New College of Florida President Richard Corcoran Threatens to Withhold Degrees of Protesting Students


In a bold and controversial move, Richard Corcoran, President of New College of Florida, has threatened to withhold the degrees of students who disrupted the college's May 17 commencement ceremony.

The protest was sparked by the commencement address of Joe Ricketts, a conservative billionaire and former CEO of TD Ameritrade, whose speech was cut short due to the students' actions. The unfolding events have raised significant debate about free speech, academic freedom, and the consequences of student activism.

New College of Florida President Richard Corcoran Threatens to Withhold Degrees of Protesting Students

(Photo : WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / Florida House of Representatives)

The Protest at Commencement

The tension at New College of Florida's commencement ceremony was palpable as students booed and jeered at the invited speaker, Joe Ricketts. The protestors, visibly agitated, wore stoles representing the Palestinian flag and chanted "Free Palestine!" throughout the event. Ricketts, known for his conservative views and a past controversy involving leaked emails containing racist and Islamophobic sentiments, attempted to discuss his journey to wealth and the potential dangers of artificial intelligence. However, the persistent interruptions forced President Corcoran to cut his speech short. As Ricketts stepped away from the microphone, he was overheard expressing frustration, "I hate it, but they really don't care what I have to say."

The student protest was not entirely unexpected. New College of Florida, a public liberal arts institution located on Florida's Gulf Coast, has been a hotbed of political controversy since Governor Ron DeSantis overhauled the university's board of trustees in January 2023. The newly appointed conservative members swiftly fired the former president, Patricia Okker, eliminated the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) office, and witnessed the departure of approximately one-third of the faculty. This tumultuous backdrop set the stage for the student unrest witnessed at the commencement ceremony.

READ MORE: New College Of Florida Appoints Scholar Advocating Colonialism, Raises Concerns Amid Conservative Overhaul 

Potential Consequences and Institutional Response

Following the protest, President Corcoran announced severe potential consequences for the students involved, including withholding their degrees. Other disciplinary actions could range from mandatory enrollment in a class on civil discourse to suspension or even expulsion. In a statement obtained by The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Corcoran emphasized the need for order and respect for diverse viewpoints, highlighting the administration's commitment to maintaining a disciplined academic environment.

New College officials underscored their stance by filing five conduct violation complaints against the protesting students, citing their failure to adhere to pre-established instructions regarding the consequences of such actions. Prior to the ceremony, the college had issued a memo outlining its expectations for decorum, which included a warning against political protests during the event. The memo stated, "While we respect and honor the First Amendment, a commencement ceremony is not the time nor place to hold a political protest."

Corcoran reiterated this sentiment in an opinion column published in The Wall Street Journal, where he argued that the students' actions reflected a troubling intolerance for diverse viewpoints. He assured that the students would receive due process through the school's upper-level conduct hearings, emphasizing that New College would not be ruled by an "illiberal attitude."

Broader Implications and Ongoing Debate

The incident at New College of Florida has sparked a broader debate about the role of free speech and student activism in higher education. Critics argue that Corcoran's actions represent an overreach of administrative power and a stifling of student expression. They contend that commencement ceremonies are significant public forums where students should be allowed to voice their concerns and dissent, particularly on pressing social and political issues.

Supporters of Corcoran's stance, however, argue that maintaining order and respect during formal academic events is crucial. They believe that the students' disruptive behavior undermined the spirit of the commencement ceremony and disrespected the speaker's right to share his views. This camp views Corcoran's response as a necessary measure to uphold the values of civil discourse and academic decorum.

The controversy at New College also reflects the broader ideological battles being waged within American higher education, particularly in states like Florida, where conservative leaders are actively seeking to reshape public universities. Governor DeSantis's overhaul of New College's board of trustees and the subsequent policy changes have been part of a larger effort to promote conservative values and limit progressive influences on campus.

As New College of Florida navigates the fallout from the commencement protest, the institution finds itself at the center of a national conversation about free speech, academic freedom, and the limits of student activism. President Corcoran's decision to threaten the withholding of degrees has highlighted the tensions between maintaining order and respecting diverse viewpoints. As the college moves forward with its conduct hearings, the outcome will likely have lasting implications for the students involved and the broader academic community.

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