Presidential candidate Patricia Okker visits New College, reflects about her own college experience
Dr. Patricia Okker speaks to the New College student body at a livestream student forum at the Sudakoff Conference Center on Tuesday, April 7, 2021. NCSA president Sofia Lombardi, who moderated the forum, is seated to the left of Dr. Okker.

Presidential candidate Patricia Okker visits New College, reflects about her own college experience

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Dr. Patricia Okker had an undergraduate experience not unlike that of a New College student. Hailing from Allegheny College, a small (though not quite as small as New College) Pennsylvanian liberal arts institution, Okker entered the campus pursuing a science major and left with an English major.

“This is an unique opportunity for me to combine my love for public higher education with a liberal arts education,” Okker said in her opening statement during her interview on April 5. “It is a personal story. I would not have imagined, and certainly my grandparents would not have imagined, that I’d be sitting here as a potential presidential candidate. I see the opportunities that I’ve had because of a college education.”

Okker saw the role of the president at New College as a mix of setting the college’s internal priorities and building external relationships—particularly noting the growing importance of fundraising, recounting how 40% percent of her current job is spent reaching out to potential donors. She stressed the role of team building, emphasizing both the clear articulation of expectations as well as promoting a “culture of caring.” This includes the encouragement of staff and faculty professional development. 

“We’re human beings that experience the world not in separate parts,” Okker said. “My approach to student affairs is that it’s integrated as much as possible, that it’s a holistic experience. If a student is struggling with financial aid matters, that’s going to affect their academic work.”

Okker spoke of the importance of racial, ethnic, LGBTQ and generational diversity on campus, which fits well within the priority she placed on “Inclusive Excellence” in her cover letter. She regards inclusivity as a foundational principle, and said that without it, an institution is “turning away from excellence in all areas.”

Okker expressed excitement about New College’s situation as a public liberal arts college, which combines both accessibility and academic rigor. Furthermore, she expressed interest in the nuances of New College’s academic program, especially the narrative evaluations.

“I can not tell you how much this pleased me,” Okker said.“I asked a student while I was on my tour, ‘tell me about your narrative evaluations,’‘Oh we love them,’ they went on and on. And a part of me was really jealous, because I don’t know a single student that I’ve had that, when asked about how they were graded whose first response would be, ‘I love it.’”

As for what she would improve on, Okker saw increasing enrollment to 1200 as achievable, but a challenge. She then said increased enrollment would further benefit the academic life of New College (expressing a belief that classes can get too small) and invigorating the social side of campus.

“I would hope we could really enhance the social side of student life,” Okker said. “I’ve heard it from faculty, I’ve heard it from alumni, I’ve heard it from staff. There’s no debate about that, people want to do that, just making that vibrant part of social life more vibrant.”

Okker does not see online classes as being a major part of the undergraduate curriculum, but inclined that she may want to create an online graduate certificate program catered towards working professionals that want to expand their portfolio, but whose careers would prevent them from attending a residential college full time.

On the issue of student concerns about the police on campus, Okker advocates for a collection of data, both of experiences with the police on campus and how other campuses manage their security and safety concerns. 

“I really want to gather some information,” Okker said. “What do we know about the budget? What are the alternatives? What are the best practices at other campuses? Some campuses have moved towards a campus security or campus safety model. Has that worked? Let’s find out! I’m a scholar; you give me a question, and I’m like ‘I don’t know, but let’s find out!’”

Throughout both her Q&A and her interview, Okker would refer to her time as an undergraduate at a liberal arts school and what it would mean for her to find herself at such an institution again.

“I’m an English major, I have three degrees in English,” Okker said. “I study narrative; I like a cleanly developed plot. There is something appealing to me, at this point of my career, of really returning to my roots. My college was smaller than my high school. It transformed my life.”

The Board of Trustees is meeting to pick New College’s next president on Tuesday April 20. More information is available here

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