The New College of Florida Board of Trustees, dominated by appointees of Gov. Ron DeSantis, on Tuesday selected Interim President Richard Corcoran to become the small liberal-arts school’s leader on a permanent basis.
The trustees’ selection of Corcoran set in motion negotiations of an employment contract, with the board’s Vice Chairman Ronald Christaldi designated to take the lead on ironing out details. The New College Presidential Search Committee in July approved a pay range of $487,000 to $868,000.
Two other finalists for the position were Tyler Fisher, an associate professor of modern languages and literature at the University of Central Florida, and Robert Gervasi, a former interim president at the University of Mount Union in Ohio.
Corcoran, a Republican former state House speaker and state education commissioner, earned a salary of $699,000 in the interim role. Since his installation as interim leader in February, Corcoran has overseen sweeping changes to the school. The changes included an influx of funding from the Legislature, the launch of athletic teams that have bolstered enrollment and the shuttering of an office that handled diversity, equity and inclusion issues.
The trustees selected Corcoran through a roll-call vote in which they were asked to name their top candidate among the three finalists. Corcoran received votes from 10 of 12 trustees. Trustee Amy Reid, a professor who represents New College faculty, voted for Gervasi, and trustee Grace Keenan, who is the student member of the board, voted for Fisher.
Trustees who supported Corcoran include many board members who were appointed by DeSantis since the beginning of the year. They indicated Corcoran could continue efforts he and DeSantis have spearheaded to remake the school.
Joe Jacquot, a trustee who served as the governor’s general counsel during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, pointed to Corcoran’s leadership as education commissioner during the pandemic.
“I have to say, I thought he did a tremendous job in dealing with 67 different district school-board constituents that varied across the state. He did a faithful job in implementing law, from a federal [regulations] perspective as well as new statutes that were passed by the Legislature,” said Jacquot, who was appointed to the board by DeSantis in May.
Matthew Spalding, who was appointed to the New College board as part of a wave of conservative appointees by DeSantis in January, said that Corcoran was the best-suited candidate to carry out a goal of “restoring the mission” of the school.
Corcoran, who holds a seat on the trustees board as interim president, did not address the board following his selection.
Prior to Tuesday’s vote, Keenan read feedback on the presidential candidates that she said was collected from students during open-office hours. Keenan said that the students’ “clear first” choice was Fisher, who she said impressed students by speaking with them in person. Second-ranked by students, Keenan said, was Gervasi, although she added students said Gervasi had a “lack of clarity” about his vision for the school.
Corcoran was ranked last by students, according to Keenan.
“The top comment was that, despite being interim president, he had not come to speak with the students to open himself up for conversation about the presidential search,” Keenan said. “I don’t think there is any excuse for that.”
Reid, the faculty representative on the trustees board, also spoke against Corcoran’s selection.
“Clearly, his strengths lie in his political connections, which are not negligible and which have resulted in bringing money to campus. But he has failed to build campus consensus over these past months,” Reid said.
Members of the group Save New College, which has opposed Republican state officials’ efforts to remake the school, held a rally ahead of Tuesday’s meeting of the trustees to warn against placing Corcoran in the post permanently.
Sophia Brown, a New College graduate who works as a community outreach consultant with the free-speech group PEN America, suggested the school should look elsewhere for a leader.
“We know that New College deserves better leadership. One that can justify creating opportunities for new kinds of students without discriminating against others. One without such a transparent political agenda,” Brown said.
Corcoran’s selection as president ultimately will need approval from the state university system’s Board of Governors.