Guest Column
In Florida and at New College, what we lose when we ignore stewardship and competence | Column
The erosion of competence starts at the top, but seldom stops until few people in an organization are worthy of the seat they sit in.
New College of Florida Interim President Richard Corcoran uses his phone during a break in a meeting of the school's board of trustees on Feb. 28 in Sarasota.
New College of Florida Interim President Richard Corcoran uses his phone during a break in a meeting of the school's board of trustees on Feb. 28 in Sarasota. [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times ]
Published March 4

I teach at New College of Florida where leadership was recently replaced as part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ effort to woo MAGA voters. My views on this change are colored by my past: I was the CEO of a midsize tech company for more than a decade.

To most people in Florida, this event is inconsequential, but I think it is part of a large and serious problem. Florida’s leaders, Republican leaders in particular, have forgotten the importance of stewardship and competence.

Aaron Hillegass
Aaron Hillegass [ Provided ]

One part of leadership is high-profile: the CEO who flies to New York and closes a huge deal. However, most of quality leadership is rather mundane stewardship. The president of the United States, for example, is a steward of the national parks. There is no high-profile win there. You just put someone competent in charge and make sure that they get the resources they need. I wish there were some way to make this part of the job look as heroic as it really is.

Most of the truly beautiful things about America were created by competent managers who were given time and a small but stable budget. President Donald Trump had only disdain for this aspect of his job. His appointees were a terrifying cadre of the corrupt and the incompetent. Several openly loathed the organizations that they led. As DeSantis courts Trump’s base, he has adopted Trump’s attitude: Stewardship is for suckers.

Here is the problem: Competence is much less common than we like to think. A good leader treasures competent managers because they are so valuable and so rare.

What about bad leaders? Competent people don’t tolerate political shenanigans. After they quit or are fired, their seats are refilled from a pool of people who will do anything the bad leader requests. In the end, we get managers who lack either the skill or the integrity to do the job well.

In January, DeSantis packed New College’s Board of Trustees with sycophants. His chuckleheads immediately started tweeting things that terrified the students and faculty. Then, at the first meeting, this new board fired President Patricia Okker and replaced her with Richard Corcoran.

President Okker was a competent manager. She had decades of relevant experience. She listened well, and worked diligently to solve problems. Like all liberal arts colleges, New College was facing some challenges. But if anyone could have navigated us through them, it was President Okker.

Interim President Corcoran has no relevant experience. He was Florida’s education commissioner, but stepped down last spring, a few months after the Florida Department of Education came under fire for trying to steer a multimillion dollar contract to a politically connected company. (The insult to go with the injury? His compensation package is more than twice what Okker’s had been.)

Conservative voters cheer as DeSantis claims he is Sticking It To The Libs, but that battle cry is just a distraction from the sad truth: Competent managers all over this state are gradually being replaced with incompetent and corrupt sock puppets.

I am the director of the data science program at New College. Students who graduate from my program have a 100% placement rate with a median starting salary of $95,000. Besides teaching artificial intelligence and statistics, I was charged with growing the size of the program.

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I am a competent manager, and I have spent many hours tweaking our marketing message and reaching out to potential students. As an alumnus of New College, I was proud to step into this role. However, my efforts are often negated by the ridiculous things that DeSantis’ board members keep posting on Twitter and in their blogs. Poor leadership is hampering my ability to get my job done.

Interim President Corcoran may be more capable than his resume indicates; I don’t know because he has yet to address the students, faculty or staff of the college.

My contract expires in August, and someone with my skills has options. When the fall semester starts, I will probably be in another state. The erosion of competence starts at the top, but seldom stops until few people in the organization are worthy of the seat they sit in.

How shoddy will everything need to get before voters demand that their leaders take stewardship seriously?

Aaron Hillegass, founder of Big Nerd Ranch, is the director of Applied Data Science at New College of Florida. He is the executive director of the Kontinua Foundation, which is developing free STEM education materials for high school students.