherman had previously taught chemistry at New College before first becoming Provost in 2020.
“I really hope that she does return as a faculty member and I continue to work with her in the future,” he said.
“President Corcoran has said a number of times that we’re looking, and I think the trustees have said this as well, we’re looking to add, not subtract,” he continued, further discussing plans to hire faculty. “What I have identified, what I had the division chairs identify, are the positions we need just to get us back to baseline. If we weren’t adding anything, just being functional, here’s the positions we need. I expect there will be some add-ons, but we haven’t had those discussions.”
Thiessen also discussed having met with Hoeft, who is currently receiving guidance for his position from former Interim VP of Enrollment Management David Boisvert.
“What I see with Kevin is, so far everyone that has met him says, ‘That’s a great guy,’” Thiessen continued. “Friendly guy. That will buy you a lot here at New College, being a nice person. What I’ve been impressed with is, he is asking the right questions. This is a difficult school to come into, it’s unique in a number of ways and the transition that we’re going through makes everything uncertain. He’s soaking up as much knowledge as he can.”
He continued to explain that, both in terms of faculty hires and student recruitment, “it’s late in the cycle to make significant changes.” Instead, Hoeft aims to put more effort into increasing transfer student enrollment in the short term—something that has begun to take effect with the recent announcement of “NCF Transform” on Mar. 31, a student transfer program recently launched in collaboration with St. Petersburg College.
This has also been coupled by the recently-released recruitment message from Corcoran on Apr. 4, offering transfers for the Fall 2023 a $10,000 scholarship. This message was directed specifically to members of the nonprofit organization, the Florida Citizens Alliance.
“Our public education system is failing America’s students academically, civically and morally,” the Florida Citizens Alliance announces on its website. “Florida children are being indoctrinated in a public school system that undermines their individual rights and destroys our nation’s founding principles and family values.”
Thiessen also briefly discussed the recent personnel decision to fire former Dean of Diversity Yoleidy Rosario-Hernandez, the first in the series of Corcoran’s personnel decisions throughout the month of March. This was a controversial decision which has received national attention, particularly because Thiessen’s original recommendation for the BOT was to transfer Rosario-Hernandez to the role of Associate Dean of Housing and Residential Life after the dissolution of the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence (OOIE). Despite this recommendation, the board instead had voted to grant Corcoran the authority to “make necessary or appropriate personnel decisions.”
“The board made a decision, they gave the president the authority to make a decision [and] the president made that decision,” Thiessen said. “I wasn’t consulted on it in any way, I did my duty in providing the plan. It’s always unfortunate when you lose somebody who was doing good work, quite honestly, but I don’t know anything.”
Thiessen was also asked to comment on the critiques that New College has faced about the alleged politicization of administration. He responded by first stating that he is unfamiliar with Hoeft’s background and that he did not yet know Gruters at the time of this interview. Even so, New College is held accountable by its accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), according to Standard 5.4, which requires that the institution “employs and regularly evaluates administrative and academic officers with appropriate experience and qualifications.”
“We ultimately have to go to our regional accreditor in a couple years from now and make the case that we are hiring and retaining qualified staff,” he elaborated. “That may be the ultimate judge, but everything that I’ve seen from Kevin indicates that he is qualified for the position, he knows what needs to get done, and he’s getting the right mentorship.
“It is dangerous though, any time you have the situation that we have where it’s clear—the governor appointed new trustees, and they have a vision, and the governor has a vision,” Thiessen went on to say. “We do have to be careful about any perception of this place. These are very quick hires, and so I guess I’d say, let’s see how things progress from here. We have a lot of open positions still, we have a lot of faculty positions still. My guess, and I have every belief in this, is that we’re going to look not for the political beliefs of anyone but for real excellence, who is the most qualified person, who can take this place to the next level.”
Thiessen said that he expects to remain in the Interim Provost and VP of Academic Affairs positions until a President is selected, something that he predicts may happen sooner rather than later. According to him, the presidential search process is set to begin within a few weeks of this article’s publication.
“I assume, unless they find someone that they would like to make the regular Provost, I would assume that it [his new positions] will probably last until that presidential search process ends.”