The New College Foundation—the direct-support organization that raises public and private funds for New College—has come under increased scrutiny this past month, starting on Feb. 13 when Board of Trustees (BOT) Chair Debra Jenks announced that the Foundation would be covering Interim President Richard Corcoran’s $699,000 salary through non-discretionary dollars. Things became more complicated at the following BOT meeting on Feb. 21, where it was revealed that Foundation Executive Director Mary Anne Young and Board Chair Alison Gardener had both left their positions, and so no clear documentation had been provided to prove that the Foundation had the necessary funds for Corcoran’s salary.
This lack of answers, coupled with other controversies surrounding the BOT and the proposed changes to New College, has resulted in alums withdrawing support from the Foundation en masse, to the point where the college could allegedly lose up to $29 million in alumni donations. Additionally, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune also reported that by Feb. 24, three days before Corcoran would assume his role as Interim President, Foundation officials were still “scraping together funds” to cover his salary.
At the Mar. 17 New College Foundation Board of Directors meeting, the question of funding was answered, although not as concretely as some may have hoped. Up to $200,000 in taxpayer money can be used to cover Corcoran’s salary according to state law, and it was confirmed during this meeting that the rest of his salary will be paid with unallocated Foundation funds that were pre-approved in August 2022. However—primarily out of caution and because no formal financial statement was present at this meeting—a vote to approve Corcoran’s salary will not be cast until next year’s budget is approved.
While Corcoran’s salary remains in something of a limbo, Corcoran’s report to the Foundation Board of Directors and the ensuing Q&A session revealed some details about his plans for New College: student recruitment, fund allocation, connections to the controversial Hillsdale College and more.
All 15 members of the Foundation Board of Directors were present for this meeting, which ran from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Although the meeting was only available for members of the public to attend virtually, nine board members attended in-person in the Keating Center. The remaining six board members were present through Zoom—which included BOT Chair Jenks and Trustee Matthew Spalding. Foundation Board Chair Dan Stults (‘77) explained that through her position in the BOT, Jenks has the power to appoint herself and a second designee as Foundation board members—in this case, Spalding.
The board members were also joined by Corcoran, General Counsel Bill Galvano and Associate Vice President Christie Fitz-Patrick, all in-person. 45 members of the public were present on Zoom at the beginning of the meeting, and this number grew to approximately 70 by the end. The meeting agenda was not made publicly available on the New College website, and does not appear to have been recorded or made public after it concluded.
The meeting began with five comments from the public, all of which expressed their dissatisfaction with Corcoran’s salary and the ways that these developments have harmed the reputation of the college for current and future students.
“I’m asking you to use whatever powers and influence are at your disposal to reject funding the absurdly bloated compensation package for Corcoran,” Hannah Galantino-Homer told the Foundation board. “The new leadership has no regard for academic freedom or free speech, and is threatening the school’s accreditation, which, like donations to the Foundation, was based on New College as it has been, not the one that is being forced on the students and faculty.”
Stephanie Bolesch explained that the work of the Foundation to provide scholarships to out-of-state students like her son made “his dream of studying out of state possible.” However, the actions of the BOT and Corcoran have made her no longer comfortable with him continuing to attend New College.
“[We’re] wondering each day if the professors and the classes he needs to graduate will still be there, if his scholarships will still be available,” Bolesch said. “For example, the amount necessary to cover the base salary in excess of $200,000 of the Interim President for one year is equivalent to cutting the out-of-state scholarships for the entire graduating class. So when deciding on fund allocations, please, continue making the interests of the students, faculty and staff—not greedy politicians—your priority, short and long term.”
Other speakers questioned whether approval of Corcoran’s salary would result in detracting support from other academic initiatives, and cited the continued withdrawal of alumni support from the Foundation.
“What will the Foundation stop funding to fund the bloated President’s salary?” Betsy Braden asked. “We ask Treasurer [Larry] Geimer to continue his research as to whether there are sufficient unrestricted funds to pay Corcoran. Diverting funds to his salary instead of fundraising with these funds will hurt the Foundation’s mission by reducing future donations.”
“Today, donors have pulled over $29 million in planned contributions from the Foundation,” Tracy Fero claimed. “This is a direct result of the politicization of New College, and causing damage to the legacy giving Foundation and the longevity of the school.”
Once public comment concluded, Stults put two motions before the board. The first was to reduce the minimum number of board members that the Foundation Board of Directors can have from 15 to 12, with the rationale that “if members feel that they want to drop off of this board, we don’t want the board to fall into some sort of unknown area by going below this minimum.” Having suddenly lost both its Executive Director and former Board Chair last month, the Foundation Board of Directors voted unanimously to approve this motion.
“It would be ideal for us to have a board which is in the 20-to-25 member range,” Stults said. “We need to have broad support throughout the community, so regardless of where we end today in setting the minimum, I think we will aspire to grow the board over time.”
The second motion was to formally elect Stults into the Foundation board. While Stults was properly elected as Chair, his position on the board prior to this was through his role as Chair of the Alumni Board, which expires on June 30. The board unanimously voted to begin his independent term as a board member, which will expire on Jan. 1, 2024. He will serve as Board Chair until October.
By this point in the meeting, Stults allowed Corcoran to deliver a report to the board, which functioned much like the President’s Report he delivered at the Feb. 28 BOT meeting. He restated many of the same core sentiments—that student recruitment and student life would be his top priorities and that he had some ideas for the $15 million gifted to New College on Feb. 15 by the Joint Legislative Budget Commission.
For student recruitment, Corcoran noted that during this past year, very few transfers to New College came from within the state. He told the Foundation that he aims to attract more students from areas surrounding Sarasota, namely Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward County.
For student life, Corcoran suggested that poor retention is due to a lack of activities available on campus, and said that one of the things he’d like to do is “add some sort of extracurricular sports program. I think that would attract more applicants.” New College has several student-run sports programs, which include the New College basketball team, volleyball team, New Crew SRQ rowing team, powerlifting team and eSports team.
Corcoran also revealed that about 12,000 students have been accepted to New College by this date. This number will be whittled down as students either make deposits and become officially enrolled or choose to pursue other institutions. Stults later clarified that this number of accepted applicants is typical for New College, and that the institution has accepted “an overwhelmingly high percentage of applicants,” which has also been common in recent years.
It is worth mentioning that New College did not have the housing facilities available to accommodate for the 2022-23 on-campus population in the fall semester, despite only having approximately 700 total students enrolled.
“I do hope that we continue to break last year’s enrollment [record],” Corcoran said. “If we do that, it would be quite remarkable given [the] circumstances that we have gotten ourselves in.”
Corcoran then began to discuss a letter he had emailed to alumni on Mar. 10. In this letter, he asks alums to “continue to support New College through philanthropic giving.”
“There’s no question that we’ve lost some donors over the struggle, no question,” Corcoran later said during this meeting. “Is it $1 million or $2 million, I’m not sure.”
In this same letter, he also writes that New College should not be “dominated by a self-aggrandizing few who want to co-opt the education system to force their personal beliefs on other people’s children.”
He did not address either of these points in this meeting, but instead expanded on a comment he made about students not being “widgets who need only technical skills to take their place in an assembly line of workers.”
“The concept of the widget comment is, it’s a defense, a compliment or a term used to exemplify the value of a liberal arts education,” Corcoran said. “Steve Jobs, take any of the folks they talk about, what a liberal arts degree provides you is to wrestle with your role in society, in a structure. […] That’s what a liberal arts degree provides you, and it’s not to say that there isn’t tremendous value in STEM degrees. […] You don’t want a society full of just widget-makers. The concept was not about liberal arts graduates, it was more about not-liberal arts graduates. I apologize if that offended anyone.”
This was immediately preceded by Corcoran mentioning that he wants to hire new faculty, but no further information was given about what these new faculty members would be hired to teach or if they would be replacing current non-tenured faculty.
“All of those things are facilitated greatly with more money,” Corcoran continued.
“We have $15 million in the bank, we have $5 million more with the governor’s budget recommendation, we have $10 million more in the governor’s budget recommendation for recurring revenue,” he later added. “That’s $100 million over the next 10 years.”
From here, he suggested a few things that these funds could hypothetically go towards, including renovations for the Caples Mansion, building new dormitories and “student centers,” boosting faculty salaries and fixing the air conditioning in the Dort and Goldstein dorms. One course of action that Corcoran discussed was having a mold litigation company inspect every dorm “to make sure that our students are safe, because students have sent me pictures around their vents that clearly look like…we’ll just say disconcerting stuff.”
This was followed up on later that same day by Interim Provost and VP of Academic Affairs Bradley Thiessen, who emailed the student body to inform them that on Mar. 20, 21 and 22, the company Partner Engineering and Science, Inc. would be conducting tests for water intrusion and mold in randomly-selected dorms.
When any of these various changes could be fully completed is uncertain, but Corcoran suggested that, “optimistically, somewhere around next fall or slightly beyond, I think this campus is [going to be] drastically transformed.” He finished his report with a request that those tuning into the meeting “look at the facts, not the rhetoric, not what’s written,” referring to coverage about New College from various media sources.
“Change, as troubling as it has been to some, will ultimately be one of the best blessings for New College,” Corcoran concluded.
Discussion and Questions
Stults then opened the door for Foundation board members to ask Corcoran questions. To start, board member Adam Kendall asked Corcoran how confident he is that he can complete the goals he has proposed during his tenure. Corcoran responded by discussing the part he played in reopening Florida schools during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in his former role as Florida Education Commissioner, stating how he had “looked at the facts on COVID-19” and had been confident in this decision.
Next, board member Margee Ensign (‘73) asked Corcoran how he was responding to Hampshire College’s recent offer to match tuition with New College students seeking transfer options, and for his views on the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) “Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure.” For the latter, Corcoran explained that he sent a letter to the New College community explaining that he has no intention to fire tenured faculty. For the former, he implied that Hampshire College’s offer is inspired by the fact that liberal arts colleges are “on the decline” and may resort to such offers to “do whatever [they] possibly can to make money”—despite the fact that Hampshire College’s total tuition cost for the 2022-23 academic year was $22,770 more expensive than the projected 2023-24 New College tuition cost for out-of-state students.
“We haven’t sold the core of what we are,” Corcoran said, comparing Hampshire College to New College.
When asked by board member Susan Burns (‘76) about whether he has heard from the New College community on what they love about the institution, Corcoran revealed that he had actually once applied to New College as a student. His application, however, was denied.
“I’ve been a fan of New College, I applied here,” he said. “I didn’t get in, and I didn’t deserve to get in. […] They gave me a very nice letter that said maybe this isn’t the institution for you.”
Corcoran also suggested that he may put out an editorial in response to the media coverage surrounding New College, notably that from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, stating that “a lot of what I’ve read is just not real.”
“The broader public definitely has a perception that needs to be corrected,” he continued.
Board member Glenn Hendrix (‘76) then brought up an interview Corcoran had held with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, published on Mar. 9, where he refers to the liberal arts as “a chaotic hodgepodge of courses that do not appear to be particularly related in a strategic way to accomplishing these aims.”
“And then I go back to look at the statutory mission for New College, which is to provide programs of study which allow students to design their educational experience as much as possible in accordance with their individual interests, values and abilities,” Hendrix continued. “How much are you looking to funnel students more into a core curriculum or a core set of books that they read, versus this very individualized, sometimes fairly esoteric areas of academic pursuit?”
Corcoran responded that he aims to expand the number of required courses from 10 to either 12 or 14 in New College’s SET SAIL First Year Seminar program, and potentially change some of these courses to be “more traditional.”
Board member Monica Van Buskirk then asked Corcoran about his plans to model New College’s marketing and recruitment strategies after Hillsdale College, whose advertising she described as “aggressive” and “ruthless.” Corcoran agreed with this sentiment and said that, in coordination with Spalding, he has been developing a marketing strategy for New College that is modeled after Hillsdale.
“I have boxes of Hillsdale marketing material,” Corcoran said. “So that we can start angling that and grabbing those students.”
He went on to say that “if you look at the course offerings [at Hillsdale], we’re not too dissimilar,” and revealed that, starting this academic year, Metz Culinary Management is now also Hillsdale’s food service provider.
“Whatever they do, we want,” Corcoran said.
He was pressed further on this comment by board members who asked for clarification on which parts of Hillsdale’s model Corcoran is looking to emulate, since it is a private Christian college. One board member suggested that this reflects “an ideological take on liberal arts,” to which Corcoran responded by saying that he only wants to match Hillsdale in terms of “excellence.”
“When I say or mention Hillsdale, it’s because they have chosen the path of being an excellent liberal arts school,” he added. “Those other things that you’re talking about don’t take away from the core that it is an excellent liberal arts school. It’s not an ideological position, it’s an excellence position.”
Approving Corcoran’s Salary…Eventually
By this point, discussion pivoted to financial updates. Fitz-Patrick announced that New College is able to maximize the $200,000 provided by the state to the college each fiscal year in order to cover the Interim President’s salary, and that the difference must come from unallocated discretionary funds that the Foundation approves at the beginning of each fiscal year.
In other words, about 28% of Corcoran’s $699,000 salary can be covered by taxpayer dollars, and the rest will be covered by the Foundation through reserved funds that are not assigned to be spent in any particular way, but as a catch-all if the need arises.
Stults also took a moment to reassure members of the public that student scholarships and gifts to the college will always be spent in ways that the donors have intended.
“We are doing everything in our power to protect those funds and have them be used in the ways that they are intended to be used,” Stults said.
From there, Fitz-Patrick continued to elaborate on the unallocated funds available to the Foundation. These funds had been approved in August 2022, when former President Patricia Okker was still at the helm, for her to spend at her discretion. However, the majority of these funds were never spent, and so are now transferred to Corcoran. Fitz-Patrick said that these leftover funds total to about $65,000, which is typically the amount left over each year.
However, at this point, one board member claimed to have not seen any financial statement reflecting this and expressed confusion on the actual state of the Foundation, and whether this was a matter that could reasonably be voted on. Discussion ensued where various board members confirmed that a financial statement should be made available shortly, and that while Corcoran’s salary had not been budgeted for last fiscal year due to his sudden appointment as Interim President, unallocated funds did exist that could go towards funding this.
Eventually, Hendrix chimed in through the confusion.
“We’ve got some 70-odd people listening in on this, we’ve had numerous comments this meeting and the prior meeting directed at the salary,” Hendrix said. “I suspect that a good number of those 70 folks were expecting that this board was going to vote on this salary, and that’s clearly not going to happen because what I’m hearing is that it’s already baked into the discretionary budget. So the question is, will there ever be a vote by this board on this salary, say, when the new fiscal year starts?”
“Yes, there will be a vote when we approve next year’s salary,” Stults confirmed. “We don’t know what is going to happen over the next period of time, and so I don’t want to speculate exactly how things are going to go. But our job is to vote on a budget.”
After much trial and tribulation, Corcoran’s salary is still not officially set in stone and will not be until around August. However, Stults told the board that the BOT can rule that the Foundation is not fulfilling its role as a direct-support organization if it does not approve the Interim President’s salary.
“Direct-support organizations are obligated to meet the needs of the college,” Stults said. “And in this case, one of the needs of the college is to pay for the Interim President. If we do not vote to support the President’s salary, the BOT will be fully within their rights to say, ‘Board, thank you for your service […] you are relieved of your positions.’”
After some brief additional business, the meeting promptly adjourned at 10:34 a.m. The next Foundation Board of Directors meeting has not been publicly noticed or scheduled on the New College website at the time of this article’s publication, but should occur in April.