Harnessing potential can be pivotal. Game-changing. Life-changing. Patricia Okker, Ph.D. knows this firsthand.
She didn’t always envision herself as an intellectual, didn’t imagine herself ascending to the high-level role of a college president. But it was as an undergraduate at a liberal arts college where she ultimately found herself— where a professor exposed what she was truly capable of and emboldened her to test her own limits.
“Repeatedly, in my life, when people have seen things in me that I didn’t see—those have been really transformative moments,” Okker said.
And, in a full-circle kind of way, Okker is now ushering New College into a new era of transformation. She sees so much here—incredible, untapped potential—and she is ready to help unleash it.
On July 1, Okker officially succeeded former president Donal O’Shea, Ph.D., to become the first female leader in the history of New College.
“I’m so excited to be part of this incredible community and to help New College grow and thrive,” Okker said after her appointment. “I’m optimistic about what is next for New College, and I look forward to leading such an inspiring institution to an even greater future in the world of higher education.”
From Mizzou to New
For Okker, who served as dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri from 2017 to 2021, leading New College is her first experience as a college president.
She relocated to Sarasota this summer with her husband, retired archaeologist Richard Edging, Ph.D.; her 89-year-old mother, Ethel; and the family Golden Retriever, Blu. A competitive athlete, Okker is currently training for her ninth Boston Marathon, and she has also set world records in powerlifting.
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.
The New College of Florida Board of Trustees 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.
Cooper Drury, Ph.D., who is now the interim dean of the College of Arts and Science, worked directly with Okker as her senior associate dean for five years. The two collaborated on all academic hiring and personnel, the budget, training, mentoring, fundraising and managing department chairs.
“Pat is simply the best person for whom I’ve worked. She places a great degree of trust and authority in her people, so that they can accomplish the work of the College,” Drury said. “She moves fast and expects others to keep up with her, but she empowers them to do so. Working with Pat brings your abilities to a new level.”
Okker’s efforts in the College of Arts and Science will be felt for years to come, Drury added.
“Pat made tremendous gains for the College,” Drury said. “She brought transparency to everything we did, she empowered and challenged department chairs to do better, and she developed leaders throughout the College. None of that was true before.”
Drury already misses the one-on-one work meetings he had with Okker.
“We had daily check-in meetings, which often started with updates on our training (she’s a runner; I’m a cyclist),” Drury said. “I miss the quick back-and- forth and dive into the day’s work.”
One of Drury’s favorite stories about Okker involves receiving a text message from her just after she arrived at New College.
“She was telling me that she was about to go into a hurricane meeting,” Drury said. “I asked what she meant, and she replied, ‘A real hurricane—not a metaphorical one, like a problem that’s as bad as a hurricane. A real one.’”
That storm was Hurricane Elsa. The news of its impending arrival greeted Okker during her very first day on campus—offering a bit of Missouri-to- Florida culture shock. That would be Okker’s introduction to New College—a place not without its own storms—but she knew that going in, and she came prepared.
The Making of a Leader
The roots of Okker’s intense work ethic run deep.
Her grandmother, Hannah, immigrated from Sweden and arrived at Ellis Island, New York, at the age of 18. Not knowing any English, she worked as a maid and a cook her entire life, and built her family in America.
“All the images I have of my grandmother (I called her ‘Nana’) were of her working hard. And I often think about the differences between the opportunities that I’ve had and those that she had. She was just a young immigrant making her way in this new country, and she worked hard,” Okker said. “She didn’t have opportunities to do things differently, but my mom did. So, my mom was able to go to nursing school, went to a hospital and became an RN. And then, just one generation later, I’m a college president?! I will always be grateful for the opportunities that I had because of education.”
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. Okker’s own hard work began with her first job in high school, as a nursing home aide in her hometown of Wayne, New Jersey. She then went on to Allegheny College, where she started as a science major (because she was better at math and science, she said, even though she loved English and reading novels).
“I would describe myself in college, early on, as an underachiever,” Okker said. “I was certainly an underachiever in high school, perfectly satisfied with a good, solid B+.”
But that would soon change—with a firm nudge from an influential mentor. Lloyd Michaels, Ph.D.—an English professor teaching an American literature survey class at Allegheny College—offered some constructive criticism on one of Okker’s papers.
He was the first one to recognize that Okker had learned the “formula” for writing a “good” paper, but he wasn’t interested in minimal or mediocre effort.
Okker was taken aback by his criticism, in the best possible way. And that was all it took to take her from a somewhat complacent to an ultra-serious mindset.
“That’s my thing about challenge. That was such a transformative moment for me. From there on out, I got very serious,” Okker said. “I’m still grateful for that.”
Okker needed the challenge to thrive. Now it drives her.
A New Era for New College
Okker came to New College in the middle of multiple challenges—chiefly, a major growth issue, with enrollment continually decreasing while under pressure from the legislature to increase.
“Right now, it’s all hands on deck, and the focus is on enrollment. It is the job of every single person at this institution, and a good number of people beyond this institution, to advocate for this college, to promote this college, and to help recruit and retain students,” Okker said. “So, if people are thinking that the new president is on her own, that the knight in shining armor is here, no, that is not my job. I was initially attracted to this job because I saw things being put in place about growing enrollment that would make that transformation possible. And there is such a desire here to make those changes. So far, everyone I’ve met has been very enthusiastic.’”
There are numerous other priorities— like improving diversity, equity and inclusion; expanding community outreach and fundraising; and enhancing the visibility and national reputation of New College. She appreciates the willingness of the campus community to work toward those changes alongside her.
“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, has echoed Ruiz’s enthusiasm.
“I have faith that New College will positively evolve and flourish under President Okker’s leadership,” O’Shea said.
Okker has noted that, during her time at the University of Missouri, many 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 is carrying 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 said, “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.”
Okker looks forward to exposing the potential she sees in New College—and sharing it with the community, the state, and the world.
“Lots of institutions brag about being unique, but there are very few that are as unique as New College. New College is public, it’s affordable (and some of these liberal arts colleges, where you do not get a better education than you do here, cost $75,000 a year),” Okker said. “For the cost of attending New College, it’s truly amazing the opportunities we provide. There is such enormous strength here.”
To read the entire Fall 2021 issue of Nimbus, visit issuu.com/newcol/docs/newcollege_nimbus89-fall_f_121521.
Abby Weingarten is the senior editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing.