Richard Corcoran’s appointment to lead New College of Florida has drawn scrutiny for months.
Eyebrows were raised when he got the job on an interim basis back in February with a base salary of $700,000 — double that of his predecessor. Throw in retirement, health insurance and a $100,000 car and housing allowance, and his compensation package reached over $1 million.
Trustees gave him the job permanently last week, and the new position could come with an even larger paycheck.
A financial analysis commissioned by the Sarasota school recommended a base salary range from $487,110 to $867,777, with total compensation, including bonuses and benefits, up to $1,547,324. That analysis, performed by the consulting firm Mercer in July, is based on executive pay at 12 universities that the authors said share reputation, cultural and strategic similarities with New College.
But experts who reviewed the analysis told the Tampa Bay Times they took issue with Mercer’s selected peers and the assumptions that led to their recommended range. Corcoran’s supporters contend that his unique role in leading the school through a contentious turnaround warrants the high pay, while alumni and students who oppose him see a taxpayer handout to an ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
A flawed comparison
It’s natural to look at similar schools when deciding how much to offer a new president, said James Finkelstein, a George Mason University professor emeritus who spent a career studying executive compensation. But the comparison institutions selected by Mercer were all private, nonprofit institutions with student bodies more than double the 2022 enrollment at New College.
Judith Wilde, a research professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and Finkelstein’s occasional coauthor, agreed with his conclusions. Complicating matters, she said, was Corcoran’s background in law and government, which is atypical among university presidents.
Mercer did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The group includes some local institutions, including the University of Tampa, where exiting president Ronald Vaughn’s 2021 total compensation was $1.53 million — 50% higher than what Rhea Law earned the same year at the University of South Florida, the much larger school across town.
The list also includes Hillsdale College, the Michigan private Christian school that some conservatives see as a model for New College. Hillsdale president Larry Arnn earned $1.17 million in 2021.
Average compensation among Mercer’s set was approximately $1.2 million, according to the schools’ 2022 tax forms. That’s nearly double the average salary among Florida’s other public universities and roughly three times higher than the average total compensation among U.S. News & World Report’s highest-ranked public liberal arts schools, excluding New College and public military academies.
The schools selected by Mercer also stand apart from schools that New College has compared itself to in the past. A 2022 equity report compiled by the school included 12 “peer” institutions, based on wide-ranging factors including rankings, finances, enrollment and student success.
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That includes Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, a 1,000-student public college whose president earned just under $270,000 in 2022, according to the website OpenPayrolls.
Overall, average total compensation at those schools was roughly $385,000 — two-thirds lower than Mercer’s chosen institutions.
Part of a trend
Salary inflation is not unique to New College of Florida, but Corcoran’s pay — if it stays at his interim rate or higher — stands out even among a field of growing executive salaries at public universities, Finkelstein said.
In the past decade, president pay at higher education institutions has ballooned. But there is little evidence that higher executive pay is associated with a university’s success, according to a 2019 paper from Florida State University researcher James M. Hunt.
Hunt and his coauthors looked at 119 universities across seven years and found “no evidence of a relationship between presidential compensation and revenue generation from increased fundraising or state appropriations.”
It’s a relatively small study, focusing on research universities rather than liberal arts schools — none of which appeared to be going through the same tumultuous transition led by Corcoran. But the findings indicate that good leadership doesn’t need to come with a high price tag.
On purely academic grounds, New College trustee Mark Bauerlein said he would have voted for one of the other two candidates for president. But there are other considerations at play at New College.
“I don’t recall any examples similar to what New College is going through right now,” said Bauerlein, a professor emeritus of English at Emory University who decided to support Corcoran’s bid for president.
Corcoran has the political connections, managerial experience and temperament to weather the campus through a difficult period of transition, Bauerlein said. Attributes that, for now, matter more than a sterling academic record, he said.
Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who serves on the school’s board of trustees, said he trusted Corcoran to “reestablish public authority over the public system” and “radically shake up the institution” — an overhaul that many students, alumni and staff have characterized as a hostile takeover led by DeSantis appointees.
Amy Reid, who represents the school’s faculty on the board of trustees, was one of just two votes opposing Corcoran. She called out Corcoran’s failure to build campus consensus during his eight months as interim president, during which the school has shed faculty and staff and hosted regular protests by students and alumni.
“It’s fair to say that Corcoran has too often struck a combative tone when talking about the campus,” Reid said, “specifically his quip about students protesting because he turned off their air conditioning in May left me flummoxed.”
Much of Corcoran’s salary will come from the school’s foundation — a separate legal entity that raises funds to support the school’s academic program. Corcoran has derided the $45 million foundation in multiple trustee meetings, pointing to what he says were years of disorganized bookkeeping.
The foundation has struggled to make regular reimbursements to faculty and staff in recent months, Reid said. She worries that amid turnover and tumult inside the foundation, the $2-3 million in grants and scholarships typically funded by the foundation annually will go unmet.
Paying a $1 million salary to one administrator would only exacerbate that uncertainty, she said.
Whatever Corcoran’s salary, both sides agreed that the fate of the campus now rests on his leadership.
“The campus will rise or fall, and that will fall squarely on his shoulders, his professional reputation,” Bauerlein said.
Ian Hodgson is an education data reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.