New College of Florida Interim President Richard Corcoran appeared in defense mode Friday afternoon while speaking to the Tampa Tiger Bay Club, a nonpartisan political club.

“I’ve never said we want to be the St. Johns of the south or Hillsdale of the south,” he told the crowd of about 130 during a luncheon.

Corcoran was responding to a question regarding comments Governor Ron DeSantis has previously made about modeling New College after Hillsdale College, a small conservative Christian college in Michigan.

During the hour-long luncheon that included mostly Q&A from members, Corcoran was peppered with questions that focused almost entirely on the state’s controversial takeover at the small liberal arts college in Sarasota.

Members also asked him about what they described as contradictions Corcoran has made about wanting the college to be a politically “dead center” institution where free speech thrives versus some of the state’s actions to stop free expression and inclusiveness.

Since the state took over the college in January, critics say free speech has been silenced by the state’s more conservative new direction.

In January, Governor DeSantis appointed six new conservative members to the school’s board of trustees. Since then, the publicly funded college has eliminated its diversity office and gender-neutral bathrooms, and the school recently started abolishing its gender studies program per the new board’s edict.

“Faculty, LGBTQ students, and people of color don’t feel welcomed at New College,” Kelly Benjamin said to Corcoran. “Do you see the contradiction to what you’re saying versus what is actually happening on the ground there,” he asked Corcoran.

In response, Corcoran said, “100% of what you said is not based on fact.”

The exchange heated up momentarily, with several audience members asking Corcoran to answer Benjamin’s question.

“What question? It was about opinions, not based on fact,” Corcoran snapped back.

Benjamin said he attended the luncheon as a citizen concerned about Florida’s increasingly conservative education policies.

“He’s [Corcoran] a complete hypocrite when it comes to this woke indoctrination rhetoric and when it comes to what can be taught in the classroom. They’re demolishing academic freedom in the state of Florida,” he said after the luncheon.

Corcoran’s visit with the Tiger Club indicated that the former politician and Florida Education Commissioner is becoming more comfortable talking publicly about the state’s new direction for New College. He’s also on the shortlist of three finalists for the permanent New College President position.

During a recent sit-down interview with Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone, Corcoran answered questions about the state’s transition and laid out his vision for the college, which includes the recent recruitment of a few hundred student-athletes.

Related Story: New College’s interim president talks about school’s future, defends state’s controversial takeover

“The new student-athletes and the old students are all working together; the culture could not be better,” Corcoran told reporters after Friday’s luncheon.

While some seemed to support parts of the state’s new direction at the school, others admit they came skeptical and left that way.

“I wanted to see how many lies he would tell, to be honest with you,” said Dani Delaney, whose son transferred out of New College this year.

“It’s a continuation of Richard Corcoran doing political whitewashing that everything’s great, everything is fine, and that’s just not true,” she said.

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