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At Tampa event, New College interim president hints at his plans

Written by on Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Richard Corcoran also got into heated exchanges with audience members.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Sept. 20, 2023


Corcoran at Tiger Bay event

Host: New College Interim President Richard Corcoran is giving job talks on the campus tomorrow to make his million-dollar post permanent. Ron DeSantis’ former secretary of education was the sole presenter at an event in Tampa on Friday, gave hints of what he wants to achieve, and got into heated exchanges with some questioners. Partner station WMNF recorded the whole thing, and we have excerpts for you.

Johannes Werner: To say it right away, Richard Corcoran’s presentation in Tampa became heated towards the end of the question-and-answer session.

Attendee:  Your speech about the value of liberal arts education, as well as your anecdote about kindness, flies in the face of the reality on the ground of what’s happening at New College. Faculty, students, people of color, LGBTQ people do not feel welcome. They are leaving the school in droves, … 40 percent of faculty have left since this hostile takeover happened. Are you capable of seeing the contradiction of in what you’re saying here, when you have the rhetoric of your board members, particularly Christoper Rufo and his woke indoctrination nonsense that he’s pushing on the public? Are you capable of seeing the contradiction in what you’re sitting up here saying and what the reality at your school is?

Corcoran: I appreciate the line of questioning, and I’ll just say as nicely as possible, 100% of what you said is not based on fact. Can you give me one fact? How many people of color have left the campus? I could do that with all your points and you’re going to say the same thing. Can I get a real question please? … [inaudible] What part? Tell me the exact question you want me to answer. … [inaudible] Have people of color left the campus? No, they’ve come to this campus by a 300% increase. … [inaudible] You said that!

J.W.: But during the speech part, he outlined some of what should be expected to happen on the small campus in Sarasota. Corcoran started with a self-effacing anecdote and a passionate speech for liberal arts education and outside-the-box thinking. He then pivoted into what’s wrong with New College, and what he’s going to fix.

Corcoran: New College is a special place with a great history. It’s just gone off the tracks. The biggest way it’s gone off the tracks isn’t its faculty, still a tremendous faculty. It’s in its leadership. The leadership – I could regale you with story after story. Our foundation, I go in there and say, ‘Where are we on the foundation?’ They raise about $2.5 million a year. Keep in mind, a private school just down the road, not nearly as special in my opinion as New College, raises $15 million to $20 million a year, and they don’t even leave Sarasota County. New College, $2.5 million a year. Okay, what’s your expenses? About $3 million. You’re losing $500,000 a year? In a foundation that’s supposed to help students and augment scholarships? It gets better. Well, the other thing that happened was, then we had this great idea that, since we need a bigger return on our investment, we can go get 15% off the market. Then we can cover our salaries and our overhead, and we don’t have to worry about bleeding anymore. So they did that, they got in risky investments. In one calendar year, they lost $6 million in investments. The school’s leadership was absolutely, politely and kindly said, a mess.

J.W.: Corcoran also says the teacher body is out of whack.

Corcoran: You have to be dead center. It doesn’t mean all your professors [have to be] moderate or dead center. You have to draw that line in the middle, and you have to have faculty on both sides. […]  You want William F. Buckley on your faculty, and you want Gore Vidal. You want those students to sit there under those great professors, those great minds, and to be exposed to all those different thoughts, every different angle. When they get that kind of education and they’re taught how to think, not what to think, they will be special citizens in a society. That’s what we’re trying to do at New College.

J.W.: Asked about book banning, which began in Florida while he was secretary of education, he presented himself as a defender of freedom of education, and then pivoted to how uninformed media criticism against him has been.

Another audience member asked him about what guiding principle he thinks is left out of “Fitness, finance, and family”. Here is Corcoran’s response.

Corcoran: I think the thing for me would be faith. People need to be in pursuit of their own truth, but for me, it would be faith.

J.W.: He added that everybody has to find their own philosophy, and then fight for it. He ended his response with this:

Corcoran: We need to be more kind. I don’t understand how we’re so unkind. As a society that has been blessed with so much richness, wealth, education, all of the above, and were just so unkind. My mom would say, ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names would never hurt me’, and my mom was British, and she would go, ‘that’s absolute rubbish.’ She goes, ‘Richard, you broke your wrist playing football, have you thought about it? Does it cause you any pain? No, it grew back stronger than you had it before.’ But, there’s still things that I have said and done, spoken words, that sill – I would be driving the road, and you get that ugly pit feeling in your stomach, and you’re like ‘why am I upset?’ It’s because you’re remembering something I said and did. We really, really need to work on kindness in this country.

J.W.: Asked why he thinks he is qualified to become permanent president of New College, he returned to how bad the administrators were, and how he knows how to turn things around.

Corcoran: So, I will tell you, I do believe that I’m uniquely qualified because I’ve exhibited – I’ve been through a lot of things that nobody has. I was the one who had to open schools with the governor during COVID. I think leadership matters, and I think I’m qualified.

J.W.: When one audience member said he disagreed with Gov. Ron DeSantis about turning New College into a clone of Hillsdale, a religious private college, Corcoran seemed to distance himself from the governor.

Corcoran: I never said that we wanted to be St. Johns of the South, Hillsdale of the South, Williams of the South. I never said it, I don’t like any kind of comparison.

J.W.: The same questioner said he was concerned about lack of diversity at Hillsdale. Corcoran responded that New College has not been a diverse campus.

Corcoran: The other thing I will tell you is, New College, on March 1st or whatever day that I was there, has almost no diversity. Almost none – and not only that the relation between male and female is heavily skewed female. There isn’t a nationwide statistical balance.

J.W.: Finally, responding to a question about the exodus of teachers from the state of Florida and the disappearance of one-third of professors from New College, he laid out what he thinks is happening on his campus.

Corcoran: We had so many applicants, so many applicants, but a lot of them have signed contracts. So, a lot of the conversations were basically this: If you truly are going to build exactly what you said in your opening, if that’s the school that you’re going to build. I’m at Berkley, I’m at Stanford, I’m at University of Chicago. I’m at almost every single Ivy League School. I’m at Duke, I’m at all these different schools, I will come. I don’t have that. What you just described, I don’t have that. And I want it, I want that academic freedom, and if you’re truly going to build that institution, I’m interested and I’d come. And Ive got news for you, some of those people, we don’t ask, some of those people are known very very prominent in their state. Liberals, some are moderate, some are conservative, don’t care. We want free speech-ers who are going to come, who are experts in their discipline, to teach the heck out of these kids. I will tell you right now, we’ve had, you know they talk about, massive faculty leave New College, its just not true. We’ve had about 36 people – faculty members, leave New College, it’s a lot. Of those 36, there’s resignations, there’s retirements, and there’s leaves of absence. Different types of leaves- sabbaticals, research leaves, what have you. Of those 36, all but maybe 10, and when I say 10, those I would tell you, those I could argue with you. Not all 10 were because of the change or to mold what was happening at New College. The other two thirds of them had made whatever decision it was to resign, go on research. Whatever decision they made, they made it long before any change happened at New College. They made- they sent in letters in September and November, saying I’m going to Italy and we’re doing a research project. It’s just not true. And I’ll promise you this, in 24,’ we will have even more faculty because now we’re growing so much. The more growth, we have to add more and more faculty. We will have a who’s-who of faculty and we already have a who’s-who of faculty. You look at some of the names that we’ve attracted, very very famous top-notch faculty members.

J.W.: We thank partner station WMNF for providing the recording of the Tampa Bay Tiger Bay Club event. To listen to the longer recording, go to wmnf.org.

This has been Johannes Werner, for WSLR News.

WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm.