New College board fires president, installs former GOP House speaker, DeSantis ally
The whirlwind unleashed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that rapidly is reshaping New College of Florida picked up speed Tuesday with the president fired amid a broad leadership overhaul that capped a momentous few hours for the Sarasota school.
A slate of new board members installed by DeSantis earlier this month replaced college President Patricia Okker with former GOP House speaker and education commissioner Richard Corcoran, installed a DeSantis appointee as the new board chair, moved to hire a former Republican lawmaker as the school's new general counsel and began the process of abolishing programs aimed at increasing diversity, equity and inclusion on campus, turbo charging a dramatic conservative culture shift.
Corcoran has been an eager participant in the governor's education culture war battles, and soon will take the lead in his experiment in overhauling a public university to match his conservative approach to higher education. Corcoran can't takeover as interim president until March, so a college administrator will serve in the role until then.
The board also selected DeSantis' appointee Debra Jenks as the new chair and voted to negotiate with Bill Galvano, a former GOP state Senate president from Bradenton, to become the college's new general counsel.
The changes ensure the college's top officials are in synch with DeSantis' education agenda, which he reiterated Tuesday during a press conference in Bradenton.
DeSantis blasted Florida universities, and New College in particular, for their diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. He also accused New College of teaching theories that have become major conservative talking points in recent years, including critical race theory (CRT) and gender theories.
“The mission has been I think more into the DEI, CRT, the gender ideology rather than what a liberal arts education should be," DeSantis said of New College.
Board member Matthew Spalding, a dean at conservative Christian Hillsdale College in Michigan who was tapped by DeSantis to serve at New College, said the school needs “leadership that is fully committed" to what the governor and Legislature want to accomplish. Other DeSantis appointees agreed.
Hillsdale has been held up by the DeSantis administration as a model for New College.
Fighting back tears, an emotional Okker said she couldn't go along with "this new mandate where this is a hostile takeover and a dramatic change in the mission." Members of the audience - some in tears themselves - urged her to fight for her job. Okker apologized for disappointing them.
"I believe a president needs to stand behind her words when she asks donors to contribute," she said. "It is the only way that I can be effective. You cannot ask me to go forward and argue that we are indoctrinating students here. I do not believe it."
The governor and some of his New College board appointees have talked extensively about liberal indoctrination in higher education.
Okker was fired by the board without cause after negotiating an amendment to her contract that allows her to go on paid leave for a year and return to the college as a professor.
Okker appears to have negotiated the agreement after being told there was a plan to fire her. She declined to comment after the meeting.
"There is a new mandate for this college and I have been informed that the plan includes the termination of my employment as president, that is my understanding," she said during the meeting.
The crowd booed.
It wasn't clear if a majority of the board was prepared to fire Okker if she expressed interest in keeping the job. Some new board members said they didn't know about a plan to fire her.
"Whose plan?" said Ryan Anderson, a new board member who was appointed by the Florida Board of Governors last week, adding: "I was not aware of any plan."
Among those eager to have a new president was Christopher Rufo, who was appointed by DeSantis and joined him at a press conference in Bradenton before the board meeting.
"I think new leadership is the expectation, I think it makes sense," Rufo said.
Spalding later proposed Corcoran as the interim president, saying he had spoken to him about the job. He declined to say after the meeting how the conversations with Corcoran came about, asking for questions in writing.
Corcoran has a bachelor's from St. Leo University and a law degree from Regent University in Virginia. He is a conservative firebrand who won a seat in the Legislature in 2010, served as speaker from 2016 to 2018 and was tapped by DeSantis to be his first education secretary.
Corcoran pushed to ban critical race theory and mask mandates from public schools. He currently serves on the state Board of Governors, which oversees Florida's university system, and previously applied to be president of Florida State University.
That Corcoran would be the interim head of New College was confirmed to the Tampa Bay Times by a DeSantis spokeswoman earlier Tuesday before the board ever met to discuss Okker’s tenure.
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New College Chief of Staff Brad Thiessen will serve as interim president until Corcoran can take over.
About 150 people packed into the college's Sudakoff Conference Center to witness the leadership shakeup, filling the small venue to capacity. Those who couldn't get in were directed to an overflow area.
The meeting, which lasted just under four hours, started with a public comment section that included 25 speakers, nearly all of them criticizing the changes at New College.
Betsy Braden, the parent of a transgender New College student, said the school is a haven for students who "have determined that they don't necessarily fit in to other schools, they embrace their differences and exhibit incredible bravery in staking their path forward."
"Why would you take this away from us?" she asked.
Another parent of a New College student, Eliana Salzhauer, told the board her son studies "the very woke subject of quantitative economics."
"It's so boring, he's so not woke and it's so disappointing for me because I am quite woke," she said, apparently mocking the criticism of the school as too woke.
Salzhauer urged other parents to pay attention, saying DeSantis has "national ambitions" and "what happens at New College is happening at your campus next."
The criticism and frequent heckling by the audience irked new board member Mark Bauerlein.
"The accusations are telling us that something is wrong here, this is not the way for you to address people who actually have good intentions for the education of the young in America," Bauerlein said. "You can disagree, but the attacks, the vilification, the insults show there needs to be a deep culture change on campus and it should have happened a long time ago."
Before the board meeting, about 200 people participated in a demonstration on campus opposing the changes happening at New College. Among the speakers was X Gonzalez, a New College graduate and survivor of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland.
"This is nothing more than a transparent attempt to score political points regardless of how many people are hurt, fired or lose this place as their home," said Gonzalez, a prominent advocate against gun violence who has 1.3 million Twitter followers.
Herald-Tribune staff writers Steven Walker and Gabriela Szymanowska contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Richard Corcoran becomes interim president of Sarasota's New College