Conservative trustees oust president at Florida’s New College amid leadership overhaul

A leadership switch from President Patricia Okker to Corcoran as interim leader is one of several moves made Tuesday by the board, which also signaled its intent to abolish diversity, equity and inclusion programs 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 has 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 was met with 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 against the new mandates from the DeSantis administration to model the school as a “Hillsdale of the South” in reference to the private conservative religious “classical“ college in Michigan.

Okker in an emotional address told the board — and the campus — that she couldn’t continue to serve as president amid accusations that the students are being inundated with liberal indoctrination.

“The reality is, and it’s a hard reality and it’s a sad reality, but the vision that we created together is not the vision I have been given as a mandate here,” Okker said.

In remaking the board at New College, the DeSantis administration said the school was “completely captured by a political ideology that puts trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning” and in need of change following downward enrollment trends. To move on from Okker, trustees agreed to a “generous” exit package that includes at least 12 months of paid professional development leave and benefits. Corcoran is unable to begin serving until March, leaving Okker’s chief of staff Bradley Thiessen in charge until then.

“New leadership is the expectation and I think it makes sense,” Rufo said at the meeting. “I don’t think it’s a condemnation of Dr. Okker, scholarship or skills or character.”

DeSantis’ changes at 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 pressing the GOP-led Legislature to cut all funding for diversity, equity and inclusion programs and to allow university leaders to launch tenure review of professors. Last year, DeSantis and state Republicans placed GOP allies in top university posts and pushed legislation that could limit how professors teach race.

New College is also now set to review its Office of Outreach & Inclusive Excellence at the request of Rufo as part of the state’s stance against diversity, equity and inclusion programs in schools. Rufo originally pushed to abolish the office outright, including four positions, and take other actions tied to diversity and equity, but decided to request further details on the program for a discussion in February.

New College trustees also want former Senate President Bill Galvano to serve as their general counsel and attorney. They asked the interim president on Tuesday to enter negotiations with the former Republican lawmaker who practices law in Sarasota.

Tuesday’s meeting was tense at times, with audience members frequently shouting over and at the new trustees as they spoke. Several parents and students addressed the board before they huddled, often criticizing their plans to retool the university and asking them to leave the college alone.

Some faculty said students felt “hopeless” about what could happen at the school, which is a unique college of under 700 undergraduates where students craft personalized education plans and don’t receive letter grades.

“Many students came here to feel safe and access the education that is their right as Floridians,” Diego Villada, Assistant Professor of Theater and Performance Studies, told the board. “And the impulse to make this a place where race, intersectionality and DEI are banned indicates to them that you want everyone to be the same – to be like you.”

Trustees, though, made it clear that the New College overhaul is fully underway, a message that came the same day DeSantis pledged to invest millions of dollars into recruiting faculty to the school.

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

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