After three hours of deliberation, the Board of Trustees (BOT) decided on Tuesday, April 20 to name Dr. Patricia Okker as New College’s first-ever female president.
Okker has been a professor of English at the University of Missouri since 1990. She has held a variety of leadership positions at Mizzou, but has been in her current position as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences for nearly four years. BOT Chair Mary Ruiz confirmed that Okker has accepted the offer.
At the meeting held over Zoom, the trustees first discussed survey results from community constituents and how each candidate measured on a leadership rubric.
The survey results revealed Okker as a frontrunner. However, Lucy Leske from the presidential search firm, WittKiefer, cautioned that percentages of the results were not comparable because of the differing amounts of people who answered surveys for each candidate. Dr. Alan Shao, the dean of the College of Charleston’s school of business, received nearly 200 responses — the majority of them negative — while only 97 people responded to candidate Dr. Rhonda Phillips’ survey.
After the trustees mulled over the survey results, the conversation shifted to discussing the candidates in the context of a variety of issues, from fundraising to shared governance practices to enrollment.
Then, per an emailed survey the trustees conducted last week, they narrowed down their picks to three candidates: Okker, Phillips and Dr. Michael Sosulski. In this survey, each trustee identified their top two picks. Shao only made three trustees’ top-2 lists. Dr. Jane Fernandes was not selected by any of the trustees. Leske later announced during the meeting that Fernandes formally withdrew her candidacy.
Phillips has been the dean of the honors college at Purdue University in Indiana since 2013, a program which she was instrumental in launching. Sosulski is the provost and professor of German at Wofford College, a private liberal arts college in northeast South Carolina.
This is when the meeting started to become more charged. The board conducted a straw poll to determine which candidate was most favorable to each member. Okker received five votes, Phillips got four and Solsulski got two.
With a decent consensus favoring Okker, Ruiz proposed a motion to offer Okker the presidential job, seconded by the Chair of the Faculty and BOT member Dr. David Harvey. Some trustees raised their objections to extending the offer before another poll was taken, so Ruiz withdrew the motion.
In the next straw poll, Phillips edged out Okker by a slim majority: six trustees voted for Phillips while only five voted for Okker. Trustee Garin Hoover quickly motioned to extend the presidential offer to Phillips, which was seconded by Trustee Mark Aesch.
Another half-hour of debate ensued. Ruiz and NCSA President Sofia Lombardi emerged as Okker’s largest supporters, while trustees Hoover and Aesch argued for Phillips.
“Dr. Philips’ private tour with me was 52 minutes long,” Lombardi said at the meeting. “Dr. Okker’s was at least an hour and 15 minutes, just because she spent so much time asking me questions, trying to get to know the student opinion, what our academic program is like and where we can improve. She just seems really excited to get to work and get to know New College.”
Ruiz said that in her private conversations with Phillips, there was a “sense of negativity and defeatism” and that she was worried about her leadership style.
“I didn’t start with that attitude, I started with Phillips as my number one,” Ruiz said during the discussion. “I’m concerned that she’s going to make demands on this campus that we may not meet.”
Ruiz added that Phillips expressed concern about the comments made about her in the presidential search survey.
“I’m thinking if you can’t take the comments in the survey, then I don’t know what’s going to happen when you’re president,” Ruiz said. “I’m concerned about her temperament, not her capabilities.”
Dr. David Harvey, chair of the faculty and voting member of the BOT, said that Okker was widely favored among faculty and staff. However, he noted that she came off as more reserved and low-key upon first impressions, but grew on everyone over the course of her two-day visit to campus.
“What Trustee Harvey articulated was a little bit of my concern with Dr. Okker,” Vice Chair Ron Christaldi said. “You don’t always have two days to grow on a donor, constituent or legislator.”
The motion to ask Phillips to be the next president remained on the table while the trustees continued to debate between the two finalists. After the discussion went on for nearly half an hour, Lombardi implored Hoover, the trustee who originally proposed the motion, to withdraw it; he declined.
The trustees proceeded to vote on the motion. All but three — Christaldi, Aesch and Hoover — voted no.
The trustees took another straw poll on Okker, which ended up with the same amount of votes as Phillips’ motion, 8-3.
Finally, Ruiz motioned to ask Okker to be the next president of the college, which Christaldi seconded. The motion passed unanimously. The meeting then transitioned to a private session to discuss Okker’s contract. To remain compliant with Sunshine Law, a court reporter was present and a transcript will be released after details are finalized.
Current President Donal O’Shea is retiring on June 30, 2021 and Okker will begin her tenure on July 1.
“I’m glad this search was fruitful and that students were so involved throughout the entire process,” Lombardi said. “I’m looking forward to welcoming Dr. Okker to campus and getting to work!”
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