Patricia Okker, Ph.D., takes the reins as president of New College of Florida today, succeeding Donal O’Shea, who had been president since 2012. Chosen from a national pool of more than 130 candidates, Okker, 61, becomes the college’s eighth and first female president. A former dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri, she brings a track record of raising Mizzou’s graduation and retention rates and increasing faculty diversity. Her teaching and academic specialty is 19th-century American literature.
Okker spoke to us two days after she and her husband, retired archaeologist Richard Edging, her 89-year-old mother, Ethyl, and a golden retriever, Blu, arrived in Sarasota in mid-June. Somehow, she’d already managed to hit the beach and buy a home.
You spent 31 years at the University of Missouri, a Division 1 school with more than 30,000 students and 20 sports. What interested you in New College, a tiny school with 714 students and no football?
"I knew about New College before coming here, but not a whole lot. I knew it was serious about academics and I knew it had a history of innovative pedagogy. But the two guiding principles of my professional career have been a firm belief in the transformative power of public higher education—I have seen the importance of access—and an advocacy for the liberal arts. New College has those.
"I also sensed that there is a real emphasis on connection to community. Missouri is a land-grant university and service to the community is woven into its DNA. When I was interviewing at New College, I heard a lot from community members about their passion and support for New College and about New College’s interest in extending those connections to community. That appealed to me.
"I also have to say that I had a great first hour on campus [when I was a candidate] on a tour with two students. They described their classes and their goals, and I was completely enamored and inspired by them. It was the first time since the pandemic started that I’d left my state and, all of a sudden, I’m on a beautiful shoreline talking to incredible students about how much they loved their classes."
This is a tough time for higher education and public perception is at an all-time low. How do you explain the value of the liberal arts?
"It’s been helpful to think about the global experience of the last year and a half. The great thing about a liberal arts education is that you learn how to learn, to adjust and adapt to things you haven’t predicted. You also have an approach that is interdisciplinary in nature. If I look at any of the issues since the pandemic began, they speak directly to the education that one receives in a liberal arts education—issues of science, culture, communication, history, race and the way the arts have sustained people during the pandemic. A liberal arts education prepares us for the future, whatever that future is. We have to do a better job of telling the story of a liberal arts education and of helping students understand how their experiences have prepared them for careers and life. It’s one of my passions and something I’ve been working on for more than 20 years."
What are your first priorities?
"I’m just starting to learn but, in general, getting to know people in the community, throughout the state, and connecting to other leaders in the state system. It’s the practical thing of being grounded in the communities we serve. A second is increasing New College’s enrollment. Finally, improving students’ success at New College and after."
What do you do when you’re not on the job?
"I’m a marathon runner. I also compete in strength-related sports: powerlifting and Olympic-style weightlifting. Right now, I’m training for the Boston Marathon. This will be No. 8 for me. It’s going to take me a little time to adjust to running here. It’s very humid and there are no hills. Boston’s course is very hilly, so I’m going to have to find parking garages or overpasses. I’d like to get to know runners in the Sarasota community. Runners are a welcoming group, and if you’re a long-distance runner, sometimes you need company."
How did you get involved in powerlifting?
"It is wacky story. I have no background in sports. I was not athletic as a child or in college. But 10 years ago, I had a friend who asked if I would join a women’s powerlifting team and I said yes. Then I asked, ‘What’s powerlifting?’ I joined a group called OWOWs, Older Women on Weights. There were a dozen of us in our 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s, and we decided to compete as powerlifters. It was such a blast, and I had a knack for lifting and started competing in national and international competitions. I’ve competed in two international competitions and set a number of world records for my age and weight class, some of which have been broken and some of which still hold. When school starts, I hope to do some lifting with students on campus and hope to have a chance to compete again."