This fall, seasoned New College students might see the school’s fifth president in three years. After nine years as President, Donal O’Shea retired from the position at the end of the 2020-2021 academic year. In July 2021, Patricia Okker assumed the role as O’Shea’s successor. After 18 months of serving New College, Okker was fired during the January 2023 Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting. Chief of Staff Bradley Thiessen (now New College Provost), was appointed as a temporary interim. Interim President Richard Corcoran took over the position on March 1. Now, seven months after Corcoran’s appointment, the race for Okker’s permanent replacement has narrowed down to three candidates. The finalists include Corcoran, Robert Gervasi and Tyler Fisher. Fisher reached out to the Catalyst for an opportunity to speak with a representative to “get the pulse of the student body.”
Fisher spent his undergraduate career at the University of Central Florida (UCF), studying at the school’s Burnett Honors College. He earned a BA in English Literature and a BA in Spanish Literature. Fisher became the first UCF student to become a Rhodes Scholar and subsequently earned an Mphil in European Literature and a Dphil in Medieval and Modern Languages. Following his studies, Fisher continued to work in academia, filling lecturer roles at the University of London and University College London. In 2018, he recalled, he was “persuaded” to return to Florida to teach at his undergraduate alma mater, where he has worked as an Associate Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures for the last five years.
“I came back to Florida at the invitation of President John C. Hitt, who was the President of UCF for 26 years,” Fisher said. “I had spent 15 years in the U.K., but I thought I had come to a point that I had done as much good as I could do in that context. That invitation from President Hitt persuaded me that I could do more good for the students of UCF.”
It is worth noting that New College of Florida’s academic system is modeled after New College Oxford.
“I think New College is designed deliberately to prioritize and cultivate and sustain teaching excellence,” Fisher said. “I would seek to preserve those distinctive hallmarks of the New College education: the Independent Study Projects (ISPs), the narrative evaluations and the senior thesis projects. All of that collaborative, individualized instruction. What that translates to is the kind of success New College has achieved, in terms of the number of students who go on to receive PhDs, the oft-touted Fulbright record.
“There are a lot of forces arrayed against that kind of education. If it can be preserved at a place like New College, then it can serve as a model to other institutions going forward,” Fisher continued.
Fisher mentioned concerns he felt while speaking with students at an open forum in the Hamilton “Ham” Center on Sept. 20.
“There’s been a lot of friction regarding the proposed compensation package that was approved for this Presidential position,” Fisher observed. “I think it is disproportionate to what the institution is, in terms of its size, in terms of its nature. In order to cultivate good relations between the students, staff, faculty and administration, I would commit to investing 20 percent of that package back to student scholarships. It’s practical, because you want a healthy, collaborative relationship across those communities.”
Regarding New College’s academic standards, Fisher is focused on students being engaged and in control of their college experience. “There’s concern right now of possibly lowering [academic] admissions standards,” Fisher noted. “That must be checked. We need to set high standards, maintain them and, if possible, raise them further. Excellent academic standards will attract excellent students. The kinds of students you want will come here.”
Fisher went on to discuss the administration’s decision to launch an athletics program in the midst of the upheaval.
“When the leadership was discussing why they had chosen to add athletics, the reason given was deeply unconvincing and even troubling,” Fisher stated. “The reason given was that New College students don’t know what to do and they’re bored and that’s why we’re having retention problems. We don’t want to attract students who don’t know what to do, we don’t want bored students. There are opportunities here, and we want a kind of self-driven student.”
Fisher recommended continuing to prioritize academics and student interests rather than simply rejecting the introduction of an athletics program.
“It is important to think of the coaches as educators in their own right,” Fisher said, speaking about practical ways to integrate returning students and athletes. “They are educators of a different kind, yes, but they are also training these young minds. So, it’s important to get the coaches to be involved in as much of the academic endeavor as possible.
“Athletics are here now, and so we need to find ways to communicate their value as part of our wider endeavor together [as a school.] I would love to see the athletic push being driven by genuine student interest in the long run,” Fisher continued.
Fisher emphasized transparent communication as key to successfully leading a college.
“There is a lot of trust that needs to be rebuilt that I hadn’t fully appreciated until I spoke with roughly a dozen students at the Hamilton center over lunch,” Fisher said. “The deficit of trust the students were expressing at an institution this size, I would say, is unnecessary. Communication at a place like this should not be difficult. So, being very present to meet the students in person to genuinely listen to them is the first step in restarting trust.
“New College is smaller than most public high schools in this state. Why is it operating like a massive state university?” he added.
At the end of the interview, Fisher expressed a sense of optimism for New College’s future. “We are stewards of a legacy that will outlast us and it’s been here long before us, and it’s part of the wider university enterprise. A university has to have a sense of coherent unity. Throughout violence and upheavals, teaching and learning has continued. The university enterprise has survived.
“I think New College has a great future because it has a visionary design in place that’s been in place since it was founded. Those founding ideals have allowed it to survive a lack of state funding, being absorbed by University of South Florida… and the same thing will happen ultimately with these current upheavals,” Fisher concluded.
New College’s Presidential search will come to a close on Oct. 3, where the BOT will officially announce the final decision.