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New College president announces airport land deal

Written by on Thursday, December 14, 2023

At the same meeting, he gets pushback for a new online program developed with a conservative foundation.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Dec. 13, 2023

Host: At a board meeting on Monday, New College President Richard Corcoran announced a major long-term achievement. But he also received backlash for advancing an online program without faculty input. Our news team watched the Zoom conference.

Johannes Werner: Amid a time of rapid change and uncertainty, the administrators of the small public university in Sarasota had a bit of good news that brings long-term predictability.

Sitting at the head of a board table at Cook Hall on the New College campus, Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport CEO Rick Piccolo looked on as New College counsel Bill Galvano explained to the trustees the basics of a preliminary agreement with the airport.

New College has been leasing its east campus from the airport.

Under the initial terms, New College would pay the airport $11.5 million to own 30.94 acres of the 32.4 acres of land making up the part of the campus that is located east of US 41. The airport would keep a sliver of land north of General Spaatz Boulevard; the college has been using that for overflow parking. New College has been leasing the east campus from the airport under a 100-year agreement that ends in 2056, much below market rates. However, Piccolo and the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority, which are in charge of the currently fastest growing airport in the nation, had been urging New College to buy the land. Piccolo has said that the college might end up having to pay hundreds of millions of dollars if it waits for the 100-year agreement to expire.

Galvano called the $11.5 million “a very fair price for New College” — which is an understatement, in light of Piccolo’s previous statements. The trustees — one called it a “no-brainer” — voted unanimously to approve the initial terms of the agreement. The trustees will be expected to vote on a final agreement in January. Piccolo explained the airport’s rationale as mainly wanting to do the right thing for New College and Sarasota.

Renderings of the Sweet Sparkman Architecture designs for the New College east campus.

Karl Bernhard, a partner with the local architecture firm picked by the New College administration as the winner in a design competition for the east campus, played for the trustees an animated rendering of their designs. The video showed that the campus would be turning essentially into a sports park. The shells of the historic Pei dorms will be the only original structures left. The land will be filled with new dorms, a competitive swimming venue, a baseball stadium, two practice fields, tennis courts, and a big-size parking garage. The campus would be accessible by car for sports events via an additional street from University Parkway.

In other land news, Galvano seemed to suggest that New College, after inspections, should accept the offer from Manatee County to donate the nine acres on which the Crosley mansion stands. A donation and lease agreement will come before the trustees in January. Galvano mentioned construction on that land. This suggests that the New College administration will ignore the current “New College Challenge”, a long-term plan put together with broad input, which refrains from new construction close to the bayfront.

There were no questions from trustees on the Crosley land.

Online curriculum controversy

But there was pushback against administrators when a pilot project for an online degree program came up. Provost Brad Theissen explained that the program could offer a rapid one-year degree, an associate of arts degree, and a bachelor’s degree. A conservative foundation controlled by the Ricketts — the family of AmeriTrade money that owns the Chicago Cubs — will be in charge of developing the concept and online material. According to Theissen, the foundation will deliver their services at a price that allows for a “low cost” for students.

Asked by student Trustee Grace Keenan whether the Ricketts will be in charge of forming curriculum, Theissen said “it’s more like they’re creating content”.

Faculty Trustee Amy Reid quizzed Theissen about the role of faculty in the online program.

Amy Reid

Amy Reid: My concern about this is that, until this morning, when you made a presentation to the Educational Policy Committee, there was no consultation with the New College faculty about this. So I am somewhat reassured when you say that you’re expecting perhaps one class with 10 students. But I am concerned that this is again something that has gone through without any faculty consultation. As you remember, just before Thanksgiving, there was an announcement that went out about six new ISPs that were going to be taught by people who had not been approved or vetted, or hired, or even had working papers to teach in the United States. You had to pull back three or four of those courses so far. Can you tell me that this is any more serious?

Brad Theissen: Yeah. So what I can say is when I got back from a vacation, within a week, we figured out the ISP situation. And so I’ve been actively involved in the development of this program. I’m hoping that we will develop it in a way where we can continue to offer it in a way where it is deserving of the name New College …

Reid was taken aback about the lack of involvement by professors, who are supposedly in part in charge of forming curriculum.

AR: I have to emphasize — this will be my last comment — that there needs to be actual faculty involvement. Part of our accreditation is that faculty are in charge of the curriculum. I am distressed that you were using things that were put forward to manage the pandemic situation, in order to so radically change our academic curriculum. So I think that we need to pause this. Starting it in the spring is, I believe, a little hasty, and there should be actual consultation with the faculty.

The Ricketts connection came through Trustee and conservative activist Christopher Rufo. who called Joe Ricketts a “friend”. The student trustee responded with this remark:

Grace Keenan: I make a sincere request to my fellow trustees to stop mentioning their friendships with our business partners. Thank you.

Corcoran responded that this is all about growing student enrollment and revenues. Rufo said he would “never apologize” for helping bring revenues and programs to New College.

Reid had this to say about it.

AR: I will say first, in response to the last point that Trustee Keenan brought up, is that — 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. And so I think that is the reason why she raised that question, Mr. Rufo.

The faculty representative’s words triggered angry responses by Rufo and Trustee Mark Bauerlein, and a statement by Corcoran that seemed to include threats.

Christopher Rufo: Be specific which people. Let’s not make vague accusations! Be a grown-up and actually say what you mean. 

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

CR: You’re the entire time — everything you say is so angry, is so negative, is so critical, and accusations of breaking the law. And so I would say that either make your accusation, or shut up.

Richard Corcoran: I just want to interject, I think this was an informational item. We’ve given you the information. If you have follow up, you can talk about that with us. And secondarily, I would say that, if you’re going to make some sort of legal challenge about anybody on this board, please come with your facts. If you do not have that, you do not have documentation, it’s completely inappropriate, and we will take whatever actions necessary to make sure that does not occur.

The trustees did not vote, but the online program is expected to proceed.

Reporting for WSLR News, this has been Johannes Werner.


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