On Jan. 31, former President Dr. Patricia Okker ended her time at New College after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed seven new trustees to the Board of Trustees (BOT), who then terminated her employment contract during their first public meeting. With Okker no longer at New College, she has recently joined a new initiative by PEN America that unites former college and university presidents to fight for academic freedom in higher education.
With the rise of education bills in Florida in the past six months, PEN America partnered with Campus Compact to start “Champions of Higher Education” network that—according to Okker, who spoke with the Catalyst—will “seek[s] to advocate individually and collectively against efforts by public officials to censor and chill campus free expression and the right of students to learn, and against attempts to delegitimize and defund public colleges and universities.” There are roughly 200 public signatories of former presidents in support of the Champions of Higher Education Initiative, among those names being Okker herself.
PEN America is a non-profit organization founded with Poets, Essayists and Novelists in mind, and later broadening the scope to Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, Novelists. As a former English professor, the focus on advocacy with the through line of literature was what initially caught Okker’s attention: speaking about advocacy through reading. Okker was reached out to by Jeremey Young, the Senior Manager of Free Expression and Education at PEN America, and after speaking with Young and other presidents involved with the initiative, Okker decided to become involved, “because I am deeply concerned about legislative attempts across the nation that restrict what college students can read and study.”
Okker also provided the Catalyst with a statement, reflecting on what brought her to PEN America and reflecting on how New College was part of that journey:
“I am an educator, not an activist, and so my focus is on ensuring that students develop their skills as independent thinkers, able to take complex and controversial issues and decide their own points of view. Reading without restrictions is a necessary part of this process. Reading is not indoctrination. Every day on college campuses, students read texts that they agree with and those that they find objectionable. Being a critical reader—one able to refute, agree, expand the ideas of others—is a fundamental part of becoming an educated person.
One of the many things I love about New College is that so many of our students are voracious readers. I have fond memories of many lunchtime conversations about books! I am confident that college students across the country, like those here at beloved New College, are more than capable of reading a text—any text—and deciding for themselves whether the ideas there are ones they agree with or not.”
Okker’s hopes that “the Champions of Higher Education can build bipartisan support for freedom of expression on college campuses.” While the initiative is still increasing in numbers, the network has already started producing country-wide resources in the form of the Educational Gag Orders Index to help their communities to have a better understanding of the different bills being proposed in different states and what they mean for education in the U.S. today.