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In an unprecedented move, Richard Corcoran, interim president of New Florida College, asked seven faculty members to withdraw their applications before the school’s board of trustees met in April, according to Stephen Shipman, president of the school’s faculty association.

All seven have already been approved by all levels of principals, Shipman told the Tampa Bay Times, including Corcoran’s predecessor Bradley Theissen, who was present at the March 15 meeting where the application was made.

The push comes as Corcoran directs a dramatic change of course at New College, with Governor Ron DeSantis appointing six new members to the board of trustees in January. The group arrived with a mandate to reform the Sarasota school by offering a “classical education”. They are being assisted with $15 million in state funds to recruit new faculty and recruit students who agree with the new direction.

DeSantis took a dim view of the tenure of the position, saying at a recent press conference that “unproductive faculty” were “the most significant cost to the university.”

The tenure system protects faculty members from political interference through their research, teaching, and community service. It also provides job security and higher wages for the one-third of teachers at Florida public universities who hold tenure-track positions.

Approval from the Board of Trustees is the final step in the appointment process for the seven new faculty members, who have worked toward the goal for five years. Along the way, they have been described by many colleagues as outstanding teachers and researchers.

Details of Corcoran’s request, which had not been previously reported, came during a meeting between Shipman and Thiessen later that same day. Shipman said Corcoran had no authority over applications for the position as they had already been approved by his predecessor.

New Florida College Interim President Richard Corcoran, Center, Listens During The School's Board Of Trustees Meeting Feb. 28.  Left, New Trustee Matthew Spalding.
New Florida College interim president Richard Corcoran, center, listens during the school’s board of trustees meeting Feb. 28. Left, new trustee Matthew Spalding. [ REBECCA BLACKWELL | AP ]

New College spokeswoman Kristi Fitzpatrick said she was unaware of the meeting between Corcoran and the seven faculty members. Neither Corcoran nor Theissen responded to multiple requests for comment.

Tessin played key roles during the transition, serving as interim president in the weeks after the reconfigured board of trustees fired the school’s former president, Patricia Uecker.

Shipman, a chemistry professor at New College, did not name the seven faculty members, saying they and the union are still deciding how to proceed. They represent a range of research areas, including those of science and technology.

Several faculty familiar with the situation declined to speak to The Times on the records, saying they feared reprisals. They are among several faculty members at Florida public universities who say they face a growing threat to their careers as Republican lawmakers push to undermine their protections.

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This past April, DeSantis signed a bill into law requiring leaders of public universities to review tenure for professors every five years. The bill introduced in February would go further, allowing university trustees to call for term review “at any time.”

Getting tenure is difficult, said Andrew Gothard, president of Florida United College, and many applicants fail or drop out during the process. But the seven new faculty members have already passed peer reviews, administrators, and outside experts in their fields.

“All the people who are qualified to make this decision have approved the candidates,” Gothard said. “The involvement of the president—who has little or no academic qualifications—shows that there is something at work outside of how ethically these colleges should be assessed.”

Corcoran’s request comes at a turbulent time for the school. In the weeks after the new trustees were installed, they moved quickly to oust Uecker before dissolving the school’s overall Office of Outreach and Excellence. Dismissal of the Dean of Diversity, Excellence and Inclusion. former Dean of the school, Susan Shermanwho clashed with two new trustees over the school’s safety in February, resigned last month.

Eddie Speer, one of the new trustees, requested in February that the board of directors Declare a financial emergencyduring which the contracts of faculty members can be terminated.

“We will close low-performing, ideologically dominant academic departments and hire new faculty,” another trustee, Christopher Ruffo, said in a February 28 tweet. “(S)Some of the current students will choose themselves, others will graduate; we will recruit new students compatible with the mission.”

Ruffo, who regularly criticizes diversity offices and critical race theory, has advised DeSantis on education policy, sometimes appearing with the governor at press conferences.

Shipman said that while the personnel change for New College was significant, Corcoran’s request represented the new administration’s first concrete action directly affecting faculty. The way the board votes at the April 26th meeting will be one of the first clear signs of the school’s new direction.

“The dominant atmosphere is uncertainty,” he said. “We will be watching closely.”

Ian Hodgson is the education data reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

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