A close ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis who served as speaker of the Florida House and the governor’s first education secretary, Corcoran is taking the lead on DeSantis’ experiment in conservative higher education reform.
DeSantis appointed six new board members at New College on Jan. 6 in an effort to transform the school, setting off what may be one of the most aggressive makeovers of a public college in American history.
Corcoran has been described as a disruptor.
“If what the board is looking for is someone that will remove entrenched bureaucracies and fight the status quo, well they’d be hard pressed to do better than Richard Corcoran,” Florida Board of Governors member Jose Oliva said this week.
On the eve of Corcoran’s arrival on campus, the Herald-Tribune sent him a list of questions to gauge his thoughts on where he wants to take New College and get reaction to some of the controversy surrounding his hiring, including concerns that it was orchestrated behind the scenes in a way that raised questions about comporting with Sunshine Law, questions about his large salary and the idea that he is getting the job because of his political connections.
Corcoran’s responses are below.
Q: What is your vision for New College?
A: My vision for New College is twofold for now. First, New College needs to have a defined curriculum that is crafted to achieve the aim of the liberal arts education: to teach students how to think. The course progression should not be so broad as to be meaningless. The basic premise of a liberal arts education is that each person has an inherent dignity. Students are not widgets who need only technical skills to take their place in an assembly line of workers. They are humans who want to understand themselves and their world. The curriculum should reflect this from beginning to end.
Second, I want to ensure that the Chicago Principles are followed because “without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university.” These were adopted by the University of Chicago’s Committee on Freedom of Expression in 2014 and have since been adopted by many colleges around the country, including the Florida university system in 2019. It is important that higher education is not dominated by a self-aggrandizing few who want to co-opt the education system to force their personal beliefs on other people’s children. That is the opposite of what education is for.
Q: New College has been an important institution in the Sarasota/Bradenton region for 63 years. Many New College employees, alumni and supporters in the community worry that what they love about the school will be lost in this transformation. Is there anything about New College’s legacy and traditions you want to preserve?
A: New College was founded to be a liberal arts-focused institution. It also requires a Senior Capstone project. These traditions are important to higher education and will continue to be a focus. As Trustee (Matthew) Spalding stated in a recent interview, “This is not about turning New College into something it is not but strengthening its ‘distinctive mission’ as the ‘residential liberal arts honors college’ of the state of Florida.”
According to the book New College: The First Three Decades, Dr. Wesley A. Hotchkiss, the general secretary for higher education of the Board of Home Missions of the Congregational and Christian Churches (which later merged with another denomination to become the United Church of Christ), flew to Sarasota at the beginning of 1959 to meet with a local group wanting to start a college in the area. By the fall, he was working with local community members to discuss a philosophy of education. Dr. Hotchkiss said that the general principles of education at the college should “introduc[e] the student ‘to the learning of our civilization in the classical tradition’ and encourage[e] students to become lifelong scholars.” (page 9)
Q: The governor’s office has talked about implementing a “classical” education program at New College. How do you define classical education and what types of programs would that entail?
A: Generally, a “classical” education is a traditional liberal arts education; however, the definition of “liberal arts” has become increasingly broad over the years. Of course, there are some basic goals of a liberal arts education that I think most would agree on, such as teaching students to think analytically, express themselves clearly, and engage in civic life in a thoughtful way. But, in practice, the “liberal arts” track in most colleges is just a chaotic hodgepodge of courses that do not appear to be particularly related in a strategic way to accomplishing these aims.
As a result of this, I think people have reached for another way to define an education that focuses on teaching students how to think. The word “classical” works as a stand-in because it points back to when the idea of a “liberal arts” education originated – around 400 BC when the Greeks were working to create a successful paradigm for self-governance and understood education to be an important part of that effort. In doing this, the Greeks believed thinking deeply about important questions and having a broad base of knowledge to do this from was crucial to educating its citizens.
I also think the term “classical” points to the idea that a component of learning how to think is being exposed to the conversation of the centuries, not just the thoughts from our own moment in time. We are born into a conversation that has been happening for thousands of years. And in it there have been certain people – artists, authors, philosophers, scientists, mathematicians – whose works speak across cultures and times and social status to the biggest questions of existence. It is not a perfect conversation, but there are certain contributors to the conversation that have helped humanity “stitch together the patches of the universe.” We are poorer as a society when we allow students to think that the only ideas that exist are the ones right in front of them. Unfortunately, very few students in higher education today are purposefully exposed to much of this conversation. This results in an echo chamber that in many ways takes away an important reason for literacy. As it has been said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
There are questions that are common to all humanity such as: what is my purpose in this world? Who is my neighbor? What is the good life? These are just a few. And the time to contemplate these is at the beginning of life. The answers will lay the groundwork for how students will meet the challenges and adventures ahead of them.
Q: Do you plan to overhaul the staffing at New College? Will people lose their jobs? Are there certain administrators and/or faculty who you want to replace?
A: This question is very premature. We are going to assess the organization and its structure and efficiency before making any decisions.
Q: There is an effort to abolish the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence at New College and any diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Do you support this?
A: Yes. The nomenclature is wrong. No one is against the actual definitions of what the words mean in and of themselves. However, in actual practice, the result is often the opposite of the words’ literal definitions. The current use of DEI programs has propagated homogenous opinions, inequality, and exclusion of all but pre-approved ideas. Students and parents don’t sign up for college to have an agenda foisted on them. They want an education that equips people to be critical thinkers.
Q: How much do you want to change New College’s academic offerings? Are there certain programs/courses that you want to eliminate or add?
A: Absolutely. In the weeks ahead, we will be looking at these and making changes accordingly to help us achieve our vision.
Q: The Board of Governors, which you served on, promoted diversity, equity and inclusion programs until recently. What do you say those who might be confused about why the state’s
approach to DEI changed so abruptly? Should some of these BOG rules promoting DEI change before efforts to abolish DEI at universities proceed?
A: See my response to your DEI question above. The BOG realizes this, and I anticipate they will assess and make changes as needed to ensure these programs are no longer hijacked by an elitist few who are intent on achieving a narrow agenda which stifles free speech.
Q: As education commissioner, you led the governor’s agenda on issues that received national attention, including debates over how race is discussed in schools. Are universities the next big battleground for some of these culture war issues? How much do you see your job as trying to address cultural/social issues?
A: See my response to your first question.
Q: How did you first begin exploring the idea of becoming New College’s president? Who is the first person you talked to about this? How much was the governor’s office involved?
A: I obviously had applied to Florida State. In my interview, I talked a lot about the liberal arts. People know I’m passionate about returning to the idea of education being about teaching students how to think, not what to think. Since going into the private sector, I have been approached about similar positions at other colleges. I declined each time. I have enjoyed the private sector, and my businesses were doing very well. Trustee Spalding mentioned the New College interim presidency position to me, and immediately I realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I only live once. I want to do something meaningful. And it’s hard to get more meaningful than this.
Q: Even before former President Patricia Okker was fired on Jan. 31, a media outlet reported that you were taking over as interim president, and the governor’s office confirmed that. That gave the impression that this was all orchestrated behind the scenes. Was this process handled in accordance with Florida’s Sunshine laws?
A: Of course.
Q: New College’s student trustee questioned your hiring, suggesting that your relationships helped you get the job and raising ethical concerns about that. What do you say to those who view your hiring as a rewarding a political ally of the governor over others who might be more qualified to run a university?
A: This question and the next are very similar so I am answering them both here. As Trustee (Christopher) Rufo recently mentioned in an article with The New Yorker, New College is a struggling campus. He noted the data showed that while it accepted 75% of students who applied, it enrolled only 13% and that one-third of graduates were not employed or in graduate school a year after graduation. It also has one of the worst retention rates in the state of students matriculating from first year to the second year. In addition, consultants reported that the top words students used to define the culture at New College were “politically correct,” “druggies,” and “weirdos.” According to these consultants, this was a problem, and “[t]he trustees need to reestablish authority.”
I have a big agenda to fulfill. The board of directors was not looking for someone just to keep the trains running. They wanted someone with a track record of going into complex organizations and making rapid, effective, systemic change. I have a history of moving the ball down the field. I am comfortable shaking up static systems and institutions throughout government. I think it was this track record – unusual in the typical college president – that interested the board.
Q: There has been criticism of your $699,000 salary, which is comparable to presidents at much larger Florida universities. What do you say to those who think your salary is too high and that you
leveraged political connections to reap outsized financial rewards?
A: See my response to the previous question.