It took six months before Richard Corcoran agreed to sit down with us and talk about the state’s controversial revamp of New College.
“New College lost its way and went off center and got very traditionally left,” Corcoran said during a recent interview from campus.
Nestled among pretty banyans along Sarasota Bay, New College is Florida’s smallest public college. With a student population that’s historically struggled to exceed 700, the liberal arts school had long been known as a safe haven for the misfit-minded, progressive thinking and LGBTQ-plus community.
But that changed earlier this year when the campus became the epicenter for Governor Ron DeSantis’ so-called "war on wokeness" in higher education.
“They are not meant to indoctrinate students in political ideology that is not a good use of taxpayer funds,” he said during a speech in Orlando about his new policies governing higher education in the state.
In January, DeSantis appointed six new conservative members to the school’s Board of Trustees.
By the end of that month, the school’s former president was out, and Corcoran was in as interim with a base salary that was anything but at nearly $700,000.
“Why are you getting paid so much,” asked Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone.
“I think that's a question for the trustees. You can ask any of the trustees. They are the people that make that decision,” Corcoran said.
Corcoran is now on the shortlist to become New College’s permanent replacement.
“If you get the permanent position, will you be asking for more money,” asked LaGrone.
“When that point in time comes, I’m sure I’ll sit down and work with the trustees on what that looks like next,” he said.
Corcoran is no stranger to politically motivated decisions. A former Republican Speaker of the House, he’s a strong political ally and friend of DeSantis and previously served as the Governor’s Education Commissioner.
“I think a lot of people who are the opposition, what they really want, and won't vocalize is they want a very liberal, liberal arts school. Well, you're never going to be the best, and you're going to struggle, and you're going to circle the drain just like they have. We're not going there,” he said about New College’s future.
“Are LGBTQ-plus students still welcomed at New College,” LaGrone asked.
“The questions a little offensive,” Corcoran said. “Every single student will be treated with the utmost in human dignity,” he said.
But since Corcoran’s arrival, change on campus has been fast, furious, and consistently contentious.
Since the state’s transition, about 40 professors have left campus, representing about 40% of the school’s total faculty.
“Those numbers aren't accurate,” Corcoran said. “If you look at the people who have left the campus. Last number I saw was 36. All but 9 happened or were decided prior to anything happening at the college. So it couldn't be a reflection on us because these were people making the decision in September, October, November, long before January 6th when there was a new set of Board of Trustees,” Corcoran said.
That new board has also fueled questions about just how conservative the publicly funded college will become.
Members include Christopher Rufo, a controversial conservative activist widely described as fueling the country’s battle against critical race theory.
“I know Chris Rufo his heart, and he's 100% in support of making this the New College of old,” Corcoran said.
Another trustee is Matthew Spalding, a Dean at Hillsdale College, a private Christian conservative school in Michigan that DeSantis has openly boasted about emulating at New College.
“We’ll be like a little Hillsdale down in Florida. Can you imagine how good that would be?” the Governor said during a visit to Hillsdale College earlier this year.
But Corcoran said he disagrees with the Governor’s depiction.
“I would not agree with the description,” he said. Instead, Cocoran said the Governor is “100% mission-aligned” with Corcoran’s vision.
When asked what that means, Corcoran said, “Mission alignment is do you want to create as it was, in the day, high intellectual-performing kids who come to a school, its dead center, it's exposed to both sides. It has real free speech and doesn't have a cancel culture, and it becomes the best in the country? That's mission aligned.”
Corcoran said that to help meet that mission, the college has hired about 30 new faculty and is expanding the school’s student body by adding more sports and student-athletes on campus. His goal is for 30% of New College’s student body to be student-athletes.
While the new year has started with some bumps, including hundreds of upperclassmen being moved off campus to hotels while the college fixes longstanding mold issues, Corcoran denies reports the college has had to cancel some fall classes at the last minute.
“No, zero, not one. That’s totally inaccurate,” he said.
But two emails provided to us by a New College parent prove otherwise. One of the emails about a canceled class was sent to the student just a few weeks ago.
What Corcoran can’t dispute is the long list of questions facing New College’s future.
Earlier this summer, some New College students and faculty filed a federal lawsuit accusing the school’s new Board of Trustees and the state of censoring academic freedom on college campuses, including at New College, where both sides agree it should thrive but clearly disagree over how.
“There's no college that will be more open to free speech than any other college. And that lawsuit, like many of the others, will find its way into the heap of ash in no time whatsoever. But I do have to get to the next meeting. Katie,” he said before ending our interview.
Watch Katie’s full interview with New College Interim President Richard Corcoran below.