Women dressed in red gowns modeled after The Handmaid’s Tale wander the campus of New College— a colorful statement as Richard Corcoran begins his first week as the New College President. It’s one of many symbols of an atmosphere of protest that currently consumes the tiny Sarasota school. But the potential for demonstrations to shift from literary to violent in nature grips the administrator’s attention. It’s the last day of February and the first day Corcoran will offer a report in front of the New College Board of Trustees. He had planned to spend part of this morning in a magazine interview, but has to delay the meeting. The announcement the prior evening of an “academic freedom” protest on campus forced Corcoran instead into a hastily scheduled meeting with security. It’s the second time in as many days that Corcoran has postponed my interview with him. He originally scheduled the meeting for 24 hours prior but that was Corcoran’s first day on campus and it quickly became clear his daily schedule held no room for conversation. There’s definite doubt whether today will prove much better, but he promises a sit-down will happen.

Tumult and uncertainty, though, some weeks prior became the norm at New College. Corcoran arrives amid unprecedented controversy about the school’s future. Gov. Ron DeSantis in January appointed a batch of new trustees, including extremely controversial ones like Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo, who led a national crusade against the teaching of critical race theory. Tension heightened when the reshaped board at its first meeting fired College President Patricia Okker without cause. Another new trustee, Hillsdale College dean Matthew Spalding, had hosted Corcoran as a guest speaker at the Michigan school and suggested the former Florida Education Commissioner take over for Okker— though not before Corcoran’s lobbying firm announced he had the job.


The personnel change angered students and faculty, and more outrage followed after Corcoran negotiated an 18-month interim contract with a base annual salary of $699,000 a year. More than double Okker’s pay, that makes him one of the top 30 highest-paid public university professors in America—and he doesn’t even hold the job permanently yet. But Corcoran, in an eventual sit-down, acknowledges the compensation comes with expectations. He has little time to deliver on a promise of a brighter future for New College, yet remains confident he can impress not only those trustees who hired him but the throngs gathering on campus bemoaning his hire.

“We’ll get to a point where some of our harshest critics will say that this was a great moment for New College,” he says.

As crews from CNN and Fox News crowded inside the Harry Sudakoff Conference Center, Corcoran opened his report to trustees by offering “tremendous gratitude and thanks to Governor DeSantis.” That choice of accolades drew boos from students angry at recent disruptions but likely sits better with those trustees the governor recently installed.

“I think what he is trying to do here and what he wants to accomplish in higher education—and this is an individual who has been educated at what is considered some of the most prestigious institutions in the country—is his heartfelt desire to have New College be a leader and an example of an excellent liberal arts education,” Corcoran says.

Beyond that, he promises to hit the ground running but also to seek input from those on campus with a stake in its future. He said his top priorities will be in filling existing staff vacancies, evaluating course offerings and improving the student experience as much as possible. His initial visits to campus, he said, revealed needs in physical infrastructure, and he wants more extracurricular activities for students as well. A connected politician, Corcoran also promised to raise money—a task that would become all the more urgent in coming weeks. But for now, the report proved understated considering the bombast leading to the moment.

Corcoran left his first trustee meeting in an oversized golf cart filled with board members, rolling past protesters to a secured area of the conference center parking lot. A protester shouts “fascist!” in alliteration with a curse word. But he and other riders zip by to arrive at their vehicles. Corcoran and New College counsel ride from there in a black suburban back to College Hall. And finally, that twice-delayed interview begins.

Time is short, as Corcoran needs to head from this meeting to a dinner where he will dine with university trustees. Before he settles in to talk, Corcoran asks staff to print out a question-and-answer he already completed with the local newspaper. With an eye on the clock, he asks that this interview not tread too much of the same territory.

Corcoran acknowledges the leadership transition at New College created a period of unrest. But asked why he wanted to take on the task of leading the school anyway, he signals little hesitation about the task.

“Education has been my passion pretty much since I started serving in 2010 in the Legislature, even when I was on staff,” he says. “If you go back and look at even 100 ideas that we wrote back under Speaker (Marco) Rubio, I think the first 34 ideas of a 100-idea book were education. Whenever you get an opportunity to go into a position where you can impact the education of students at any level, it’s always going to be a passion of mine.”

New College notably isn’t the first Florida University Corcoran has aspired to lead. He applied when Florida State University held a national search for a president. As a side note, state Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, at the time served as trustee there and nominated Corcoran for the job, but it ultimately went to Richard McCullough. New College notably had its own search running at the time, and Gruters said he tried back then to convince local trustees to poach Corcoran when it became clear he would not get the FSU job. New College instead hired Okker. It is clear that Corcoran in fact has aspired for years for an ivory tower office. Now he has it, but only for a limited time. While 18 months is a long guarantee for an interim president, he wants to make the most of his time. “Right now, my objective is to get a first down,” Corcoran says, “and then if we get that first down, get another first down and see where that takes us.”

What will it take to advance the ball? Much of the consternation about the recent transition stems from angst over the thousands who love New College as it is and haven’t taken kindly to characterizations of a campus in crisis. News and World Report recently ranked the school as the No. 5 public liberal arts college in the country, behind only the nation’s military academies, and that’s a spot it has held for years. The school regularly produced more Fulbright Scholars than exponentially larger universities.

But the college also struggles with enrollment. The Florida Legislature years ago set a target for enrollment at 1,200 students a year. Corcoran as Florida House Speaker helped set that target.

“That's not a number that came from New College and the leadership in and of themselves,” Corcoran said. “They just never attained it. So what do you do to increase student life? What do you do to make students want to put this on their list and make it their first choice? Those are the things we have to work through and it starts here with a lot of changes that need to take place.” That ultimately verifies, according to Corcoran, that whatever love exists for a tight-knit community, New College is in need of rescue. Point to a private liberal arts school that can sustain itself year after year with just 700 students.

“When they say New College is in trouble, if it wasn't subsidized by the taxpayers, if it was a private entity, a New College doesn't exist, right?” Corcoran says. “I'm not saying New College doesn't exist. I'm saying a private entity like a New College with 700 or less students over time, doesn't exist. It doesn't survive.”

Whispers filled in the pauses of campus conversations for months about whether a leadership change at New College means a philosophical purge of faculty will follow. The campus has long been perceived as politically progressive; the conservative Daily Caller website recently listed the university among the “most rabidly leftist, politically correct colleges for dirty, tree-hugging hippies.”  

Rufo on Twitter posted the same day as this interview that “We will be shutting down low-performing, ideologically-captured academic departments and hiring new faculty. The student body will be recomposed over time.” Another new trustee, Eddie Speir, suggested before his first meeting that New College fire all faculty before Corcoran came on and let him decide who to hire back, though the board never entertained that notion.

Weeks after the magazine interview, Corcoran would replace Provost Suzanne Sherman within the university’s administration. But Corcoran told media he won’t act too quickly to make personnel changes. He also has promised to keep key parts of the New College curriculum like a Senior Capstone Project, though he never responded to questions about whether he will pursue the college issuing grades. Critics of the school contend the lack of grades discourages the academic achievers New College needs from attending the official honors college in the State University System. Past leadership and trustees have always refused such a change; long-time trustee Mary Ruiz said it’s important New College instead continue with individualized student contracts that long determined when students earn their degree. Corcoran certainly won’t endorse the idea of a faculty purge but makes clear every asset of operations will be scrutinized at the school.

“I think it's healthy and every university should do it, let alone New College,” he says. “Do an evaluation of the courses that work and the Board of Governors and the state requires us to. We're under performance metrics. If we're having a graduate and they're not finding employment because they're getting a certain education that's not working, then of course it's incumbent upon the leaders of that school to go and do a deep dive of course offerings and make sure that we are an excellent liberal arts college and are going to be the preeminent liberal arts college in the country.”

Asked about whether Corcoran could make room for more “conservative” professors, he pushes back, but only on the vocabulary choice. “That’s the wrong word,” he says. “We want to bring in excellence, just continue to go out there and get excellent professors.”

But the prospect of a right-leaning think tank on campus? He piques up at the prospect and notably characterizes it as achievable through addition instead of distraction.

“Every university has some degree of that. Why can't New College?” he says. “The University of Florida has the Hamilton Center. There's the Institute of Politics at Florida State. There are all kinds of centers at every single university. There's the Adam Smith Center at [Florida International University]. All these centers exist. Why can't New College also engage in that kind of diversity of thought?”

Something Corcoran espouses frequently is his love of the Chicago Principles, a promotion of freedom of expression developed in 2014 and adopted by many colleges nationwide. “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,” he recently wrote in a letter to donors. “That is the opposite of what education is for.”

But will those principles change things in noticeable ways at New College? That seems hard to measure. Droves of parents and faculty defending the school amid the recent changes have said student expression already reigns on campus.

More than new values, though, Corcoran promised a different type of rainmaking. The university president would spend his second week on the job not in Sarasota but in Tallahassee, lobbying in his old Florida Capitol haunt for appropriations support. He promised trustees to secure record funding for New College this year, and early in Session leaders budgeted $15 million in additional funding requested by DeSantis.

But the flow of public dollars comes as private funding drizzles. The shake-up at New College prompted more than a dozen donors to pull out of $29 million in commitments, the New College Foundation reported in March. That has Corcoran working overtime to rally fresh support and regain the trust of long-time backers for the school.

Corcoran doesn’t need to look far to demonstrate a need for dollars. He describes his first tour of campus when he passed two greenhouses that looked dilapidated from the outside. He asked how many weeks or months the buildings had been in that condition. The answer was closer to two years.

The school right now has about $51 million in deferred debt, and even before the recent shake-ups, students attended trustee meetings upset at the lack of food centers on campus. Many of the dorms remain uninhabitable because of mold. But Corcoran knows it takes more to get money from the state than proving you need it. 

“I've been on the other side of the fence,” he says. “We need to put this together for the Legislature. Here's what we need, and here's what it would go to for every penny, and we're not asking for a penny more. What is that list? We'll put that list together and we'll make that case.”

With DeSantis on the university’s side, Corcoran says the school for the first time in years doesn’t face the risk of “extinction” each legislative session. He knows there’s controversy at the college today, but that’s nothing new to the career politician. Whether as House Speaker or as DeSantis’ Commissioner of Education, he has faced resistance.

“Governor DeSantis and I, under his leadership, opened up the schools (during the COVID-19 pandemic). You can't imagine the pushback. You can't imagine the criticism. There was nobody. I don't remember anybody coming to our defense ever. I don’t care if it was on any level,” Corcoran says. “Now, it's the same thing.

“What Governor DeSantis had at his heart in that moment of opening up school was taking care and protecting the well-being of schoolchildren, and making sure they got a world-class education. What he cares about here at New College is the same thing. He cares about the students that graduate from here having a world-class education, and that's the direction we'll go. Those kinds of changes, those kinds of things we would do in the next month, two months, three months, whatever it might be, they'll be readily visible and known, and we'll be making a difference.”