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Swift changes at New College of Florida sets the stage for new leadership

Dr. Okker's forced exit now means former GOP House Speaker and former education secretary Richard Corcoran will take over as interim president in March.

SARASOTA, Fla. — Swift changes have already swung into motion at the New College of Florida in Sarasota after the first board of trustees meeting Tuesday. 

With a new conservative majority on the board, more changes are on the way.

The board members, six of whom were recently appointed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, ousted the school's former president Dr. Patricia Okker.

They also took votes to reshape the school's immediate future and leadership direction.

Okker's forced exit now means former GOP House Speaker and former education secretary, Richard Corcoran will take over as interim president in March. Chief of Staff Bradley Thiessen will run things at the college until Corcoran can resume the position.

"You know that the only authority a president has is to persuade and bring people along," Okker said.

Okker was unable to persuade the board that she could carry out the new vision of abolishing programs aimed at diversity, equity and inclusion and shifting to a new conservative culture.

Nine of 13 trustees proceeded to vote to fire her from her role as the school's president only after 18 months when she first took charge.

"It is a hard reality and a sad reality but the vision that we created together is not the vision that I have been given as a mandate," Okker said.

Under her previous contract, which paid $305,000 per year, Okker is entitled to a one-year sabbatical leave and 20 weeks of severance for termination without cause.

The new deal reached ahead of the board meeting would allow her to take on a full-time teaching position at the school with a salary of $150,000 per year if she chooses to do so.

Corcoran from Pasco County represented the 45th District from 2010-12, and the 37th District from 2012-18, and served as education commissioner from 2019-22.

The meeting was greeted by more than 200 demonstrators who cut across different sectors of the community, many of whom packed the auditorium and jeered at some of the deliberations.

A vast section of New College's student body and their parents have said this new direction is not what they signed up for.

"They're career politicians. In a lot of ways it's clear that they're using students as political pons to further their agenda to restrict academic freedom," Madison Markhum, a student at New College of Florida, said.

"She did an amazing job, and to give her one year to accomplish anything and she accomplished a lot. Some other school will snatch her up and New College will suffer the loss," Michelle Roberts, parent of a New College of Florida student, said.

Union leaders with the United Faculty of Florida have described the situation as "a takeover of New College, Florida's honors university, by extremist ideologues in an effort to enforce conservative ideology on campus through authoritarian tactics."

"We stand with our colleagues at New College and their stated commitment to true viewpoint diversity and academic rigor," Andrew Gothard, president of UFF, said.

"The governor is trying to institute his agenda and take over our precious universities and censor what is taught in the classroom," Candi Churchill, executive director of UFF, said.

There are also concerns about the future of faculty as at least one board member has vowed to fire employees and get rid of tenure.

"The faculty in Florida are protected and we will stand together to make sure that our collective bargaining agreement and frankly our state constitution is held to a higher standard," Churchill said.

DeSantis plans in investing millions of dollars in New College to see this new plan through and is pushing for wider higher education reform legislation.

He specifically said he would set aside $15 million in his budget to restructure New College and allot $10 million in recurring funds annually. This money would go towards efforts to hire faculty, recruit more students to boost enrollment and also improve infrastructure.

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