For marketing, New College of Florida hires former pro-DeSantis super PAC spokesperson

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As Gov. Ron DeSantis tries to transform New College of Florida into a bastion of conservatism, the school has hired a long-time political ally of the governor and its president, Richard Corcoran, to do promotional videos and other public relations work.

A spokesperson for the small liberal arts school said Tuesday the university has been paying TMF Communications — a Tallahassee-based company headed by Taryn Fenske, a former spokesperson for both DeSantis’ public office and an affiliated super PAC that supported his presidential campaign — $15,000 a month since last July.

Fenske’s involvement in promoting the public school is an example of how Corcoran is bringing allies to remake the liberal arts institution as they zero in on what he and DeSantis have characterized as “woke indoctrination” on college campuses. Before the takeover, the Sarasota school had a reputation for being one of the most progressive public universities in Florida.

Her work has included the production of videos. One, titled “The Future of Higher Education,” features a comment from comedian Bill Maher, who at one point says that “higher education has become indoctrination.” In another video, titled “Apply Today,” the school is promoted as one that has “professors who actually teach” and a “contract that demands accountability.”

New College of Florida spokesperson Nathan March said the school hired Fenske to help him with “internal and external communications and marketing” after a “significant increase in demand from local, national, and global news outlets” following DeSantis’ push to transform the school.

“TMF has supported external communications in both proactive and reactive capacities across various media formats, and has been a great resource for New College throughout this time where the media spotlight has been brightest,” March said.

In a statement, Fenske said she wants to showcase how the school has “become a beacon of higher education for the nation,” and praised Corcoran’s leadership at the university, saying he has “orchestrated a transformation that even skeptics can’t ignore.”

Since Corcoran took the helm at the university, DeSantis has touted his efforts in replacing “far-left faculty with new professors aligned with the university’s mission” and eliminating the college’s diversity office. In campaign speeches during the presidential campaign, DeSantis often talked about the efforts at the school to promote himself as someone who was combating “woke ideology” in education.

To promote the school’s transformation, Corcoran turned to Fenske.

Both have worked together in the past. Fenske served as a spokesperson in the Florida Department of Education when Corcoran, a former Republican Florida speaker of the House, headed the state agency as the state’s education commissioner. Fenske has also served as the communications director for DeSantis’ office.

Most recently, Fenkse’s company was paid $90,000 to do communications work for Never Back Down, the super PAC that supported DeSantis’ presidential campaign, according to federal campaign filings. She also served as a spokesperson for a separate pro-DeSantis super PAC, Fight Right. Prior to joining the DeSantis administration, she worked as the Republican National Committee’s Florida communications director.

The decision to hire Fenske is the latest instance in which the public university has drawn attention for how the new administration is using public funds.

The new administration has awarded a campus cafe contract to a vendor with ties to Corcoran, and Corcoran himself has been criticized for having a salary package of up to $1.3 million a year with benefits, more than double the amount the previous university president earned. With that salary, Corcoran is one of the highest-paid public university leaders in Florida.

When asked about Fenske’s contract, March said it is not new for the school to hire an external vendor to help with marketing and public relations, especially at a time of transition. He noted that under then-President Patricia Okker the university hired at least one other communications company with ties to Tallahassee — Bascom Communications — back in 2022.

“Bascom Communications has continued to advise New College,” March said. “Over the last year, Bascom’s retainer increased as their role expanded, like when all internal communications and marketing positions were vacant in March 2023, and it has since decreased as their scope lessened and stabilized.”

He added that “with record enrollment, intercollegiate athletics, new faculty and professors, campus beautification, and the goal of growing New College – there is a need for consistent communications and marketing.”

He said “New College was much less likely to be queried on the topic of individual vendor contracts in the past.”