Richard Corcoran is not FSU president material, in part because he’s an enemy of public education

Florida State University. Credit: Diane Rado

Florida State University’s Presidential Search Committee has refused to put Florida’s irascible Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on its short list.

He should never have been on any list. He’s not FSU president material.

FSU is a public institution. Corcoran’s an enemy of public education, an ardent supporter of school vouchers. He graduated from a private Roman Catholic college and got his law degree from a private church school founded by televangelist Pat Robertson.

Not necessarily disqualifying, but not encouraging.

During a meeting of the state Board of Education in 2020, he declared you should never read The Washington Post or The New York Times.

The head of education in Florida telling people not to read the two most important newspapers in the United States, the newspapers that chronicled the signal events of the past 50 years, from Watergate and the Pentagon Papers to the Iraq war, terrorism, and the corruption of the Trump administration, is not a good look.

As president of FSU, would Corcoran suggest students not read, say, Ibram X. Kendi or the journal Nature on the ground they propagate what he sees as “fake news” on racism and the climate crisis?

And perhaps you remember Corcoran’s TV ad from 2018, when he was thinking of running for governor? The one with the pretty white girl stalked by a sinister dark-complected gun-wielding “immigrant.”

FSU is an increasingly diverse community. It’s unfortunate that the search committee’s long list was so white guy-heavy, as if qualified women and people of color are hard to find (pro tip: they’re not), but this is Florida, after all.

At least, the three on the short list are impeccably credentialed academics, one from Harvard, one from Tulane, and one from the University of North Carolina. None of them would be an embarrassment to FSU.

Still, there are those who don’t want to let Corcoran’s candidacy go. Barney T. Bishop III, former head of Associated Industries of Florida, suggested in a Tallahassee Democrat letter to the editor Monday that FSU trustees make Corcoran president, no matter what the search committee says.

Some members of the FSU Board of Trustees (a nosegay of backward-looking rich people including a petroleum baron, a couple of fund managers, some real estate types, and the head honcho of Dollar Tree) and the Board of Governors, which oversees all the state’s universities, have got their knickers in a twist over Corcoran getting cut.

They blame the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the organization that accredits educational institutions in 11 Deep South states. Seems SACS pointed out that it was a bit odd, at the very least, and probably a conflict of interest, that a member of the Board of Governors, namely Richard Corcoran, should be up for a job that’s technically decided on by that same Board of Governors.

That could potentially imperil FSU’s access to federal funding.

Corcoran’s right-wing allies pitched a hissy fit. Board of Governors member Alan Levine, a member of the Federalist Society, rage-tweeted about SACS’ “tortuous intrusion” into this presidential search and warned, “This is not over.”

FSU trustee Craig Mateer pushed the search committee to add Corcoran to the three chosen finalists, arguing that, yeah, he had no actual university experience, but he’s a leader!

For his part, Corcoran accused SACS of exerting “undue influence,” sniffing, “SACS needs FSU — and Florida  — more than Florida and FSU need SACS.”

Pro-Corcoran committee members also muttered darkly about maybe finding a different accreditation agency. Let U.T.-Austin, Duke, Georgia Tech, the University of Virginia, Emory, Vanderbilt, Georgia, Chapel Hill, and similar low-rent institutions have their standards-obsessed SACS. Surely, FSU could find a Bible college accreditation agency to credential it.

To be fair, Corcoran did have support from some alumni and several legislators, including two Democrats, Sens. Janet Cruz and Shevrin Jones. (Politics is weird).

Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, Trump groupie, and sponsor of this year’s “Face Freedom” bill that would have given private school vouchers to public school kids who didn’t want to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, nominated Corcoran for president of FSU, likening him to “a young John Thrasher.”

Meanwhile, in our ivory towers, many of us left-wing elitist types choked on our skinny lattes.

If Richard Corcoran resembles sitting FSU president John Thrasher in any way other than that they are both Republicans and both were Speaker of the House, then I am the queen of Romania.

Let me pause a moment for full disclosure. First, I’m not the queen of Romania but, as an FSU professor, I’ve served on presidential search committees, most recently the one that chose Eric Barron. He was an impressive guy, an atmospheric scientist, and FSU graduate.

In 2014, Barron bailed on FSU for Penn State (partly because he was sick of dealing with the Florida Legislature) and, when it became clear that the university trustees (most of them Rick Scott campaign donors) wanted John Thrasher to replace him, I was appalled. Thrasher had no experience in higher ed. He was a bit too cozy with the Kochs. During a faculty forum, he sidestepped questions on climate change and evolution.

Since universities are in the knowledge business, this alarmed many of us. Evolution is as close to settled science as you can get and, as for climate change, well, just ask the people of Miami how fun it is living with continual flooding from sea level rise.

I was wrong. Thrasher quickly proved himself a very good president indeed. He calmed and united the campus after a deranged former student shot three people at Strozier Library. He fought tirelessly to keep guns off campus, despite the determination of many of his former colleagues in the Legislature to let students pack heat. When Donald Trump issued his moronic “Muslim Ban,” Thrasher did his damnedest to protect FSU students from Iran, Syria, and other affected countries.

Best of all, he left us alone to do our jobs. He did not interfere with academic freedom. He cared about the students. He brought in money. FSU is now ranked among the Top 20 public universities.

Also, he seemed to love just hanging out with undergraduates. He and his wife, Jean, were constantly at campus events, large and small.

Somehow, I can’t see Richard Corcoran attending undergraduate poetry readings, supporting A Women’s Pregnancy Center, or hanging with the Afro-Caribbean Student Association.

Florida politicians, Democrat and Republican, have long been unhealthily fixated on Florida universities. Except for football, they don’t really like what we do. They don’t like that we talk about “intersectionality” or “Queer Theory” or disruptions to the space-time continuum. They prefer tradition and conformity.

That’s why every single year the Legislature concocts silly efforts to police our classes or assess our  “intellectual diversity,” as if they expect to find we’re secret Marxist training camps or that we’ve invented a pill that infects people with atheism.

Universities educate, innovate, and provoke, challenging social and cultural orthodoxies. That’s how we make better citizens, not just cogs in the consumerist  machine.

Maybe that’s why our political-appointee trustees and governors are constantly trying to impose their own narrow vision of the world on us. I don’t know. But I do know we’ll miss John Thrasher.

Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books, most recently Dream State, an historical memoir of her Florida family, and Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She lives in Tallahassee, except for the times she runs off to Great Britain, desperate for a different government to satirize.