“I want to talk about the fear that the New College mission is fragile,” Board of Trustee (BOT) Chair and Head of the Presidential Search Committee Mary Ruiz said. The date is March 11, and after three grueling days of Zoom interviews with 12 presidential candidates, the search committee is preparing to vote for a minimum of three candidates to invite to campus for in-person interviews. They instead narrowed the search down to five: Patricia Okker, Michael Sosulski, Jane Fernandes, Rhonda Phillips and Alan Shao, who is currently a subject of student concern and controversy for his strong business background.
“I believe the New College mission has endured 60 years of challenges which by all rights should have been the end of us,” Ruiz continued. “Other educational institutions have not held up that torch. We’ve sustained many changes and stayed true to our mission. Change is not a threat to our mission and we’ve proven that over and over and over again.”
For the first time in nearly a decade, five presidential candidates have been chosen to interact with the community under the watchful eye of students and faculty before they will be presented to the BOT, which will ultimately decide the next president of New College of Florida.
Approximately 20 minutes into their final meeting, the search committee had cast their votes. Patricia Okker, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of English at the University of Missouri, received the most votes with 14 total. She has been a dean for two terms and, according to WittKiefer consultant Dennis Barden, has just completed the arts and sciences portion of a $1 billion capital campaign. She led the institution through significant cost and expense cutting and social upheaval following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.
Barden is one of two consultants hired by New College from WittKieffer, a global executive search firm, to facilitate the interview process. Ruiz said during the meeting that Lucy Leske, the other consultant, also offered the search committee bias training as they interacted with the candidates.
“As a committee, we’ve received some coaching about how to avoid some common mistakes that people make in our circumstances, and I think we should heed the advice that Lucy Leske coached us on,” Ruiz said during the opening remarks of the meeting. “One is that we should not base our decision on the halo effect. We are human beings and we seek affinity, and affinity is about people most like us. We have to put some discipline on ourselves, to challenge ourselves not to fall into that halo effect. If we don’t avoid this error, we may fail to consider the missing ingredient. We are missing an ingredient to realize our future. And that missing ingredient of assured success may be someone who brings something different to the table.”
In second place came Dean of Business and Vice President for Strategic Partnerships at the College of Charleston Alan Shao, with 12 votes. Shao has served two tenures as dean, and Barden reports that he has taken on “university-wide responsibilities” including enrollment and strategic partnerships. He also works closely alongside the other deans at the College of Charleston, and emphasized his work with the Dean of Arts and Sciences.
There was, however, a dissenting voice. Once it was clear that Shao had made the top five, New College Student Alliance (NCSA) President Sofia Lombardi spoke up on behalf of students who had come to her with concerns about Shao.
“When the list of candidates came out, I had several students reach out to me with concerns about Shao’s background and whether he may be a good fit for New College,” Lombardi said during the meeting. “I know that may come off as a bit biased, but I think if you have that much student pushback so soon, I think that’s a concern.”
Lombardi said in a separate interview that students had come to her with questions about the presidential candidate interview process, but also with concerns about Shao’s dedication to the liberal arts because of his strong business background.
“I think a lot of students want to make sure that I’m actively participating because I’m the only student there, which is a bit frustrating to have one voice out of 15,” Lombardi said. “And I’m very grateful for my spot on the committee, but I do make sure to put in as much work and as much research as possible before showing up so students know they have a voice that really cares. People just want somebody who is not going to be afraid to take action in a president, and who aligns with their personal values and the values that the school itself professes.”
Lombardi suggested during the meeting that they move to vote to replace Shao with Vice President of Xaiver University Anne McCall, who tied for seventh place with four votes. This motion was dismissed by the remaining committee.
“This process cannot be part of criticizing applicants,” Ruiz said in response to Lombardi during the meeting. “We have to maintain relationships with everyone who showed an interest and dedication to New College. My instructions to the students would be that this committee and an overwhelming plurality would like to have this man come to campus, and I would like the students to engage with this person in an open way, and then make their decision. Because we will be getting input. We are not discounting student input at all. But the time for that is after they talk to them.”
“There are quite a few candidates on that list that raise concerns because anyone who’s had a rich, long history of leadership has generated, as our search firm repeatedly tells us, some controversy,” member of the New College Foundation Board of Directors Sharon Ramey later added. “This vote for the five candidates was not a straw vote for any of the five. That’s not what we voted on today. It was that all of these five bring enough of the skillset and positive attributes that we want to get to know them better.”
Third place was Provost of Wofford College, Michael Sosulski, with 11 votes. Leske said that he spearheaded a five-year enrollment growth plan “on which they are ahead of schedule,” and also led a campus-wide discussion about diversity leading to the revamping of their hiring process, doubling the diversity of the faculty.
Fourth and fifth place were tied, with President and Professor of English at Guilford College Jane Fernandes and Inaugural Dean and Professor of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University Rhonda Phillips, both with nine votes.
Fernandes is the outgoing president at Guildford College where she executed a turnaround in enrollment after she inherited an institution that was in a severe budget and enrollment crisis at the time,” according to Leske.
Phillips, on the other hand, is an economist with a doctorate in City and Regional Planning and has also served as the Interim Dean at the Purdue Libraries and School of Information Studies.
“I’m impressed by the fact that, when you look at the breakdown, there’s a pretty decent gap [between the five finalists and the remaining candidates],” Alan Levine, who is representing the Board of Governors (BOG) on the search committee, said. “When you break it down and look at overall likelihood of success—you use a combination of resume, track record and experience—that gap naturally follows those votes.”
Now that the five candidates have been determined, the next step in finding New College’s next president is to involve them on campus and in person.
“There are some plans to deeply involve students with the on-campus interviews that I am already in discussion about with Mary Ruiz that I’m really looking forward to,” Lombardi said. “There will be the general student forums, but there will be in-person and Zoom components separately because they don’t want to make candidates have to handle a hybrid format.”
These opportunities for students to engage with the candidates directly should ideally help manage student concerns and give the future president the opportunity to interact directly with the campus. Lombardi added that the candidates may potentially be able to hold their own miniclass in order to teach faculty and students about their background.
Students can also expect Lombardi to manage a student forum before the in-person interviews are scheduled and a survey from the search committee that will later be presented to the BOT when they select a president.
“To quell any student concerns, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure student input is centered in every conversation,” Lombardi reassured. “There will be plenty of avenues to hear any questions, comments or concerns.”
Until then, in-person interviews are currently projected to run from March 29 to April 9. However, Lombardi said that these dates were determined when the Presidential Search Committee initially planned on selecting only three finalists, and so the process could run for a few additional days. The Presidential Search Committee—while inactive, since the March 11 meeting was the last meeting they had scheduled—will not be disbanded until the president is determined.