New College students attend a protest
New College students attend a protest of the appointment of new board of trustees members by Gov. Ron DeSantis at the school's Harry Sudakoff Conference Center on Tuesday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

SARASOTA — Carrying signs and wearing stickers and buttons Tuesday, hundreds of students, faculty and alumni filled the courtyard outside the building where the six new trustees appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to New College’s board of trustees were to meet for the first time.

“Jesus would not have wanted this,” one sign said. Others declared: “Stop the Steal,” “Queer Lives are Welcome Here,” and “Are we too woke or do you need to wake up?”

They rallied to save their school from what New College President Patricia Okker later called a “hostile takeover” by the new conservative appointees. They didn’t know that a key decision had already been made.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, told protestors she was “damn proud to stand with them,” and led a chant to “reject fascism and protect freedom.” Then she dropped a bomb: Okker was to be replaced by Richard Corcoran, the former education commissioner and Florida House speaker, who would serve as interim president.

“Get a real job dude,” Eskamani said.

• • •

As the crowd dispersed and lined up to enter the meeting room, hundreds were turned away into a packed overflow area.

The six DeSantis-appointed trustees asserted their presence early, proposing to rid the school of its diversity office and talking about the “crisis” that needed to be solved. But confusion over procedural matters and their unfamiliarity with some issues took up more than an hour.

At one point, board chairperson Mary Ruiz, who later resigned with a year and a half left on her term, expressed irritation.

“I would ask trustees in the future to read the packet,” she said, referring to the information provided to the board prior to each meeting.

Well after the scheduled 5 p.m. end of the meeting, the board moved to fire Okker effective immediately.

“Their plan includes my termination as president,” she announced, citing social media posts from two trustees in recent days. She added: “The support I feel in this room is tremendous, but I’m going to let you down.”

The audience booed, some urging her not to leave. Some students broke into tears, others stood and left the room.

“That was not how I thought this was going to go,” Okker said.

New College President Patricia Okker, left, chokes back tears in the moments of her termination while New College current board chair Mary Ruiz listens, at right.  [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

She said she could not be asked to go forward and seek donors, telling them that New College students were being indoctrinated, as DeSantis and some of the new trustees have alleged.

Eddie Speir, a new trustee, said that while he thought Okker did a great job, she was no longer the person to lead the college forward.

Matthew Spalding, another new trustee, said he felt a new direction was needed.

Matt Lepinski, the faculty representative on the board, spoke in favor of Okker. “I’d like to acknowledge the strengths Okker brings,” he said. “She’s good at getting everyone to move together in the same direction.”

The trustees voted 9-3, with Ruiz abstaining, to fire Okker. Lepinski, student representative Grace Keenan and Lance Karp voted against the motion.

Under the contract she signed in 2021, Okker is entitled to one year of professional development leave beginning Feb. 1 and 20 weeks of severance for termination without cause, which the board agreed to.

Chief of staff Bradley Thiessen was named interim president until Corcoran can begin as interim president in March. A national search will begin after that.

Debra Jenks, a new trustee and a New College alumna, was named the new board chairperson.

New College President Patricia Okker is applauded during a meeting of the school’s board of trustees on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. A short time later, the board fired her as a first step in an overhaul of the school initiated by Gov. Ron DeSantis. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Earlier in the day, Rufo accompanied DeSantis at a news conference in Bradenton, just north of the New College campus. The governor pledged an infusion of $15 million at New College to be spent on hiring new faculty and scholarships for students, with an extra $10 million every year thereafter. As a part of a larger plan to reform higher education, he also denounced diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at state colleges and universities, saying they would no longer be funded.

Rufo echoed those concerns at the trustees meeting, calling on the school to abolish its department of excellence and inclusion, terminate the department’s four employees, ban diversity statements, prohibit mandatory diversity training and prohibit identity-based preference.

“The first action we have to make is very clear,” he told fellow trustees. “We need to demonstrate to the Legislature… that we want to meet their expectations, meet their visions and act on our mandate.”

Mark Bauerlein, also a new trustee, said diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are sometimes seen as coercive.

“This is a McCarthy-like litmus test,” he said, encouraging the board to accept Rufo’s motion.

The school does not have mandatory diversity training, according to associate vice president of government affairs Christie Fitz-Patrick, adding that the office of excellence and inclusion has duties beyond diversity and inclusion initiatives.

The motion ping-ponged between board members before they settled on requesting a report outlining the school’s current policies and recommending changes in line with Rufo’s ideas and upcoming legislation.

• • •

At the end of the meeting, board members were quickly hustled out a back entrance while students and faculty slowly made their way outside.

People lingered in the overflow room, incredulous.

“Where were the rest of the board members?” one woman shouted.

“What a sad day,” someone else said. “Shame. Shame.”

Alexandra Andrade, a fourth-year liberal arts major from Miami, said she hopes that students keep up the fight.

“I’m worried students are going to leave because they won’t feel safe here any longer,” she said. “I’m hopeful people will stay and see that our community is not going to change — at least so far.”

Ian Hodgson is an education data reporter at the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

Education data reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.