On Apr. 12, the New College faculty gathered for its monthly meeting, where professors discussed usual end-of-the-year agenda items and also tackled concerns surrounding their relationship with the new administration. The agenda included motions for endorsement of two statements: one from the New College faculty to the larger New College community in support of the Gender Studies Program, and the second in the form of a letter addressed directly to Interim President Richard Corcoran. This letter cited the urgent need for open lines of communication and collaboration between the faculty and the administration moving forward.
“The faculty of New College is committed and prepared to work for the good of the institution, but your administration has not given any indication of its interest in true shared governance,” the letter read in part. “This has already created problems, and is fostering an environment of distrust, frustration and anger.”
Both statements were read aloud before the faculty voted, and for privacy’s sake, voting was conducted via unsigned paper ballots. Both were approved unanimously.
Corcoran had originally announced he would attend this meeting, but when the day came he was tied up with efforts to secure funding in Tallahassee. Notably, Trustee Jason “Eddie” Speir did attend. He neither spoke nor asked questions, but appeared to be taking notes.
On Apr. 15, Corcoran made an appearance at New College’s Admitted Students Day, where he delivered a speech on his goals of student recruitment and changes to student life that he proposed would appeal to new students. These changes included the addition of “Greek life” and “official” men’s and women’s sports teams. And on April 17, Corcoran found himself on the receiving end of an official grievance filed by the New College United Faculty of Florida (NCUFF). The grievance was developed in response to Corcoran’s attempts to modify the decades-old tenure process for seven faculty members. On Apr. 19, Corcoran made himself available to the faculty for a one-hour open discussion in the Sudakoff Conference Center. A Catalyst reporter was in attendance for the Apr. 12 faculty meeting and for the Apr. 19 conversation.
Corcoran devoted the first half of the Q&A session to addressing the issues he had been tackling for “the last eight weeks.” He first offered an apology for not being present at the Apr. 12 meeting, and for his lack of direct conversation with faculty members.
“First I want to say that I’m sorry, I think this is your second [faculty meeting] since I’ve been here and I would have liked to have been there,” Corcoran said. “I think I was in Tallahassee that day too, so I wasn’t able to be at your last faculty meeting. I met with 10 [to] 25 faculty members, clearly not enough, so I apologize for not having more of this kind of interaction with you all.”
Corcoran explained that his reason for taking an initial hands-off approach to on-campus interaction was his focus on securing necessary funds for New College.
“I think if there’s a problem at New College that nobody could question, it’s that we suffer just quite frankly, radically, from a lack of funds,” Corcoran stated. “Knowing that, I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time every week and I go up there [Tallahassee] for two days [at a time.]”
Corcoran also offered insight on New College’s financial situation when it comes to local fundraising, especially through the New College Foundation.
“Just to give you a picture of our Foundation, over the last 10 years, a great year is raising about $2.5 million,” Corcoran said. “Over the last 10 years, we’re spending closer to $3 million. Every year, we’re bleeding money out of our principle of the Foundation. It’s been rough. I think we’re going to turn it around significantly. There’s a new Executive Director, we’re going to get a new Budget Director, we have new recruiters, it’s all new.”
Corcoran used Ringling College of Art and Design as an example for where he wants New College to go with regard to fundraising success.
“Just to put it into perspective,” Corcoran observed, “Ringling College, two miles this way, nowhere near as beautiful a campus, each year they raise $15 to $20 million dollars. One hundred percent of that $15- to $20-million comes from the Sarasota community. And we’re struggling to even get to $2.5-million. That part, we will fix.”
Corcoran then switched gears to the topic of student enrollment and faculty’s role in attracting prospective students.
“You may be a biology professor, you may be a data science professor, but what all of you guys are, first and foremost, is student recruitment,” Corcoran stated. “If we don’t have students, we are not going to survive. It’s just that simple. I think our largest freshman class was last year at 249. Most of the time, we’re below 200, if you look at the last 15 years. It’s just not a pathway to survive.”
He then began listing what he identified as the three main tenets of student recruitment: “One, is you have a great admissions recruitment operation. People going around the state, going to honors colleges, going to high schools, every day, 365 days a year, selling why you should come to New College. Our sales have not been great, obviously, and we’re working on that. The second way is you have a fantastic student life, and we do. The thing that I think we have to work on most with our students in recruitment is our world-class faculty. I think you guys getting on the phone will get kids to come here.”
Corcoran acknowledged that New College could be in a tough situation when it comes to enrollment this fall, due to all of the publicity that has come with the new Board of Trustees (BOT) changes.
“We’re in a rock in a hard place right now, because we have the rhetoric on all sides,” Corcoran observed. “If you’re an incoming freshman, you’re thinking, ‘I wanna come to New College because I’ve always heard it’s this.’ I’m going to use pejorative terms, but ‘It’s always been this liberal place, but now it’s getting taken over by the right, so I’m not going to go.’ And then you have conservative folks who think, ‘I’m going to go because it’s been taken over by DeSantis, but I’m going to wait a year or two because it’s not really there.’”
He then pushed back against the idea of such political notions defining the school.
“Neither of those things are true,” Corcoran said. “Certainly, it’s been out there, it’s certainly having an effect on our enrollment. I think we hit 100 [students enrolled] today, which is great, but we’re down a little bit. But we also got an additional 150 folks through the Admissions Committee admitted, so I’m super optimistic that with those criteria we’ll get more students.”
Shifting to address concerns in the faculty’s letter addressed to him on Apr. 12, Corcoran began to speak about the concept of collaboration between the administration and faculty members.
“When I was Commissioner of Education, I did apply to be the Florida State University (FSU) President,” Corcoran said. “There’s an interview where I spoke at length about shared governance. Obviously, it’s the system that works best. The caveat to that, and it’s not really a caveat, is we’re just kind of on a cliff. And when you’re on a cliff, with some of this stuff we just need to move quicker. All I would say on the shared governance side in this short term period, is it should be shared and we need to move quicker. And that’s for this fall, that’s not for next year or years after.”
“Sticking to a philosophy” was Corcoran’s next topic.
“What really matters is that you’ve got to know what your philosophy is,” Corcoran said. “If you don’t have a philosophy, someone does, and you’re moved by theirs whether you like it or not. The one [philosophy] that I never talked about or even really valued is the one that I probably try to, not always well, value the most—and I think that New College needs work on this—and that is kindness. If you can’t interact with people and disagree with people and be kind about it, I question who you are as a human being.
“I’ve talked to a lot of faculty about some of our students, because when we look at our retention rate, a lot of our retention comments are about students being mean to students,” Corcoran continued. “So that kindness, I think, New College, as a body, we can do better in the realm of kindness.”
Corcoran used this point to move into discussing the topic of tenure.
“So when it comes to the tenure, with all sincerity, there’s no malice,” Corcoran shared. “We just find ourselves in a set of circumstances that—I’m not aware of any other college in the history of America having to undergo what we have in the last 90 days. Now I’ve been grieved, so I can’t speak as much as I would like to speak on the topic. I believe in tenure. There’s no desire to go after tenured faculty.”
Following the final comments of his nearly half-hour-long introduction, the floor was opened for questions and comments from the professors in attendance.
The Q&A segment of the meeting was focused around the concept of shared governance and collaboration between faculty and administration. Professor of Mathematics Patrick McDonald kicked off the round of questions. To be able to advertise to students, he pointed out, it was important to know what the curriculum would look like this upcoming fall. “I can appreciate your comments about the importance of getting students, and the faculty’s role in that,” McDonald said. “I would like to play an active role in doing that. I need to be able to tell students what the curriculum will be. And I don’t know, and that really has me unsettled. So how do we actually sell a program that we don’t know? We need to be engaged in a conversation about the curriculum. Can you give us some insight on where we stand?”
Corcoran replied with praise for New College’s academics and minor updates on what he envisions the curriculum will look like for the upcoming semester.
“I have said it over and over, what we do at New College is, I think fantastic,” Corcoran said. “Whether it’s the Independent Study Project (ISPs), whether it’s our system of no grades and contracts, all of that I think is brandable growth for us if we can get it out there. The concept is trying to improve around the edges. What I would tell you, Pat, is to sell New College. Whatever happens, it’s all going to be around the edges. It’s literally New College, tweaked. And it’s New College tweaked with a little bit more of the ‘great books’ type of courses.”
Associate Professor of Biology and SET SAIL Program Director Elizabeth Leininger took the microphone next.
“Whether it’s curriculum, whether it’s the tenure cases of our colleagues, all of this relies on shared governance, not just as a squishy concept, but as an actual set of procedures,” Leininger said. “I know that we’re under a time crunch here, but my question is, are you willing to support those procedures which could actually risk our accreditation to make changes quickly?”
Leininger’s question prompted a brief back-and-forth between her and the Interim President on how the two can disagree on a plan that hasn’t yet been implemented, which ended with a short answer from Corcoran: “No, I’m confident we’ll maintain our accreditation.”
Professor of History David Harvey spoke next, echoing sentiments written in the faculty’s letter to Corcoran.
“I think there’s a lot of concern in our community right now because it obviously is a very dramatic moment of transition and change,” Harvey commented. “It feels like communication has broken down a little bit. We’ve been through a period, since the beginning of January, of a lot of uncertainty of the direction that the College is going. There are a lot of rumors. And in the absence of clear communication, people will grab onto the rumors. My request to you is that we open and maintain a dialogue on these things. We know that you can’t just put in a cookie-cutter program from somewhere else, because that wouldn’t work here. We’d like to be a part of that process.”
“Fair enough,” Corcoran replied. “I agree with everything you said and hopefully I will respect everything you’ve asked for.”
Following Harvey’s comments, Assistant Professor of Theater and Performance Studies Diego Villada took the floor to inquire about Corcoran’s advisory process while updating the curriculum.
“Do you have someone that you liaise with that is an actual [academic] advisor?” Villada asked. “In terms of the decision making, it may require an understanding on the ground level of advising here that you could not possibly have. I’m wondering, who do you liaise with in order to edit your thinking about it, knowing on-the-ground facts. Is that person an actual advisor with actual students?”
“Yes. It’s building blocks, is what I would say,” Corcoran responded. “I could tell you, [there was] complete and utter ignorance about 90 days ago, about all things New College. And so, yes, I have had those conversations just to get a foundational understanding about where we are.”
Professor of Spanish Language and Literature Jose Alberto Portugal spoke up to encourage Corcoran to put more trust in the faculty and communicate more with his Interim Provost, Brad Thiessen.
“I think the advice we’re trying to give to you is that if you try to concentrate on these kinds of decisions in your personal office, things are going to be really complicated and very slow,” Portugal offered. “The idea is that you already have some mechanisms: working through your Provost, faculty who know the program better than you do and we can work with you from that position. We know what we’re doing, we may not always do everything well but we know what you want, we can work with you. Work with your Provost, let the Provost work with us and we can get this thing moving a lot faster.”
A short round of applause followed Portugal’s comments.
“I agree with 100 percent of everything that you said,” Corcoran replied. “I’m just not there yet. Instead of having a philosophical conversation with 100 people, you start with five people that know the subject matter and get to a level of foundation that’s built from that. So yes, hopefully quickly I can involve everybody, but I’m just trying to foundationally get those concepts that I think would allow us to go from good to great talking to you guys in smaller groups until I get to that next level.”
Switching gears, Professor of History and Chart Your Course (CYC) Director Carrie Beneš mentioned the issue of New College’s infrastructure.
“One of the jokes that I’ve made about New College is that it runs on two hamster wheels and a Google form,” Beneš said. “Faculty are the ones who have done a lot of work in this college that has elsewhere been done by a fairly extensive, professional staff structure. I think, partly, that’s why Alberto’s point is so crucial, because the faculty are really the ones on the ground, not only teaching, but advising students. Do you have any insights about starting to build that infrastructure to support the kinds of things we always wanted to be able to do at New College?”
“It sounds like you’re [New College] infrastructure poor,” Corcoran responded. “So if you’re infrastructure poor right now, with no changes, what does that look like to get not to be infrastructure poor? I think that because New College has been beaten down so long financially, that mediocre became the goal. Over time, year after year, instead of getting the $100,000 you asked for, you only got $5,000. Whether it’s a facility request or renovating a hall, whatever it might be, the threshold is excellence, and we’ll pay for excellence. We’re going to be an excellent college.”
Following this statement, Director of Gender Studies and Professor of French Language and Literature Amy Reid voiced her opinion on the idea that New College has been striving for mediocrity.
“I want to push back on what you just said about us having a culture of mediocrity here,” Reid stated. “That is not true. We have some faculty structures and a wealth of knowledge here on this campus, and we have a lot of people who have been working very hard to continue to uphold standards of excellence in the curriculum here. Despite underfunding, despite a crumbling infrastructure. So, we need you to help us to build up the infrastructure here. But we need you to also respect the knowledge and the dedication and the know-how of the people here on the ground. I hope before you consider making substantial changes to our academic program that you actually talk to more of the faculty. The students who graduate from New College are pretty clear that what makes this place work is faculty.”
Again, a short burst of applause followed Reid’s comments. Corcoran began responding and Reid tried to clarify to make sure there was no confusion.
“Amy, can I just finish?” Corcoran asked. “I’m not angry. You sound a little angry at me. I’m trying to help. I have your back. I hear you loud and clear. The mediocrity is, are our Pei dorms A+, C or F? I’ll tell you, they are F. I am talking about the facilities and the requests for what you need to be a great teacher. You guys have never had the resources, have never had the funding to have those excellent things which most universities in our system have. If after 10 years of making a request, and either you don’t get it at all, or you get a watered-down version, it creates a culture and you see that in our facilities. I meant no offense by that comment.”
“I think all of us are open to changes,” Reid said. “None of us want to see this place stagnate. Please, step up and work to build alliances with us. We are your greatest resource.”
“I 100 percent am. I apologize I haven’t done more of it,” Corcoran said. “But, you are on the verge of $75-million because I haven’t had all that time. I promise you, I will get to that, and I’m getting to it as quickly as I can. And you’re not wrong.”
By the end of the meeting, faculty members walked away with the same incomplete vision of academics for the upcoming Fall 2023 semester that had been offered since the beginning of January. With the Apr. 26 BOT Meeting just on the horizon, the vision will soon become clearer.