Board of Trustees approves Corcoran’s Interim President contract: NCF faces uncertain future
The Board of Trustees (BOT) and a handful of other New College administrators present for the Special BOT Meeting on Feb. 13 via Zoom. Photo taken by Sophia Brown

Board of Trustees approves Corcoran’s Interim President contract: NCF faces uncertain future

After a deeply disruptive Jan. 31 meeting, the New College Board of Trustees (BOT) was not expected to meet again until the end of February. However, on Feb. 6, it was posted on the New College website that a Special BOT Meeting would be held on Feb. 13 over Zoom. With a notably short agenda, the meeting ran from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m., but even so, it proved just as disruptive as the last. The BOT voted in a motion that passed 11-1 to approve the employment contract of proposed Interim President and former Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. The Board of Governors (BOG) will meet to finalize Corcoran’s contract on Feb. 22, including his hefty proposed salary of $699,000. With approval in place, Corcoran will assume the role of Interim President on Feb. 27.

The initial BOT meeting on Jan. 31 was marked by the termination of former President Patricia Okker’s employment agreement and a community protest that rallied outside of the Sudakoff Conference Center for hours before and during the meeting. Between the vote to begin discussions with Corcoran with the intent to select him as Interim President, and the vote to replace sitting BOT Chair Mary Ruiz (‘78) with DeSantis-appointed Debra A. Jenks (‘80), campus morale plummeted and rumors began to circulate that various trustees had violated the Sunshine Law.

Concerns and questions continued to swirl at the Feb. 13 Special BOT Meeting, both within the board and among members of the public who spoke about Sunshine Law violations and whether Corcoran’s contract could affect New College’s funding and accreditation long-term. These are topics other publications have already begun to weigh in on. While New College’s immediate future with Corcoran has been set on course, what lies ahead in the next few weeks and months the future is far more uncertain.

Before the Meeting: an Interview with Bradley Thiessen

One hour before the Special BOT Meeting began, the Catalyst sat down with current Interim President Bradley Theissen to discuss the two weeks that had passed since he first assumed his role, and what New College might be facing next.

Theissen explained that his previous job titles of Chief of Staff and Interim VP of Student Affairs were never formally passed on to anyone else. While various staff members have taken on more work in Student Affairs—such as Dean of Students Anne Fisher, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Anjali Cadena and Clinical Director for Counseling Services Keith Kokseng—Thiessen also acts as Accreditation Liaison and Director of Institutional Performance Assessment.

“The accreditation, the performance metrics, the Chief of Staff, I’ve kind of all shaped that into one position,” Thiessen explained. “That’s what I get paid for. The Student Affairs [position], I have not received a dime for, and the Interim President, as of today, I have not received a dime for.” 

Thiessen’s appointment as immediate Interim President on Jan. 31 was part of a three-part motion passed by the BOT, which also included terminating Okker’s employment agreement and entering discussion with Corcoran. Thiessen was in the audience in Sudakoff at the time of this vote, and when asked by trustees directly if he would assume the role of immediate Interim President, he agreed. 

When asked by a Catalyst reporter if he had met or spoken with any of the newly-appointed trustees before this moment, Thiessen answered that he had met Trustees Christopher Rufo and Jason “Eddie” Speir on Jan. 25, when the two visited campus for the first time. When asked if he had met or spoken with any of the new trustees since Jan. 31, Thiessen told the Catalyst, “I’ve run into a couple of trustees on campus, other than that, no. Not that I’m operating completely in the dark. Christie Fitz-Patrick, our Government Relations and Board Liaison, communicates with them and then shares information with me. Other than that, not that I’m remembering. Trustee Speir was on campus at one point. He’s definitely interested in the campus.

“Someone asked, ‘Why did the trustees nominate you, of all people?’” Thiessen later added. “And my answer has been consistent: I really do think it was availability. Because we had a transition plan for Student Affairs to more or less run on its own, and I don’t have, other than that, a big staff that reports to me. So I think having me handle things for a month was, I think, the least destructive.”

Thiessen also shared that he has met with Corcoran since his appointment as Interim President, and even took him on a campus tour the week before the Special BOT Meeting.

“What I’m most impressed with with Richard Corcoran, in the very limited time we’ve interacted, is that he’s absorbing information at an incredible rate,” Thiessen said. “He noted, for example, that [the bayfront] side of campus, beautiful. The student side of campus, we’ve got some issues there. He even mentioned some specifics about our academic program, the contracts and the no grades. He’s definitely aware of New College, and I firmly believe based on that interaction that he wants New College to expand, to grow, to become even better than it currently is.”

Thiessen also said that no additional guidance or conversation on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) matters has occurred between him and the BOT since Jan. 31. The topic was also discussed at the Feb. 8 faculty meeting, where Thiessen said that DEI is something “people [can] go overboard with” and something that New College isn’t funding very strongly anyhow.

“At some point, we on this campus need to have a discussion about DEI,” Thiessen said during this most recent interview. “I’m not the person to lead that discussion, but we need to have a discussion about what it means. What are our values as New College? Are those values changing or not?”

Even so, the idea of “campus culture” has been a hot topic among the board and in the media, and Thiessen shared his insights. He explained that during the 2017-2018 academic year, New College had hired an external consultant to speak with students on the topic of enrollment, and concluded that New College had a “campus culture problem.” However, Thiessen also said that “I don’t know that we were worse than any other school” and that the perceived campus culture has changed dramatically since the rise of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t get the sense that that’s our number one issue right now,” he said. “When we agree on what the problems are: it’s facilities, it’s lack of services, it’s frustrations with policies, academic and administrative policies.

“But culture overall, since I went over to Student Affairs, I don’t know that I’ve learned anything new, but it has confirmed that our students are kind of like every student at every college,” Thiessen continued. “There’s issues, and our small size kind of amplifies when students have issues with each other, but overall, it seems like just a college campus culture.”

As for what happens to Thiessen once his interim period ends and in what capacity he may continue to work with New College, it is unclear.

“Nothing has been promised to me, nothing has been discussed,” he said. “I’m hopeful I can stick around with New College. Fewer roles would help.”

Call to Order

For the Special BOT Meeting on Feb. 13, all members except for former Chair Ruiz were present on Zoom. Quorum was reached once more than half of the board was present. The twelve members were also joined by Thiessen, Interim General Counsel David Smolker and Associate Vice President Christie Fitz-Patrick.

At the start of the meeting, Vice Chair Ron Christaldi explained that he had a previous engagement at 1 p.m. and so would need to leave the meeting early. With this in mind, Chair Jenks decided to move the public comment portion of the meeting to after the vote to approve Corcoran’s contract and the Student Success Plan Report. Typically, public comment is included in board meetings based on the desire for public involvement in decision making, and it is not unusual for controversial subjects to be received at specially scheduled listening sessions. 

However, Smolker explained to the board that while holding the public comment period at the beginning of BOT meetings is standard, it is not required by law. With this rationale, Jenks chose to move the public comment period to the end of the meeting, saying this was to ensure that as many board members as possible could be present during the voting period.

Jenks also formally began the meeting with an opening statement referencing Chapter 1004 Section 32 of the 2022 Florida Statutes, which spells out the mission and goals of New College as set forth by the Florida Senate. Some of these goals include providing programs of study “that allow students to design their educational experience as much as possible in accordance with their individual interests, values and abilities,” and to challenge students to “extend the frontiers of knowledge through original research.” 

Jenks went on to say that New College has strayed from this mission, with a focus on the “current leadership,” in opposition to both the immense support Okker received from the community during the Jan. 31 BOT meeting, and former Chair Ruiz’s comments on the many academic strengths of New College in recent years.

“New College has been largely labeled now a soft skills institution with no real notable connective thread or a contribution to Florida’s higher education system, or Florida’s workforce, and that is simply not an acceptable standard for us for a publicly funded higher education institution,” Jenks said. “The current leadership and leadership in recent years have been given chances to try to remedy some of the failings of the school, and that has not happened.

“The current offerings are an unattractive mix of mostly low-return on investment programs, frankly one-sided education and we need to go back to that work to establish the educational excellence standard,” she continued.

The remainder of her statement was spent providing context to the board on Corcoran’s previous experience and qualifications as former Commissioner of Education and BOG member, where she emphasized his political connections “to help us secure necessary funding for the school.” 

“Richard Corcoran will be the leading conversation, if you will, on what higher education is now and what it should be here at New College, and will be leading the conversation in the national spotlight,” Jenks said. 

Approval of Interim President Richard Corcoran’s Contract

Jenks concluded her opening statement by asking if any of the trustees would be willing to put forward a motion to accept Corcoran’s interim contract, as it was outlined in the agenda. Trustee Dr. Matthew Spalding put the motion forward and Trustee Dr. Lance Karp seconded it. Discussion followed.

Trustee and New College Student Alliance (NCSA) President Grace Keenan brought several concerns to the board about Corcoran’s contract—for instance, the annual salary of $699,000, paid bi-weekly. He would also be awarded a $84,000 annual housing allowance to ensure that he can live in Sarasota throughout his interim period. Keenan asked whether or not the college had the funds available to pay this contract, to which Jenks clarified that she had conferred with Director of Finance and Compliance Ronald McDonough at the New College Foundation to confirm that the Foundation had the non-discretionary dollars available.

Keenan pointed out that Corcoran’s proposed salary is $400,000 more than Okker’s was  as a full-time President. By comparison, she stated that the second highest campus salary, excluding New College Foundation members, was $187,000. “That’s about a $500,000 difference,” she emphasized.

Faculty and staff compensation had been a hot topic at the Jan. 31 BOT meeting, with the board voting to defer a one-time payment to select undercompensated faculty. This—coupled with Thiessen telling the Catalyst that same day that he had not received compensation for his immediate Interim President position or his VP of Student Affairs position since he first assumed the position on Sept. 22, 2022—suggests that funds are stretched thin at New College.

Keenan also addressed the various “ethical concerns” related to Sunshine Law that have been circulating since Jan 31. These concerns stem from the fact that Corcoran had been recommended to the board as a personal friend of two trustees during this meeting, and that a handful of publications began writing about Corcoran replacing Okker as President hours before the vote ever occurred.

“I would ask our Chair to confirm whether or not that is true,” Keenan said, referring to the accusations that trustees had spoken with Corcoran before Jan. 31 about becoming Interim President. “That obviously gives the appearance—unless Mary Ruiz, our previous Chair, was having conversations—gives the appearance that the board was having business behind closed doors, out of the Sunshine Law. We want to confirm whether or not that is true for our own credibility and reputation, and I think it’s also important to do our due diligence and consider more than one candidate during this, just since we’ve only had one candidate and we still have time to consider other candidates.”

Responding to Keenan’s suggestion that the board consider other Interim President candidates, Jenks responded by saying that an Interim President needs to be put in place in order for a formal search for a full-time President to commence. She did not address Keenan’s concerns related to Sunshine Law, saying only “I don’t know how else to answer your other questions.”

Christaldi then brought a few clarifying questions to the board. He asked whether Smolker had reviewed Corcoran’s employment contract and whether the BOT had consulted with anyone to determine whether the compensation offered was in a reasonable range. Jenks confirmed that Smolker had reviewed it, and said that the compensation was determined by reviewing other similar contracts for financial institutions and presidential offices of institutions in Florida.

“In a situation like here, where the Interim President is coming in where there’s no longer a President and there is so much to be done very quickly for an institution that has the types of issues that New College unfortunately has, that payscale is warranted,” Jenks said.

Christaldi also asked whether anyone has reviewed how this contract might affect New College’ accreditation requirements. Jenks responded that the BOG would be reviewing this on Feb. 22, after the contract was approved by the BOT. Christaldi also noted that there was no place in the contract for a representative from the New College Foundation to sign, despite them providing the funds, but Jenks assured the board that the other similar contracts she reviewed do not include signatures from discretionary funding organizations.

Spalding then responded to Keenan’s ethical concerns, specifically, as he stated, “the implication that friendship is somehow unethical.

“When the question of the possibility of the current President not staying, when we received her pre-negotiated end of contract, I immediately thought, what are the needs that the college might have for a new Interim President—given the necessity of having an interim before we have a long-term search?” Spalding said. “So 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, of the legislators and all the people we would need. I don’t think that’s an unethical matter at all, as a matter of fact I think that’s perfectly appropriate.”

Further discussion ensued about the sustainability of Corcoran’s proposed salary, to which Jenks reiterated that she felt comfortable with the contract in its current form and saw no need to revise it further. A roll call vote was then held to approve the contract and send it to the BOG for consideration.

The motion passed 11-1, with Keenan being the only dissenting vote. If the BOG approves the contract on Feb. 22, Corcoran will become Interim President effective Feb. 27 and will remain in this position for 18 months until Sept. 1, 2024, potentially earlier if a new campus leader is selected before then.

Approval of Student Success Plan Report

For the second half of the Special BOT Meeting’s agenda, Thiessen explained to the board the Approval of the Student Success Plan report. New College has had a notably low budget this academic year due to not meeting the BOG’s performance-based metrics, and so missed out on $3.6 million in July, 2022. In response, New College created a Success Plan to demonstrate improvements that could be made from July, 2022 to Jan. 2023.

These initiatives include creating and opening the START Center, increasing enrollment in SET SAIL first-year seminars by 25% from Fall 2021 to Fall 2022 and the creation of the Retention Fund which awarded $172,000 for retention and completion scholarships. One initiative also included having the BOT approve the reclassification of the Psychology and Economics programs on Jan. 31—something that the board nearly voted to defer in a 5-8 vote.

Because all ten of the Student Success Initiatives have been fully implemented, New College is now eligible for $970,000. The BOT unanimously voted to approve the Student Success Plan Report, which will be presented to the BOG in March.

Public Comment

Once voting concluded at approximately 1:32 p.m., public comment was called to order. Christaldi had to exit the meeting at this time and offered an apology for not being present during public comment. A list of 17 members of the public were scheduled to speak, but only 14 were available on Zoom during the meeting.

Like the Jan. 31 BOT meeting, the majority of the public comments were delivered by community members and parents of current students. Only one current faculty member and one current student were present to speak. Several of the same community members spoke during the last BOT meeting. Recurring points included community members expressing their disappointment that public comment had been moved to the end of the meeting and accusations that the BOT had violated Sunshine Law. 

“It’s absurd that the public comment was moved to the end, after the decisions were made,” community member Betsy Braden said. “It highlights the disdain that these trustees have toward us, and the neglect for our concerns about the direction they are taking our school. This is a hostile takeover of the top five public liberal arts school that we call home. These trustees masquerade as culture warriors to enact their real goal—the privatization of public schools.”

Every commenter either criticized Corcoran directly or referenced his connections to the conservative private college Hillsdale. Many cited various situations that have received scrutiny or negative attention throughout his career—like the privatization of Jefferson County schools that Corcoran orchestrated, his long and controversial time as Commissioner of Education and his previous failed attempt to become President of Florida State University (FSU).

“He [Corcoran] has a terrible record of leadership and questionable moral judgment,” said Jennifer Wright, parent of a current student. “When he was Education Commissioner, Mr. Corcoran was never interested in actually doing the job. Instead, he gave political speeches at private colleges, boosted his own name recognition and angled for any college presidency that would take him. None did. His apathetic leadership ran the Department of Education into the ground. Under his watch, Florida ranked last for learning rates. Let that sink in and ask yourself, how is he the best candidate for this appointment?”

Others also questioned the financial feasibility of Corcoran’s contract. The word “grift” was used by more than one speaker.

“For a board that says they don’t want to indoctrinate students, you just hired the Indoctrinator in Chief,” Representative Anna Eskamani (District 47- Democrat) said. “In fact, Richard Corcoran has described education as a weapon to be used against ideological enemies. And now you’re going to pay him about $1,000 per student. For reference, FSU’s President makes about $24 per student. This is a hilarious open grift, a violation of Sunshine Law.”

Current student and third-year Cooper Wright spoke particularly on the struggles that students have faced over the past month following the appointment of the new trustees.

“In the past month, my school has gone from a tiny Florida honors college to ground zero of a potentially nation-wide political battle,” Wright said. “The students don’t want this, but I know that we’re not the people you intend to please. To the board members, I’ve read your tweets, your articles, your editorials. You want to pull our school out by its roots and turn it into a ship of Theseus that flies its flag and has lost everything that made it what it was. NCF offers students a unique experience that can’t be found in any other public Florida college. I don’t want to be part of a brand experiment. I don’t want to be in the last act of students that got to experience what New College was.”

“To Mr. Corcoran, we’re not caricatures,” Wright concluded. “We’re human beings who care about this school, and you’re not a caricature either. Please get to know us before you make decisions that will affect our academic lives. How’s that $1,000?”

All previously deferred items from the Jan. 31 BOT meeting are still expected to be discussed and voted upon during the Feb. 28 BOT meeting. And, if the BOG approves Corcoran’s employment contract, it can be anticipated that he might attend this meeting as well, in his first ever formal appearance before the New College community.

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