Host: She was fired as New College president – she actually still is on the payroll of the public university – and now she is raising her voice. WSLR reporter Emy McGuire listened to what Patricia Okker had to say at a forum yesterday.
Emy McGuire: Yesterday evening, Patricia Okker met online with Floridians for Democracy for a discussion titled “Education Under Siege! How should we respond?”
Okker was fired as president of New College back in January, after Gov. Ron DeSantis decided to take the college into a more conservative direction. The termination took place during a public board meeting with the new trustees and shocked many of the watching students and community members.
Floridians for Democracy is an organization concerned that the democracy of their state is in peril. They hold events and membership meetings to increase voter participation, engage in legal and civil means to be heard, and work to protect academic freedom. Floridians for Democracy opened their meeting stating their concern over “not only for what has gone on at New College, but what that may spawn elsewhere.”
Pat Okker has been teaching American Literature since 1990. Two of her three degrees are from public universities, and she has spent her entire career involved in higher education, including 31 years at the University of Missouri. She accepted the position at New College of Florida in 2021, and noted that the climate of the school has already been significantly altered.
At the time, New College was a top five liberal arts college, and Florida’s higher education system was ranked highly in the country by to US News and World Report.
“This was a state that recognized that the vitality of the state depended on the strengths and continued investments in higher education. The other thing that I noticed… the Board of Governors also had a plan for being national leaders in higher education on diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Now, Okker believes that the State of Florida has actively taken steps to restrict higher education and use it as a sort of political battleground. Diversity and equity programs have been eliminated, preventing systems that, Okker says, have historically protected students and faculty from LGBTQ and other marginalized communities. The Board of Trustees has stated its intent to dismantle New College’s gender studies program, which Okker finds disturbing.
Okker: I spent the last 30 years studying women writers, I have a degree. All my degrees are in English, but I have studied issues about gender and women my entire career, I have an entire body of scholarship. I could not hide the fact that I work in gender studies, like there’s no way you could look at my CV and think of anything else. And not once in all of the interview questions did anyone question whether it would be appropriate to have as a college president in the U.S, someone who has devoted her career to study women writers. That was never ever, ever questioned.
E.M.: Another area where Okker expressed concern is tenure. In April, five New College professors were denied tenure (which prompted one faculty trustee member, Matthew Lepinski, to resign on the spot). Accreditation agencies and the rules they oversee are key to safeguarding academic freedom, she believes. While she doesn’t believe accreditation is perfect, Okker stated that it is “the only thing that protects institutions from being under the kind of political pressures that we actually are seeing.”
Politicization of education has been rising nationwide. The current presidential search at New College seems to trend towards conservative candidates. Okker believes that Florida’s once robust higher education system risks being eroded by the new legislature.
Okker: I’m a patriotic girl from way back, and I just gotta go back to Thomas Jefferson here. Our nation’s founders understood the role of higher education – public higher education – in a democracy, and Thomas Jefferson in particular very clearly understood that the people of America – not the government, but the people of America – should determine what is valuable and what is true, and what is pure nonsense.
This has been Emy McGuire with WSLR news.
Friday, December 8, 2023
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