Fascism’s new religious facade

BY:Tom Egan| March 10, 2023
Fascism’s new religious facade


Crony politics came boldly to the fore again in the administration of Governor Ron DeSantis. It was announced last week that the former speaker of the Florida House, and Education Commissioner of Florida Richard Corcoran has been selected as the new president of Florida’s New College. He was appointed for the role after the previous president, Patricia Oker, was fired by the college’s board of trustees. That board of trustees was itself new, by the appointment of five new members to the board by Governor DeSantis, and the dismissal of six others.

Corcoran’s professional history also includes being a lobbyist for charter schools. His brother also lobbies for a charter school management company, and Richard Corcoran’s wife is the founder of a charter school.

The story involves a very interesting bit of chicanery in many ways. Most importantly, the Jan. 31 appointment was known to everyone, including the press, weeks before. Florida has a Sunshine law and that law requires that all meetings of public bodies or policy makers where policy is discussed or decided has to be done publicly and with notice beforehand. Obviously, that wasn’t done, and neither the beneficiary of it or the board members, are taking calls or answering questions on the subject.

Last year, the legislature, at the request of the governor, passed a law that rendered all records of the presidential selection process to be exempt from public records laws, Sunshine be damned. There was only one vote against the appointment, the student member of the board. The timing was a matter of great convenience to Mr. Corcoran. Two of the largest newspapers in Florida had published, last year, articles on purported bid rigging, no bid contracts, and varied underhanded dealing and policy fiascos in the office where Mr. Corcoran was in charge. It seemed to people that he was run out of Tallahassee.

And who would want a public meeting when there are ongoing investigations and claims of insider dealings? An invitation for qualified people to apply for the presidency of this small public college would jeopardize the application of a crony. A publicly done appointment would have been ugly. Mr. Corcoran has no evidence of scholarship and, besides the specter of corruption, is unknown in the realm of higher education. He is unqualified except for his close relationship with the Governor. And that relationship is now paying him dividends.

As Education Commissioner and Speaker of the House, he supported laws on “school choice,” meaning parents were not required to attend a school in their district. They had the choice to send them to private and charter schools, to home school the children, or send them to the next county. The Florida taxpayer pays for all that. He also supported “giving parents more say” over education content and how that education is conducted, which has meant book bans, skyrocketing teacher vacancy, and anti-democratic legislation like the “Stop Woke Act” and “Don’t Say Gay” Act.

Books that offend right-wing ideologues have been banned including some written by Nobel Prize Winners. Black history won’t be taught. Teachers can be arrested for having the wrong books in their classroom, even if just on shelves. Banned is any teaching or material that would make a student feel “guilt, anguish, or some other form of psychological stress.” It is a subjective thing that is, on the whole, undefinable. Over five thousand K–12 vacancies existed when school started last fall.

To whip up support for these policies, DeSantis is appealing to white Christian nationalism. “Put on the full armor of God. Stand firm against the left’s schemes,” he remarked at a private Christian college in Hillsdale, Michigan a few months before the November elections. “You will face flaming arrows, but if you have the shield of faith, you will overcome them.”

With each new bit of educational right-wing fanaticism on the part of Governor DeSantis, more teachers are quitting. It is bad enough that Florida ranks 48th in the nation for teacher pay, but while the pay of incoming teachers has gone up a bit, the fact that a teacher can face felony arrest for having a book by Toni Morrison in their class can’t help but make teachers want to walk away.

The Bonanza for a payday

In his new position, Mr. Corcoran will receive $699,000 a year as the temporary President of New College. He will be temporary until Sept. 2024, if New College still exists then. If he completes his term, he will receive another $100,000. He will also receive a payment — called an annual retirement supplement — of $104,850, plus a housing allowance of $84,000 and a car allowance of $12,000.

These amounts are in line with two other recent appointments of university presidents. The new president of the University of South Florida is set to receive a total of 1.1 million dollars a year. The new president of University of Florida (UF), Ben Sasse, the former senator from Nebraska, will have a base salary of one million dollars a year, with the potential of ten million dollars over his five year term.

The University of Florida has 35 thousand undergraduates and 21 thousand graduate and professional school students. The University of South Florida (USF) has an enrollment of 68,000 students, of which 9,200 are graduate students and 483 are medical students. New College has 684 students and 25 graduates.

As a small school New College does not have any varsity athletic programs, athletic scholarships, fraternities or sororities. As in most southern states, college football is a big thing in Florida. New College has a very different atmosphere from other Florida schools.

Florida law limits the amount that a school can pay its president from public funds to $200,000, and very often non-public money is used to supplement faculty and administrative compensation.

In the case of the University of Florida, the endowment has over 6 billion dollars in foundation money. The much newer University of South Florida has almost 700 million dollars in its foundation. New College, however, has just 43 million in foundation money, from which Mr. Corcoran will be paid. There is very likely a lot of pain now for the donors of that $43 million.

In a guest column in the Orlando Sentinel, President of the United Church of Christ and New College alumni Rev. John C. Dorhauer wrote very harshly of the actions of DeSantis, in particular of the takeover of New College. “I think he knows full well what he is doing, and quite frankly it sickens me,” Dorhauer said, describing the governor’s actions as cloaking “indefensible racism and fascism in the mantle of faith.” He hit the nail on the head.

The United Church of Christ founded and funded New College sixty years ago, and operated it until it became a state school. The school’s methods and philosophy comes from that church, and likely much of the endowment money came from its members. It is a very progressive church whose history goes back to the abolition movement before the Civil War. Less a slap in the face, Mr. Corcoran’s appointment seems more like a kick in the stomach to the donors.

Richard Corcoran and New College

Given the circumstances, Mr. Corcoran hit the jackpot. This is especially so for someone who had to drop out of the University of Florida, attend a second or third rate law school established by Pat Robertson, and finally take three years to pass the bar exam, having failed it in each of those years. The previous president, Patricia Oker, who was fired by the board, deserved more but received substantially less, with a $305,000 annual salary and $40,000 for housing.

Dr. Oker had experience as the Dean of University of Missouri’s College of Arts and Science, and had a doctorate in American Literature. Prior to her position as dean, she was a full professor and head of the school’s English department. She was not, however, a friend of the governor.

On the other hand, Mr. Corcoran has no hands-on experience with higher education, except having applied for the presidency of Florida State University. Florida State has an enrollment of approximately 45,000 students, with a complete array of professional schools and graduate programs. There were other candidates, but he couldn’t compete openly.

At the time of his application, the governor had appointed him to a position on the Board of Governors of the Florida State University System, which oversees the appointment of university presidents. Corcoran apparently did not initially realize that the situation screamed conflict of interest.

Trying to imagine him at a conference of university presidents, the appointment is both an embarrassment and a disaster for the New College. And that says something about the cunning of DeSantis’ chicanery. Of the twelve schools within Florida’s university system, New College is one of a kind. It is of a kind that infuriates and deeply offends believers in white Christian nationalism. But for progressive and free thinking parents and students, the school is something of a magnet.

The campus is located on the shore of Sarasota bay, one of the loveliest parts of Florida. The area has beautiful beaches on two barrier islands, and has several museums — including the Ringling, community theaters, and orchestras. It would be a very highly-priced piece of real estate, if it were on the market — where it may soon be.

New College also offers a unique type of education. Having started out as a private religious college by wealthy, progressive, civic-minded residents, it was then merged into a nearby state university, the University of South Florida, which is more centrally located in the Tampa Bay area, an hour’s drive north. That merger lasted until 2001, when it became independent again, but now within the state system.

Since then, it has been struggling to support itself and maintain the faculty and facilities. Successive Republican governments in Florida have not helped the school in this struggle — until last month, that is. The Governor then pushed through a $15 million grant from the Republican legislature to help Mr. Corcoran along. Prior to that, it received very little support in the state budget. By all accounts, the dorms, labs and classrooms have suffered from water damage, mold, and disrepair.

It has still remained a very forward-looking and student-oriented educational institution. According to its brochures, it encourages academic experimentation, and students are encouraged to explore a variety of subjects. It has a stellar marine biology program, and environmental sciences are among the most popular courses.

Classes at the school usually have no more than ten students. Class grades are not given, though students’ work is evaluated by their teachers, and students can, and do, fail classes.

The idea that perhaps irks right-wing dogmatists the most is that students begin their education with a lot of thought.

In statements to the press, members of the board of trustees have provided assurance that in 120 days, there will be nothing left of New College’s teaching model. It is more likely that there will be nothing left of New College at all.

New higher education

The State of Florida is governed by a Republican governor and a Republican legislature. Thanks to a ghostly Democratic Party, the legislature can do what it wants. And what they want most in education, besides controlling educational content, is controlling faculty.

After the legislature passed laws limiting access to voting, a suit was filed. That lawsuit succeeded in the trial court, but was reversed on the appellate level. In the suit, three faculty members from the University of Florida who agreed to testify were threatened with discipline by the governor and initially barred from testifying. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits Florida colleges, condemned the governor’s actions. The legislature responded by passing a law requiring all public universities and colleges to find another accreditation agency. They have a year to do it.

To deal with the uppity faculty, the legislature restricted tenure. Professors with tenure (i.e. job security) will now be subject to a comprehensive review every five years, or sooner if the need arises. That review will include “biased teaching” and “indoctrination” evaluations which constitute discrimination under the terms of Florida’s new “Stop Woke Act.”

The Stop Woke Act is directed against teaching on any subject that places “guilt” on anyone for events committed by others or a prior generation. The specific target here is slavery and racial discrimination, but that is not the only possible subject area. It could also include the genocide of the Native population, the wars of foreign aggression in Vietnam, Iraq, and the forty or so other countries that our armies have invaded and bombed in the years since 1945.

To help with this, the legislature has compelled each school to do an annual survey of students about “intellectual freedom.” This survey is voluntary for the students. But it will provide a vehicle for students (or their parents), to report teachers and professors for teaching on these subjects. In addition, new rules of governance for the board of trustees are now pending in the state legislature, which would give trustees the power to veto school budgets and to fire individual faculty.

This will be a very trying time for faculty and progressive students throughout the university system. With respect to New College, it seems the political intent is to make the school disappear. The land looks like a perfect location for a few Trump towers. Richard Corcoran will be in charge. He will see that the school fails, and there will be a lot of money in it.

Corcoran has prior experience with failure. As speaker of the Florida House, he was involved in the privatization and destruction of an entire school system. Jefferson County was the locus of what an administrator for the Florida Department called an absolute disaster. Through Florida’s program for freedom of choice, parents were encouraged to take their children out of public school or out of the county. In Jefferson, many parents did that. The leaders of a majority white county with a predominately Black school system, had no interest in providing a quality education for Jefferson County youth.

The result of privatization in that county —which is adjacent to Leon County, home of the state capital — was resegregation of the school system. What’s left of the system is a single charter school that is 77% Black and Latino and 20% white in a district whose population is 37% Black and Latino and 60% white. Mr. Corcoran facetiously called it a “school of hope.” After five years, all hope was gone, along with the for-profit contractor. The schools bled teachers and students. Test scores were lower than before. Mr. Corcoran had an answer to that. At first, he asked for patience. “It’s never overnight, but I promise you Jefferson County will turn around.” Later, he just walked away.

Last year, the charter school con artists walked away, too, leaving Jefferson County without $20 million for an education that was never delivered. County officials at first refused to take the schools back, and there were no other charter operators to take over. So, the legislature released five million dollars to hire another contractor to purportedly show local officials how to run a school system. And that was where the issue of big rigging comes up for Mr. Corcoran. There is not much of an investigation.

What does all this mean for New College? It shows that these claims about freedom of choice, attacks on “wokism,” or privatizing public education is racist flim flam, masquerading as faith. It is really about re-segregating public education, profiting from it, and destroying it. The vast majority of U.S. people really don’t want this. These schools and universities will lose teachers and professors in droves.

The objective for the right-wing ideologues and their corporate backers is to make the wealthy donors who finance places like Hillsdale College or the Federalist Society feel more comfortable and less guilty about their wealth. And the objective is to get behind Ron DeSantis, who they hope will be the next U.S. President.


Images: Ron DeSantis speaking at a TPUSA Student Action Summit by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0) overlaid with US Flag by Thad Zajdowicz (CC BY 2.0) and St. John’s Catholic Church by Warren LeMay (public domain); Richard Corcoran meets with Trump at the latter’s “Kids First” Event to push for school re-opening at the height of the pandemic. (public domain); Rev. John Dorhauer speaks at the UCC March & Action to Stop Deportations at Baltimore ICE Office by Justice & Witness Ministries, UCC (CC BY-NC 2.0); We believe in educational freedom by United Faculty of Florida (Facebook)


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