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Background Briefing

New College presents online course, and the billionaire activist behind it

Written by on Saturday, January 13, 2024

Richard Corcoran rushes the Ricketts program to a quick start this month. That prompts pushback by faculty.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Jan. 12, 2024

Host: On Wednesday in Tallahassee in his State of the State address, Gov. Ron DeSantis brought up the takeover of New College as one of his signature achievements in 2023, and lauded Richard Corcoran for transforming the college “from an outpost of ideological indoctrination into an institution rooted in truth”. Among the people lined up behind the governor, there was a freshman New College baseball student. The next day in Sarasota, the New College president held a press conference on his campus to tout a new distance learning program — and the billionaire activist who is a driving force behind it.

[Soundbite from Ricketts Great Books promotional video]

Johannes Werner: This is a sample from a promotional video about a New College online learning program Richard Corcoran presented in a press conference at New College yesterday.

Corcoran talked about the need to stand in support of Israel after the Hamas attacks. He talked about the need for a liberal arts education that teaches people to “think outside the box”. He dropped words such as “second to none”, “best in the country”, “world-class education”, and he applauded the “generosity of Joe Ricketts”, who stood at his side. The billionaire Chicago Cubs owner who made his money with a stock brokerage called AmeriTrade also happens to be in charge of an education foundation in his name.

Ricketts, in turn, joked about the Chicago Cubs, and told the story about how shocked he was when he found out that a top-notch higher education is too expensive for working people. He said that’s how the idea for his foundation’s online program germinated. He also said that he began a conversation with Ron DeSantis in March last year.

Joe Ricketts at College Hall

Joe Ricketts: … so glad to be here. We’re doing something historical that I’m very proud to be associated with.

JW: Apologies for the bad quality of this soundbite. College Hall is full of echo.

New College is apparently paying the Ricketts Opportunity Education Foundation to provide the content of the new online classes – called the “Ricketts Great Books College” – to offer it in the name of New College.

Joe Ricketts has personally pledged scholarship funding to the New College online program. The Ricketts donation will be managed by the New College Foundation, which is headed by Sydney Gruters, wife of State Senator and former Florida Republican Party Chair Joe Gruters.

The Ricketts connection apparently came about through New College Trustee Christopher Rufo, who called Ricketts his “friend” during the December trustees’ meeting.

That, in turn, led to a testy exchange at the Dec. 11 meeting between faculty Trustee Dr. Amy Reid, Rufo and Trustee Mark Bauerlein.

Amy Reid: I think that there we need to pause on this. Starting in the spring is, I believe, a little hasty, and there should be actual consultation with the faculty. […]  It’s been raised repeatedly over this past number of months that there are conflicts of interest among some members of this board, who seem to be perhaps profiting from their work on this board.

Christopher Rufo: Be specific which people. Let’s not make vague accusations. Be a grown up and actually say what you mean. I’d like to know if I’m one of those with a conflict of interest. 

Mark Bauerlein: Yeah, I’d like to know if I’m one of those with a conflict of interest!

Christopher Rufo: Your entire time, everything you say is so angry, is so negative, is so critical. And again, not nice being accusations of breaking the law. And so I would say that either make your accusation or shut up!

JW: Even though the first online class will begin as early as Jan. 29, faculty members received only cursory information about the distance learning program. The program will offer a four-year liberal arts degree, a one-year “certificate”, and a two-year AA option. For colleges to be accredited, they have to show faculty involvement in the creation and implementation of their degree programs. Best practice, so far, for universities has been to build a firewall between donors and hiring and curriculum decisions.

It wasn’t until a few weeks ago the professors learned that it will be New College faculty who will teach the online classes.

A New College press release said that Dr. David Harvey, a historian on campus since 2000, will oversee the program, and that New College faculty will teach it. Harvey, apparently the sole faculty member who was asked to be part in the creation of the New College distance learning program, is traveling this week. He agreed to be interviewed by WSLR News next week.

New College spokesman Nathan March did not respond to inquiries by WSLR News before deadline.

Jono Miller is a retired New College professor. He now chairs NC Freedom, an alumni-driven organization that has been critical of the new administration. He had harsh words for the online program.

Jono Miller: We were surprised to receive an announcement from the college, announcing that New College was launching a worldwide liberal arts degree program integrating the Ricketts Great Books College curriculum. Now, I don’t know much about the Ricketts Great Books College curriculum, and the reason that’s significant is neither does the Internet. If you google Ricketts Great Books College curriculum, virtually nothing comes up other than that New College is probably going to be using it. So this is a problem in itself. Until it’s proven otherwise, it seems like vaporware. … And it’s not clear from the announcement the extent to which this can be populated with current faculty versus new faculty that are hired. But I can tell you that our current faculty don’t have any excess capacity. If they’re going to be taking on responsibilities related to this program, that’s going to come at the cost of our existing undergraduate programs. … This announcement was also alarming because New College believes in shared governance and the fact they’re having a large role in determining the curriculum. And whether one or more faculty may have been involved in this is not clear. It’s clear that the entire faculty was not.

JW: In his substack, Florida education activist Billy Townsend has pointed out that the Ricketts Foundation has linked up with Academica, the South Florida-based for-profit school administration company. Academica is under federal investigation since plummeting student performance forced it to drop the administration of a small, troubled public school district in the Florida Panhandle. It was the Florida Department of Education, under then-Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, that picked the for-profit to take over the public school district in the first place, and oversaw it while it ran the Jefferson County school district.

Townsend, in his substack, points out that the Ricketts Foundation touts its links to Academica.

“We’re very excited to work with Academica as we build partnerships across the state of Florida,” Ricketts says on its website, adding that the foundation plans to open three new charter schools in Florida in the 2024-25 school year.

This has been Johannes Werner for WSLR News. A special thank you to Steve Norris for contributing to this report.

 

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