New College, the public Honors College of Florida, has a substantially new board of trustees which met for the first time today. The College has 13 board members six of whom the Governor recently appointed and one of whom the Board of Governors appointed. The new trustees included Christopher Ruffo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Matthew Spalding, a professor and Dean at Hillsdale College in Michigan, and Eddie Speir, the founder and head of a Christian School in Bradenton, Florida among others.
Several of the new members have publicly announced that they want to see significant changes to the College which describes itself as educating free thinkers, risk takers and trailblazers. The College, while being known for producing significant numbers of Fulbright Scholars and for students going on to graduate school, has also been underenrolled for many years and plagued by low graduation rates. The Governor’s Chief of Staff has stated that he would like to see “New College become Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the South.”
We may not all agree with this new vision for the College, but it is legitimate for a board to determine the mission of the College and the direction for it to move. All this is well and good if done thoughtfully by the Board of Trustees. What we saw today at the Board of Trustees meeting were actions taken with almost no conversation among the board. This is especially surprising in Florida which has sunshine laws which require all board actions to occur in open meetings and prohibits more than two board members from meeting together as that would be construed as a meeting. Yet this substantially new board voted to terminate the employment of the current president, directed the university to hire former Ed Commissioner Richard Corcoran, and instructed the administration to design a plan to abolish DEI entirely.
It is most surprising that a new board would have consensus on these very important issues without having had any conversations among themselves. The board acknowledged that these are different times and they may need a president with different strengths than the one who was hired 19 months ago but they didn’t enunciate what the shortcomings of the current president are relative to what is needed nor did they frame what is needed in a new president. The Board went on to appoint Richard Corcoran as the interim president on the suggestion of one board member without presenting his resume or providing the board an opportunity to interview him. The removal of a president and the appointment of a new president, even if it is an interim, are two of the most important responsibilities of a board. To make such significant decisions without appropriate conversation and reflection by the board is anathema to higher education. Change in higher education is needed and is important but it must be made thoughtfully and with the whole board included in the conversation.