Why Professor Aaron Hillegass rescinded a $600,000 donation and publicly resigned
Headshot of Professor Aaron Hillegass. Courtesy of Aaron Hillegass.

Why Professor Aaron Hillegass rescinded a $600,000 donation and publicly resigned

Interim Director of Applied Data Science, author and alum Aaron Hillegass (‘91) arrived at New College in January, ready to begin his teaching career at the campus. One day later, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that six and later seven new members would be joining the New College Board of Trustees (BOT), changing the course of the college Hillegass once knew. The enthusiastic Hillegas had just donated $600,000 to the New College Foundation, but he rescinded his donation and gave notice on Apr. 8 that he would be leaving at the end of the Spring 2023 semester. Additionally, he wrote a scathing letter criticizing the direction that New College was moving in under the leadership of Interim President Richard Corcoran, which he sent to the Catalyst and publicly shared on Twitter, provoking  death threats from strangers.  

Before coming to work at New College, Hillegass worked on Wall Street on mortgage-backed securities and then moved to the neXT Computer Company with Steve Jobs. Jobs is  a figure for whom Corcoran has expressed admiration. When Jobs merged neXT with Apple, Hillegass started his own company, Big Nerd Ranch, which grew over 19 years to employ 120 workers and show $25 million in revenue. Hillegass eventually sold his business to the multinational Projekt202, and then worked on Artificial Intelligence (AI) to optimize the power grid to be more reliable, cleaner and cheaper. 

Hillegass explained that he had decided to donate $600,000 to the New College Foundation because he believed that New College gives an education that used to be reserved for royalty and scions of very wealthy families. “Wonderful things happen when you make something like that affordable for anyone—my gift was intended to help New College remain even more affordable while maintaining its excellence,” Hillegass said. 

“I had a nice lunch with Pat Okker to discuss the donation,” he continued, telling the story of how he returned to New College years later as a faculty member. “At the end, I said I would love to teach if they needed anyone, because it’s [New College], a place that means so much to me.” 

Things turned out differently, however. “I was prompted to write the letter because I really feel like there’s forces in this country that are trying to divide us as a people, and are pushing a very extreme agenda,” Hillegass said. “New College has the potential to become a destructive force in trying to style itself after Hillsdale College

Hillegass’ perspective is that it seems the administration would like many of the current students to leave, which he said is demonstrated by actions such as Corcoran waiting 10 days after he was hired before introducing himself to the campus community. He explained that as soon as a new president arrives, it is customary to send  an announcement to everyone at the college. New College didn’t receive such a note for more than a week. “I think that sends a message,” Hillegass said.  

Hillegass was one of the first professors to speak out publicly on the changes being rapidly implemented at New College. He is not on a tenure track, but was planning to teach at the school until retirement.

“I don’t have a mortgage here, I don’t have kids here, I don’t need to work so I can speak my mind freely,” he explained. “I was very excited about the role, but after the changes I was always walking the line of do we make the best of what we have and keep going forward or recognize that New College as we know it forever is gone? Richard Corcoran is a good man, he’s a good manager, but he has no relevant experience in higher education.”

Following the public notice of his resignation, Hillegass said that Corcoran himself called his cellphone about the “rumors” he had heard and wanted to make sure Hillegass stayed. Hillegass’ response was that he didn’t feel the college was going in a direction that was good for him, so he wrote the letter and released it publically. 

Since his resignation, Hillegass has received calls from strangers, telling him to “watch out.” Trustee Christopher Rufo has also publicly insulted Hillegass on Twitter. 

“Teaching is an act of service and everyone who comes to work at New College comes to help students become who they want to be, and I think it’s such a disaster to have these political forces destroying that and disrespecting that,” Hillegass said. “I get bullied by Chris Rufo on Twitter, and I cannot believe that someone who is on the BOT feels it’s appropriate to bully a professor of the college. The word trustee is about being trust-worthy. Chris Rufo has not lived up to that.”

Hillegass also raised the issue of proposed House Bill 999 and Florida voters. He spoke about how the administration of former Florida Gov. John Ellis “Jeb” Bush (R), who served from 1999 to 2007, presented itself as a steward of the university system, and how the rankings of the University of Florida (UF) and University of Central Florida (UCF) rose over the last 20 years. 

“I think Florida voters are going to be disappointed in 10 years when they’re back at the bottom of the rankings,” Hillegass continued. “In crafting a new curriculum, the President is looking to mediocre schools like Hillsdale. If he were serious about making New College great, he would be following the lead of the best liberal arts schools: Williams, Amherst and Pomona.”

Hillegass further stated that New College is a place where everyone is safe to express their ideas and the professors are a moderating force. He said that he feels the school tends to attract people who are outliers on the spectrum and gave Derek Black as an example. Black is a New College alum who entered  as a white nationalist and later renounced his white supremacist ideals.

“We are intellectually smart enough to have a room full of people that think differently,” Hillegass said. “You need a faculty of people that are okay with hearing a student mouth off on something you don’t agree with and create a space where you listen and talk about it further.”

Hillegass also commented on Associate Professor of Computer Science and former faculty representative to the BOT Matthew Lepinski’s decision to leave the board. Hillegass stated that those who promote the lie that New College’s major problem is “wokeness” will try to spin Lepinski’s decision as “just a liberal professor who couldn’t stand the new conservative leadership.” 

In the opinion of New College’s departing Interim Director of Applied Data Science, Lepinski gave the new leadership months to show that they were up to the task, and his resignation came only after the BOT consistently demonstrated a lack of vision, a commitment to cronyism and a disdain for the faculty.

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