State higher education leaders stress caution with New College of Florida business plan

by | Nov 8, 2023

  • New College of Florida president Richard Corcoran presented an “audacious” vision for NCF to Florida’s top higher education leaders on Wednesday, emphasizing the need for significant state investment.
  • But the State University System’s Board of Governors urged Corcoran to proceed with caution and promised further scrutiny of budget and performance metrics at the school.
  • NCF is undergoing a dramatic transformation at the insistence of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who lost patience with the school’s previous leaders and appointed six new trustees in January. 

During a meeting of the state’s top higher education leaders on Wednesday afternoon, New College of Florida president Richard Corcoran presented a vision that leaned heavily on keeping much of the school’s traditional liberal arts structure in place, while at the same time acknowledging that substantial state investment will be needed to make drastic changes.

The State University System’s Board of Governors (BOG) is charged with overseeing Florida’s 12 public universities, including New College. In June, the board asked New College to put together a business plan in order to clarify how the school planned to spend millions of dollars budgeted by state lawmakers after Governor Ron DeSantis led a takeover of the school in January.

The takeover came on the heels of a series of missteps by the school’s previous leadership, which had been widely criticized by DeSantis as too focused on progressive ideology rather than classical education fundamentals. In January, DeSantis appointed six new trustees – all of them conservative allies – who promptly set about changing the direction of the school with the goal of turning it into a beacon of conservative education principles. Part of that plan also included bringing on Corcoran, a former Republican House Speaker who previously served DeSantis as the state’s K-12 education commissioner.

During his presentation on Wednesday, Corcoran also highlighted a key failure of the school’s previous leadership, pointing out that lawmakers provided the school with over $10 million specifically for the purpose of growing enrollment from over 800 students to more than 1200 in only a few years.

“This is what happened. They went from 875, took the ten-plus million dollars, and went down to 689,” Corcoran noted as a slideshow presented a graph showing enrollment from 2017 to 2022 going downhill.

But while Corcoran noted that enrollment had again started going up since his arrival, the Board of Governors cautioned him to proceed with caution, with an eye as much on student quality as on quantity.

“I would caution you on the metrics,” said BOG Vice-Chair Eric Silagy, who asked for NCF to provide the business plan earlier in the summer. “I get the fact that you’re proud of adding the students, but you need to be careful also of adding the students at what cost, because you can attract students that aren’t going to have the same standards that you would, particularly at an Honors College.  The numbers will look good, but the quality may not be there as much.”

Speaking candidly about the ambitious nature of the school’s business plan, which asks for $420 million in direct and indirect state investment and debt forgiveness, Silagy emphasized the plan’s ambitious scope and called for a thorough review.

“Frankly, the vision is bold, it’s audacious, right? It’s big,” Silagy noted. “I would encourage everybody who hasn’t to read it. Because there’s a fair amount in there on what [NCF’s] plans are. And it comes at an investment that is significant.”

Corcoran also took questions from BOG members on the school’s accountability plan, but several BOG members noted that many of the initial challenges faced by NCF’s new leadership were more ideological rather than performance-based challenges – a nod to the fact that a number of faculty resignations that took place in the wake of DeSantis’s trustee appointments were over political disagreements rather than professional considerations.

The Board of Governors will take up the matter of confirming Corcoran as the school’s president at a meeting on Thursday morning, and will also consider other BOG business.


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