We don’t know what could happen was the general sentiment shared by many members of the New College community in the weeks leading up to the first Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting scheduled just after a slate of new conservative appointments by Gov. Ron DeSantis. In the end, this question was answered when the board voted to terminate then-President Patricia Okker from her position as the schools administrative leader and gave her a compensation package for her immediate release.
That answer left many stunned and disappointed.
The BOT’s decision rocked the faculty, students and staff, who were aggrieved to see the widely admired former president deposed. Okker herself seemed taken aback by the new board’s swift removal, and referred to the actions taken by the board in general as tantamount to a “hostile takeover” at the BOT meeting on Jan. 31. A Catalyst reporter reached out to Okker following that meeting, and she agreed to an interview by email. The Catalyst sent a series of questions, which she addressed with the following statement. This is the first response she has granted to a media outlet since her termination:
“I miss everyone at New College (especially the students!) and I am sad how things ended, but I wish nothing but the best for everyone at New College. I do not yet know what my future holds, but I am taking some time to figure that out.
I am so very grateful to all the people who have written to me. I’ve especially loved hearing from students about small encounters they had with me, and in every case I remembered that small interaction as well. I don’t think that would have happened at a large university, and it has been a powerful reminder that one of the great things about New College is that our entire approach to learning is based on building relationships among students, faculty, staff and administration. I admit that I also sometimes laughed because all the stories people shared were positive ones, fun conversations during lunch in the Ham Center or meeting me at an admission event. But it is worth remembering that I also had times of conflict with students. Perhaps the lessons of those times of conflict are worth remembering, too. And here’s my quick take-away as I remember those more difficult moments: we listened to each other. Our world is so full of conflict. But the New College way of listening and engaging is needed now more than ever.
You asked about advice I have for students now: Focus on your studies. Learn as much as you possibly can here. Support each other and ask for help when you need it. This morning I read Sophia Brown’s latest letter in the Catalyst. I loved what she said about what hasn’t changed. Here’s what she said: ‘I see students continuing to gather and sharing support with faculty. I see campus events still drawing crowds, and everyone still finding the space to talk and laugh and plan and work and breathe.’
Although I do not yet know what the future holds for me, I do know that the current students of New College will soon be part of the amazing New College alumni network. You will go on to do great things. And I will be cheering you on. No matter what.”
Following this response, the Catalyst sent follow-up questions to clarify a few points. For example, at the BOT meeting on Jan. 31, Okker addressed the audience of students, faculty and community members directly, saying, “I’m sorry if I’m going to disappoint you.” She then said that she would not want to work with the incoming board due to her fundamental belief that New College is not a place where people are indoctrinated.
Initially, in an email communication sent to the New College community on Jan. 6, Okker had suggested to the students that she would be willing to hear the “fresh ideas” of the new trustees and work through differences. The Catalyst asked what she meant by her previous comments about “disappointing you,” what caused her to change her mind about working with the board and if she was surprised by the board’s move to terminate her contract. She replied:
“It is very difficult to describe fully why I felt that I was disappointing some people, but I know that some people would have preferred I take a different approach.
I was not surprised that the board terminated my appointment as President. I was informed multiple times prior to the meeting that I would be removed, and the name of the interim President was leaked to the press prior to the Board of Trustees meeting. I was surprised by some of the discussion, but not the actual outcome.”
Many aspects of New College’s future remain uncertain, but New College students are remembering Okker’s presidential term positively and reflecting on what made her time as campus leader unique. In letters sent directly to Okker, students referred to her as someone who was willing to sit down with them, speak openly and understand them—even through disagreements and conflict. In many ways, if these letters are any indication, the values of dialogue, experimentation and openheartedness that Okker acted on represent the institutional character that many wish to protect at New College.