New College of Florida president is ousted; Richard Corcoran is named its new president

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Richard Corcoran
Richard Corcoran attends an Ivanka Trump fireside chat at the Columbia Restaurant on Sept. 16, 2020. Daniel Figueroa IV/WMNF

By Ryan Dailey ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A revamped New College of Florida Board of Trustees on Tuesday quickly shook up leadership at the small liberal-arts school, removing President Patricia Okker and replacing her on an interim basis with former state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.

The moves came after Gov. Ron DeSantis this month appointed six conservative board members, leading to heavy speculation that the governor was angling to remake the leadership and direction of the school.

Corcoran, a former Republican House speaker, led high-profile initiatives for DeSantis while serving as education commissioner, such as trying to weed out critical race theory — which is based on the premise that racism is embedded in American society — from Florida classrooms.

Since leaving the commissioner’s post last year, Corcoran has worked at the consulting firm Continental Strategy. He is expected to become New College’s interim president in March. Bradley Thiessen, chief of staff in the school’s Office of the President, was selected by the trustees to lead the school until Corcoran can step in.

Okker was approved as New College president by the state university system’s Board of Governors in 2021 and formerly was dean of University of Missouri’s College of Arts and Sciences.

DeSantis, who has targeted “trendy ideology” in higher education, suggested Tuesday before the Board of Trustees meeting that changes were needed at the Sarasota school.

DeSantis’ comments came as he rolled out a legislative proposal that included asking lawmakers to earmark $15 million in next year’s budget for recruiting and retaining new faculty at New College, with $10 million recurring each year.

“Here’s the thing, it (New College) is by statute supposed to be the premier honors college in Florida. That’s the mission. It clearly has not met that mission, because our premier students are going to UF (the University of Florida) or some of our other schools. So, I think this is going to really reorient it in a very positive way,” DeSantis said.

But in some of her final remarks before trustees voted for her removal, Okker pushed back against what DeSantis frequently characterizes as “indoctrination” on higher-education campuses.

“I’m going to say publicly — I do not believe that students are being indoctrinated at New College. I believe a president needs to stand behind her words when she asks donors to contribute. 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,” Okker said.

Corcoran was floated as Okker’s interim replacement by trustee Matthew Spalding, a DeSantis appointee and professor at Hillsdale College, a liberal-arts school in Michigan that is prominent among conservatives.

“This college is languishing. It needs to be revived. It’s got a great potential future. It can be much larger, much more influential, much more flourishing in the Florida system,” Spalding said, adding that he aimed to “have leadership that is fully committed to that direction.”

Spalding told trustees that he and Corcoran are “old friends” and that Corcoran, who was not present at Tuesday’s meeting, would agree to take the interim position.

Corcoran drew headlines after a speaking engagement at Hillsdale College in 2021, in which he touted a proposal to place strict guidelines on the way U.S. history is taught in Florida classrooms. The state Board of Education ultimately approved the proposal later that year.

Before the vote on Okker’s removal, trustee Grace Keenan, who is New College’s student-body president, was among the trustees who argued that Okker should be able to keep her job.

“I think you’ve done an amazing job,” Keenan told Okker. “I think you are an incredible person to lead us through these changes, and I hope you stay.”

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