By Abby Weingarten
President Patricia Okker officially succeeded Donal O’Shea on July 1, becoming the first female leader in the history of New College of Florida.
“I’m so excited to be part of this incredible community, and to help New College grow and thrive,” Okker said. “I’m optimistic about what is next for New College, and I look forward to leading such an impactful, inspiring institution to an even greater future in the world of higher education.”
Okker, who previously served as dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri since 2017, received her presidential confirmation from the Florida Board of Governors (which oversees the State University System of Florida) on June 23. The New College of Florida Board of Trustees had selected Okker as president from a pool of 138 applicants in April, after a six-month-long search process.
During Okker’s time on the New College campus, she made a powerful impression on the faculty, staff and students.
“It was clear from the start that Dr. Okker cared about New College, and saw and appreciated its unique mission,” said Sofia Lombardi, the president of the New College Student Alliance, who served on the New College Presidential Search Committee. “Upon her arrival to campus, she immediately engaged with students without prompting. She made her commitment to the liberal arts and to New College known. This, in tandem with her exceptional academic and professional credentials (and the student-facing approach she took at the University of Missouri), made her the clear choice for New College.”
Okker joined the University of Missouri as an assistant professor of English in 1990 and was promoted to full professor in 2004 (a year after winning the William T. Kemper Fellowship for Teaching Excellence). From 2005 to 2011, she chaired the English Department, overseeing 70 full-time faculty and a $5.5 million annual budget. Okker then moved to the Provost’s Office, where she developed a new model for academic program reviews of 280 degree programs and led the University’s successful 10-year accreditation team.
As dean of the College of Arts and Science, she oversaw 450 full-time faculty, 135 staff and 6,500 students across 26 departments and schools with an annual operating budget of $120 million. She raised the College’s graduation and retention rates by implementing a data-driven strategic plan for student success, and she increased the diversity of the faculty.
Okker holds three degrees in English language and literature: a bachelor’s degree with honors from Allegheny College, a master’s degree with distinction from the University of Georgia and a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her teaching and research interests include 19th-century American literature, American women writers, American periodicals, career preparation in the liberal arts, and writing and wellness.
“Dr. Pat Okker is a skilled academic leader with a proven track record of supporting student, staff and faculty success in the arts and sciences,” said New College of Florida Board of Trustees Chair Mary Ruiz. “We know she will lead us with great purpose and a holistic approach to fulfilling the New College mission and philosophy of education.”
O’Shea, who led New College for nine years before retiring, echoed Ruiz’s enthusiasm.
“I have faith that New College will positively evolve and flourish under President Okker’s leadership,” he said.
For Okker, the opportunity to lead New College is a great honor. Much of her passion for public higher education comes from her own personal story, she said.
Okker is one of five children, born and raised in New Jersey. Neither of her parents earned bachelor’s degrees, but they instilled in their children “the values and pleasures of education and hard work,” Okker said.
“My education has afforded me opportunities that my parents and grandparents never even imagined. This background has instilled within me a keen sense of the transformative power of a college education,” Okker said. “And I know that the faculty, staff and students at New College share this commitment to nurturing students as individuals and preparing them for the future.”
Okker noted that, during her time at the University of Missouri, all of her campus-wide initiatives (from developing a career readiness program to increasing the first-year retention rate) were focused on student success. It is an approach she intends to carry into her leadership at New College.
“I am truly excited about the future of New College, and I am even more excited about the State University System’s commitment to integrating academic and workforce development (it truly is exciting, and work that I’ve been doing for many years),” Okker said. “I look forward to working collaboratively with employers and education leaders around the state to ensure that New College continues to provide a personalized, rigorous education that prepares students—as New College says—to lead lives of great achievement.”
Okker is committed to ensuring that New College fulfills its goals of recruiting students and increasing the value of their degrees; strengthening existing, and developing new, partnerships throughout the community and state; and establishing New College as a national leader that integrates a rigorous liberal arts education with a robust career readiness program.
“As a nationally ranked public liberal arts college,” Okker began, “New College is well-poised to be a leader in demonstrating the power of a liberal arts education that is fully engaged with the communities it serves.”
Abby Weingarten is the senior editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing.