Raises, renovations and the New College Challenge: 30 minutes with President Okker
President Patricia Okker posing outside of Cook Hall.

Raises, renovations and the New College Challenge: 30 minutes with President Okker

The last time that the Catalyst spoke exclusively with President Patricia Okker, it was in May 2021—shortly following the Apr. 20, 2021 Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting where she was selected as New College’s next president, but before her tenure had begun on July 1, 2021. She had been in the process of moving to Sarasota from Missouri, but even so, Okker said in an interview that the time she had spent on campus up to that point made it clear that increasing New College’s enrollment, bolstering students’ social engagement on campus and “getting to know people beyond email” would be her priorities in the upcoming months.

Okker was officially inaugurated about nine months later on Feb. 23. Mere weeks later and the ball is already rolling; in a President’s Update released on Mar. 8, Okker announced various initiatives ranging from new leadership positions to recommended raises for New College employees, to a series of alluded renovations to various spaces on campus. Ten months after the initial interview, the Catalyst is now catching up with Okker once more. In a 30-minute interview held on Mar. 18 outside of Cook Hall, all of these topics and more were covered as Okker shared her plans and ambitions for the college that will be set into motion in the next few months.

Recommended Raises

One such ambition is, in light of the 2021 Employee Satisfaction Survey, to improve employee compensation. Okker stated in the Mar. 8 announcement that New College’s management team negotiated with each of New College’s three unions—the United Faculty of Florida (UFF), the Florida Police Benevolent Association (PBA) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)—to establish the following terms:

  • Eligible employees hired prior to July 1, 2021 will receive a 2% increase to base pay and a $2,000 one-time bonus. 
  • Depending on the union, other benefits have increased for those members—for example, an extra day for bereavement leave or establishing $13 per hour as the minimum wage.
  • “Out of Unit” employees—that is, employees who are not members of any union—will receive a $2,000 increase to base pay and a $2,000 one-time bonus.

These terms were unanimously recommended by the BOT Finance and Administration Committee on Mar. 2, and were later approved by the full BOT.

“Some people ask the question of why some of the details are different from the different unions,” Okker said, referring to these terms. “Our negotiators negotiate directly with each union, and so the unions identify priorities that we have, so those are independent of each other. My goal as President is to try and have things as equitable as possible, but I also really do respect the fact that different unions bring to the table different concerns that they have.”

However, complications arose on Mar. 16 when it was revealed that out of unit employees were receiving their salary increases retroactively. This meant that benefits were being awarded to UFF members and out of unit employees, but not members of the PBA or the AFSCME.

“Historically, what has been true here at New College is that it [retroactive pay increases] is, in my understanding, something that the UFF has negotiated, but the other unions have not been successful in getting,” Okker explained. “I was under the impression that the UFF had negotiated retroactively but that the others didn’t. On Wednesday [Mar. 16] I learned—but I didn’t learn until Wednesday—that in fact, retroactive also went to out of unit employees, employees that are not in a union.”

Okker went on to explain this discrepancy in an announcement sent to faculty and staff on Mar. 17, where she also stated that she and BOT Chair Mary Ruiz will be presenting a revised recommended raise plan during the April BOT meeting.

“Chair Ruiz and I are in full agreement that the current situation does not promote the positive work culture that we are striving for, and that the benefit of retroactive increases should be extended to eligible employees in our two other unions,” Okker said in the Mar. 17 announcement.

“It [the revised plan] does have to be approved by the BOT,” Okker clarified during her interview. “But the chair of the BOT and I are in complete agreement that we want to extend this benefit to all of our eligible employees.”

The New College Challenge

Those paying careful attention to Okker’s Mar. 8 update may have noticed a striking section that promises upcoming developments in increasing enrollment and revitalizing student spaces on campus.

“Over the past few years, and in response to enrollment challenges, our faculty has worked hard to re-think significant aspects of a New College education, all while staying true to the innovative vision of our founders,” Okker wrote. “In the days ahead, I will share with the campus a proposal that we embark on an exciting, unifying planning process designed not only to address current facility issues so that our campus and student experience matches the vibrancy and creativity of our academic programs.”

When asked to elaborate, Okker said that this project, at the time of this article’s publication, is tentatively being called the “New College Challenge.” She explained that a formal description is still being drafted, but that an official announcement will be released the week after Spring Break. With this in mind, she opted not to reveal too many details.

“Here’s how I would describe it, shorthand: I strongly believe that we have this amazing curriculum here,” Okker said. “It’s just so smart and so intentional, and it creates amazing results. We know that it works. But my question for us, and for the campus as a whole, is does our physical campus, our spaces and places on campus support the academic mission of the college?”

Okker went on to explain that when she was first elected as President, people immediately began asking about renovations for spaces like the Caples campus, Pei dorms and the Four Winds Cafe. She continued to say that while New College has a Campus Master Plan that addresses physical buildings like these, the New College Challenge will instead be focused more on facilities.

“What do we need our campus to do to support the work that we’re doing here?” Okker asked. “Some key issues, just as an example: Student Affairs has big bold plans of making sure that we have a more robust student experience. Do we have the facilities on campus to provide that? Does our campus create a sense of belonging? Is it welcoming to people? Spaces matter, so it’s a way of looking at our physical campus and the ways in which we interact with those spaces.”

Okker described this project as involving “faculty, staff, students, community members, neighbors, alumni [and] business leaders.” A full description can be expected as early as Mar. 28.

Hamilton Classroom Renovations

However, one upcoming renovation that is not part of the New College Challenge is one of the Hamilton Classrooms (HCL), which contains offices for Student Affairs, Disability Services, Housing, Student Activities and Campus Engagement (SAUCE) as well as teaching facilities. Okker announced on Mar. 10 that, following the 2022 Legislative Session on Mar. 9, New College was granted public education capital outlay (PECO)—money awarded to public educational institutions for building repair, renovation and construction. Okker presented the following budget:

  • Hamilton Classroom Renovation: $5,215,013  
  • Deferred Building Maintenance:   $1,842,737
  • College Hall Breezeway:               $402,476

The following document—provided to a Catalyst reporter by Vice President of Finance & Administration Chris Kinsley—explains that the HCL building has various code and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance deficiencies, no indoor bathrooms, a dated electrical and fire alarm system and poses concerns for privacy in Disability Services.

Additionally, the Return on Investment (ROI)—a performance measure used to evaluate the efficiency of an investment—estimated that the college would retain an additional 10 students per year as a result of these HCL renovations.

“It is a building that desperately needs renovation,” Okker said. “Sometimes people say, why that building and why not the Hamilton Center, for instance, or why not the Pei dorms. The state has rules about what money you can use to do what kind of projects. Residential areas or student centers, this particular funding we had to use on academic space. I’m going to go after every bucket of money, actually, but this was one we could do an academic building in.”

The proposed budget does not formally go into effect until July 1, 2022.

Flexible Work Policy

Okker also shared a few thoughts about the Flexible Work Policy developed over the past few months by Human Resources (HR), circulating and gradually accumulating feedback. Flexible Work Policies have become increasingly more common in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and offer employees the benefit of working outside of the traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule, or outside of a physical, shared office space.

“The pandemic did, nationally, create lots more interest in remote work possibilities,” Okker said. “Many employers are struggling to recruit and retain top talent. It’s a challenge. I really want to make sure that we’re able to recruit and retain top talent, and employees across the country and on our campus have said that they want some opportunities for remote work. And I want to make sure that it’s applied equitably.”

Okker continued to say that there are some New College employees that remote work would not apply to, such as groundskeepers, and so the goal is to instead introduce basic guidelines so that supervisors can make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

 “I do want students to know that we’re not going to do anything that reduces the really strong attention to quality service on this campus for the needs of our students,” Okker said.

With recruiting and retaining top talent in mind, New College is also in the process of receiving applications for the Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion position and interviewing and selecting finalists for the Chief Human Resources Officer position. Okker also said that she plans on making an announcement soon about New College’s up-and-coming Executive Director of Communications and Marketing.

Campus Security

Towards the end of the 30-minute window, Okker asked the Catalyst reporter what they felt to be the top issues students on campus are currently facing.

Campus security and surveillance has long been at the forefront of the student consciousness, following a string of intrusions and security updates over the course of about 18 months. But even with door alarms and new locks in place, New College’s open campus means that anyone can enter and leave at any time, which begs the question of whether increased, higher-quality surveillance on campus could be part of a more permanent solution.

Debate was most recently sparked once more following the Mar. 16 Towne Meeting, with some students showing an aversion to being surveilled, some arguing that cameras alone are not a preventative measure and others suggesting that the mere presence of cameras could deter potential intruders.

“As we look for a new Police Chief, these are questions we want to bring to our candidates,” Okker said. “If someone’s a finalist for our new police chief, my expectation is that they’re experts in ensuring that we are safe and feel safe on campus. Bringing that challenge and that issue to our candidates to say, ‘This is a conversation we are having as a campus, we’re struggling with these issues. What do you recommend?’ What’s the solution that makes sense for our campus? “

“So I say, keep the conversation going, but let’s also bring in experts and the new leader to ensure that their approach is aligned with the values of New College,” Okker concluded.

New College’s Impact

With eight months at New College and a 30-minute interview now behind her, Okker was asked if she found anything surprising about New College from the time she first came on-campus during her interview to when she was inaugurated. She touched on this point during her inauguration speech, referring to all of the ways she’s gotten to engage with New College faculty, staff and students, and the ways that the New College curriculum prepares them to be inventive and daring in the professional world.   

“I was surprised at the number of people who are graduates of New College who have gone on to be entrepreneurs,” Okker said. “I was not expecting that, shame on me! It makes sense now to me because New College students take risks intellectually, they’re innovative, they want to do things in a new way. All that approach to innovation and creativity that we have just baked into our curriculum and approach to education, so it totally makes sense.”

Okker went on to explain that she was surprised by the impact that New College had beyond its own campus—the way that community members have a sense of pride in the institution despite not having direct connections themselves.

“I knew that New College was connected to the community, I knew that during the application process, so I knew that before I even got here,” Okker said. “I have been really astounded sometimes at the degree to which people who have never gone here, never sent a kid here, talk with such passion and love for the students of New College. And that’s been really heartwarming, and it’s been a surprise. They’ve had all different ways of interacting with New College students. Many times for community members, it’s, ‘Oh, we had a student intern’ or ‘I met somebody this week who, years ago, hired a New College student as their nanny.’ And they’re like, ‘We immediately knew New College was a special place.’”

New College being a special place is, arguably, the driving force behind these upcoming initiatives. Improving working conditions and bringing new experienced administrators to campus, ensuring that students feel safe, renovating various classrooms and student services buildings—with a bit of guidance and leadership, all of these goals are hopefully on the horizon for New College.

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