Incoming Interim New College President Richard Corcoran’s employment contract was approved on Feb. 21 by the Board of Trustees (BOT), including his lofty base salary of $699,000. Approval of Corcoran’s contract was the only action item at this virtual Special BOT meeting, and judging by the comment period, the public was not pleased.
A previous version of the contract had already been voted on and approved in another virtual Special BOT Meeting on Feb. 13. The BOT took the opportunity to fine tune the contract before the Board of Governors (BOG) stamped its approval on Feb. 22, and this version was updated with very minor changes.
The most critical part of the contract is the proposed salary for Corcoran. Along with the initial yearly salary of $699,000, the college will also be paying an $84,000 annual housing allowance and $12,000 for the use of his personal car. Additionally, Corcoran will be receiving $104,850 yearly for retirement, funded by the New College Foundation—the non-profit Direct Support Organization which provides supplemental funding and scholarships to the school.
Most board members joined the meeting from their homes or offices, and Vice Chair Ron Christaldi tuned in from his car. All board members were in attendance except Ryan T. Anderson, Sarah Mackie and former Chair Mary Ruiz. BOT Liaison Christie Fitzpatrick and Interim General Counsel David Smolker were also present. Director of Network and Technology Services Ben Foss was on the call for tech support.
Unlike the previous Special Meeting, public comment was held at the customary time, before any votes were cast. 21 members of the public were scheduled to speak and 18 of them were present on Zoom during the meeting. Four were current faculty and one was a current student; the rest were community members and parents of both current and former students.
Multiple points came up repeatedly in the public comments. People spoke with concern about Corcoran’s involvement in Jefferson County schools while he was the Florida Commissioner of Education. It was said repeatedly that during his tenure in this position, he allegedly mishandled a multi-million dollar contract for the school system and that third-grade reading scores fell dramatically in the county.
Additionally, every speaker expressed concern about Corcoran’s proposed salary. Members of the public were specifically worried that the salary is too high and that the school might be unable to meet it, given the current budget. Here is a sample of what was said:
Professor of Mathematics Chris Kottke addressed several concerns during his allotted minute. Alluding to ongoing controversy about whether the Sunshine Law was violated in the process of selecting Corcoran as Interim President, he commented first that “Corcoran’s appointment was announced by a Governor’s spokesperson before the Jan. 31 board meeting had even begun, as if it were a done deal.”
A second concern was “the egregious size of this compensation package, which is way out of line with state university salaries.” Kottke said that the package “given our size, will raid our endowment and is frankly embarrassing when our financial priorities should be focused on student outcomes and crumbling infrastructure.”
Addressing the board as a whole, Kottke asked, “Do you understand yourself to be a trustee in the true sense of an independent steward charged with acting in the best interests of our institution, given its unique mission, history and identity? Or rather, do you understand yourself to be a delegate sent to represent and enact the political will of your appointee at any cost? To those of you who can honestly answer as trustees, not delegates, I look forward to working with you.”
Third-year Cynthia Lucas also commented on the compensation package and financial concerns with Corcoran’s contract.
“I would like to address clause 11, where the contract states that the board, ‘shall provide the cost of annual dues and membership fees for mutually agreed to professional associations and private club memberships that will facilitate Corcoran’s performance of the Duties,’” Lucas said. “The language ‘mutually agreed to’ is incredibly unspecific, and it feels irresponsible to be so unclear regarding the regulation of funds afforded to Mr. Corcoran, especially considering his past involvement in the misuse of $20 million allocated to Jefferson County schools.
“If Mr. Corcoran requires the $699,000 salary and other accommodations, then perhaps he is not a good fit for a school and the board should look for an interim president who prioritizes education over monetary provisions,” she concluded.
“These numbers are just not in line with what is reasonable,” community member Eliana Salzhauer said. “New College and this new board look foolish, not just locally, but in the eyes of America that is looking at these numbers and saying, ‘What on earth is justifying this?’ This looks like a grifting, boosting of funds to a friend. Again, a friend that was appointed out of the sunshine before any discussion was had at these board meetings.”
Salzhauer echoed concern about the Florida Sunshine Law, another recurring theme, with commenters accusing the new board members of violating the law due to their quick appointment of Corcoran and unanimous decision to terminate former president Patricia Okker.
Motion and Discussion
Once the public comment period had concluded, BOT Chair Debra A. Jenks called for a motion to vote on Corcoran’s revised contract. Trustee Matthew Spalding set the motion into action and Trustee Lance Karp seconded.
Jenks acknowledged Trustee Charles Kesler for discussion of the motion, but he deferred to New College Student Alliance (NCSA) President and Trustee Grace Keenan, pointing out that her hand had gone up first. Keenan raised further concerns about the heft of the compensation being offered to Corcoran.
“It’s still pretty unclear to me what warrants this amount of money for this contract,” Keenan said. “Because I’m just really not understanding what the competition is, especially since he announced that he got the position before he actually got the position, and there have been no other candidates considered.”
Keenan also questioned why the contract allows Corcoran to set his own goals and expectations, especially when the BOT is typically responsible for setting these goals. “If we’re going to pay him this much, we should really have some intense goals for him to achieve in his time here,” she said.
Keenan asked directly whether the New College Foundation truly has the funds necessary for Corcoran’s contract.
“I spent a lot of my time trying to find information on the funds we have, the plans to pay him, and it’s been incredibly difficult,” Keenan explained. ”Way more difficult than it should have been as a trustee of the college and as somebody who’s going to be voting on his contract. We didn’t get any sort of documentation in the last meeting, whether or not the Foundation did have the funds…or any sort of financial records or budget.”
Keenan explained that both Executive Director of the New College Foundation Mary Anne Young and Board Chair Alison Gardener have left their positions since the Feb. 13 contract meeting. Because of this, Keenan said, she “can’t get a clear answer…All I have gotten is that we believe we have the funds. I have no written confirmation from the Foundation or any clarification on where [in] the budget this money would be coming from.”
Keenan said that based on her research, the only way the school could pay Corcoran’s salary and benefits are if they are “either to take from our endowment, which I think is a really poor financial decision, or we’re gonna be taking from the Peterson gift.”
The $4 million Peterson gift was given to the college in Jan. 2021 from philanthropists Bob and Lee Peterson. Bob Peterson formerly served on the BOT, and both donors have previously made gifts to the college. Lee & Bob Peterson Residence Hall, or the W Letter dormitory, is named in their honor.
Keenan also brought up that there is no contract for current Interim President Bradley Thiessen, and he is not being compensated for this position.
Then Trustee Kesler took his turn.
“It seems to me, it’s not, I mean, it’s not the largest such salary in the [state] system by any means, but per student it is a very large amount,” he stated in response to Keenan’s remarks. “I think the justification for it is the expectation and the hope that the budget of the college will be growing in the next few years and growing considerably.”
With regard to Keenan’s question about Corcoran’s goals, “His goals are, in a way, fairly obvious,” Kesler said. “[That] deferred maintenance on the campus [will] begin to be relieved, that closed buildings begin to be opened, that new professors are hired, that the standard of academic life on the campus improves and the standard of life more broadly improves in the period while he’s an Interim President.”
Kesler also emphasized that a permanent presidential search is still ahead, a sentiment echoed by other trustees as the conversation went on. But Kesler did express interest in the financial prospects Keenan brought up, asking “if there are any answers to the questions that Trustee Keenan raised today about the funds available to pay the salary of our Interim President.”
“We have very high expectations here,” Trustee Mark Bauerlein stated. “The securing of [private] donations and the relations to the Legislature is going to be one of the first and foremost duties of the new president, and I think that we are going to expect a great deal out of this performance.”
“I agree that the facilities, the amenities on campus, the neighborhood around the campus as well is going to require a lot of attention,” Bauerlein reiterated. “I understand people’s concerns over this package, but the package itself is going to be a burden that must be met in the following months.”
Vice Chair Christaldi also proclaimed his support for Corcoran, saying, “He understands the state budgetary process…And we live and die by the budget of the State of Florida.”
Christaldi also volunteered that Corcoran’s salary isn’t being paid from the Foundation, and instead is being paid out by New College itself.
Trustee Matthew Lepinski responded directly to this claim.
“My understanding [is] that Florida statute limits us to $200,000 for salary for any employee across the State University System,” he said. And that “the excess based salary was paid for by direct support organizations.”
“I have looked at the financial statement from the state of Florida Auditor General’s Office for New College and the Foundation,” Jenks said. “We definitely have the funding within the Foundation to cover the terms of the interim contract.”
Trustee Eddie Speir voiced his support for Corcoran’s contract and then explained that he doesn’t think “it’s fair to look at this as a per-student cost. The whole idea of per-student negates the strategic importance that New College of Florida is to the entire state of Florida.”
“The financial statements that were audited by the state auditor established that there is funding and money available [in the Foundation] to cover all aspects of this interim contract,” Jenks said, re-iterating her assertion that the Foundation is able to cover the contract.
“I have the financial audit report in front of me, and I only see that there’s $230,000 for the second half of this year available,” Keenan responded. “I’m really just trying to figure out specifically where will this money be coming from?”
Keenan pressed further, but Jenks did not respond, instead asking if there were any other comments or discussion at that point.
Keenan had one more, returning to the point of setting goals or expectations for Corcoran.
“Does it not make sense that we should set our high expectations in writing, either in this contract or in the contract say that we will, in the next BOT meeting, be presenting our goals for him?” Keenan asked. “Because we’re setting up ourselves for failure or at least leaving us very vulnerable if we’re giving him all the money and then letting him decide what goals and where he wants to set the bar.”
Trustee Spalding emphasized the “very high” expectations that the board has for Corcoran.
“Given the situation which we find ourselves, given the situation of this college, given the deferred maintenance, the decreasing number of students, all the things we have talked about at great length, this is an expensive package, but it’s a package that all of us have an expectation and responsibility to make sure is serving the long term existence of New College,” Spalding said.
Interim General Counsel David Smolker added his legal opinion to the conversation.
“I think the way to view it is that Mr. Corcoran will have the ability to propose objectives for the institution pursuant to this contract,” Smolker said. “But ultimately, it’s the board that decides whether to accept those objectives and to suggest and impose other objectives and priorities. So I think that the two imperatives can be easily handled under the existing framework without a change in the contract.”
With that, the Board decided to vote on the motion. It passed 9-1, with Keenan casting the only dissenting vote.
The following day, Feb. 22, Richard Corcoran’s contract was approved by the Board of Governors (BOG) with two members in opposition, formally securing his employment as Interim President of New College. Richard Corcoran is on the agenda to speak at the Feb. 28 BOT meeting, which will be held in person at the Sudakoff Conference Center.