Conservative trustees oust New College of Florida president in leadership overhaul

A leadership change from President Patricia Okker to Corcoran as interim chief is one of several actions the board took on Tuesday, which also signaled plans to scrap diversity, equity and inclusion on campus – all policies pushed by DeSantis. The changes are major developments at the school spurred by the new appointees, including Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who advised DeSantis on critical race theory, and Eddie Speir, the co-founder of Inspiration Academy, a Christian charter school in Bradenton, Fla.

Tuesday’s meeting drew apprehension from dozens of students and parents who protested what they called a “hostile takeover” at New College. They urged Okker to stay on as president and push back on new terms from the DeSantis administration to model the school as a “Southern Hillsdale” in reference to Michigan’s private conservative “classic” religious college.

Okker, in an emotional speech, told the board — and the campus — she could not continue as president amid accusations that students were being inundated with liberal indoctrination.

“The reality is, and it’s a harsh reality and it’s a sad reality, but the vision that we created together is not the vision that was given to me here,” Okker said.

In redoing New College’s board, the DeSantis administration said the school was “completely captured by a political ideology that places fashionable, truth-bound concepts above learning” and needed change following declining enrollment trends. To leave Okker, the administrators have agreed to a “generous” exit package that includes at least 12 months of paid professional development leave and benefits. Corcoran is unable to start serving until March, leaving Okker chief of staff Bradley Thiessen in charge until then.

“New leadership is the expectation and I think that makes sense,” Rufo said during the meeting. “I don’t think this is a condemnation of Dr. Okker, scholarship, skill or character.”

DeSantis’ changes to New College follow other efforts to reshape higher education in Florida. Earlier Tuesday, the GOP governor proposed several changes to Florida’s university system, including pressuring the GOP-led legislature to cut all funding for diversity, equity and inclusion programs and to allow university leaders to launch a tenure review of faculty. Last year, DeSantis and state Republicans placed GOP allies in top academic positions and pushed through legislation that could limit how professors teach about race.

New College is also set to review its Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence at Rufo’s request as part of the state’s stance against diversity, equity and inclusion programs in the schools. Rufo initially pushed to abolish the office altogether, including four positions, and take other measures related to diversity and equity, but decided to ask for more details on the program for discussion in February. .

Tuesday’s meeting was tense at times, with members of the public frequently yelling at and at the new directors as they spoke. Several parents and students addressed the council before gathering, often criticizing their plans to retool the university and asking them to leave the college alone.

Some faculty said students felt “hopeless” about what might happen at the school, which is a unique college of fewer than 700 undergraduates where students make personalized education plans and only receive no letter notes.

“Many students have come here to feel safe and access the education that is rightfully theirs as Floridians,” Diego Villada, assistant professor of theater and performance studies, told the board. “And the impulse to make it a place where race, intersectionality and DEI are banned tells them that you want everyone to be the same – like you.”

Trustees, however, made it clear New College’s overhaul was underway, a message that came the same day DeSantis pledged to invest millions of dollars in hiring faculty at the school.

“The campus needs a profound culture change. You sat here, you called us racists, sexists, bigots, outsiders,” said trustee Mark Bauerlein, professor emeritus of English at Emory University, appointed by DeSantis. “We are now in a position of authority within the college. And the charges tell us that something is wrong here.


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