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Former education commissioner Richard Corcoran to lead New College

Corcoran, who also served as House speaker, previously sought to be Florida State University’s president.
 
Former Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran is on tap to be the new president of New College as it undergoes a conservative transformation.
Former Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran is on tap to be the new president of New College as it undergoes a conservative transformation. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 31, 2023|Updated Feb. 1, 2023

Richard Corcoran, the fiery former House speaker who led the state Education Department as it banned “critical race theory” from schools, was selected Tuesday to lead Gov. Ron DeSantis’ overhaul of New College of Florida.

The school’s newly reconstituted board appointed Corcoran to serve as interim president beginning in March, when he is available. Until that time, New College chief of staff Bradley Thiessen was named to run the school.

The position came open when the board handed President Patricia Okker, who has led New College for 19 months, her walking papers as they sought a new direction.

The board also decided to ask former state Senate president Bill Galvano, a Manatee County Republican, to serve as its lawyer. The school’s general counsel spot has been vacant for months, with a temporary counsel advising the board.

Talk of Corcoran’s appointment swirled around the state long before the board cut its ties with Okker. The Governor’s Office confirmed he was the choice to run New College while it searches for a permanent chief executive, and perhaps be in line for the full-time post.

Related: New College faces upheaval as remade board of trustees meets for first time

The trustees began meeting Tuesday afternoon on campus, days after one of the new trustees, Jason “Eddie Speir,” called for the removal of the school’s leadership and the end of faculty tenure.

Speir and another new trustee, Christopher Rufo, have been posting on social media in recent days about their desire to shake up the New College administration. The two were among six conservatives appointed to the board on Jan. 6 by DeSantis.

Former New College President Patricia Okker, left, addresses faculty and students moments before her termination by the school's newly remade board of trustees Tuesday.
Former New College President Patricia Okker, left, addresses faculty and students moments before her termination by the school's newly remade board of trustees Tuesday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Okker has held the New College president’s job since 2021. She previously had been dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Missouri since 2017.

Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, said that Okker is well-liked among faculty and union members.

He said the union, which has a New College chapter, has “certainly had our differences with Richard Corcoran” but it is willing to work with him if he respectfully approaches the job and “works to improve” the university.

”But if he comes in and toes the line of the governor’s comments and attitude toward higher education — that students and faculty must be forced to adopt conservative ideology, that programs must be canceled when they don’t align with the governor’s agenda ... then we’re going to have a big problem,” Gothard said.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, addressed a crowd of student protesters at New College on Tuesday, telling them of Corcoran’s appointment. She referred to him as “a man who preaches small government while he makes a living off the government dime.”

Corcoran, who serves on the State University System Board of Governors, attempted to become Florida State University president in 2021 but was not selected amid criticism that he didn’t have the right experience for the job. He also faced conflict-of-interest questions as a member of the Board of Governors, which approves presidential selections.

Corcoran represented Pasco County in the Florida House. He received his bachelor’s degree from St. Leo University and his law degree from Regent University.

He stepped down in April as the state’s education commissioner and joined the lobbying firm Continental Strategies in May.

According to Florida lobbying records, Corcoran was registered to lobby both the Legislature and the executive branch. He had dozens of clients, including Charter Schools USA, Polk County Public Schools and the University of Miami. He reaffirmed his relationship with many of those clients earlier this month, records show.

For the moment, it appears Corcoran remains a lobbyist for some three dozen clients.

When competing for the FSU president’s job, Corcoran said he saw himself as the candidate best equipped to raise money for the university and pledged to share governance with those in academia.

“I know I’m a nonacademic and I can’t fix that,” he said at the time. “I think that the next president should be a dynamic leader who goes out there and gets with the faculty, creates a search committee and grabs hold of a heck of a good vice provost for research.”

The FSU search committee did not include him in their list of three finalists.

Times Staff Writers Kirby Wilson and Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report.

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