SARASOTA

25 days that shook New College: How Ron DeSantis swiftly transformed the Sarasota school

Zac Anderson
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Jan. 31: Hours before a New College of Florida trustees meeting where the board made major leadership changes, trustee Christopher Rufo (right) appears with Gov. Ron DeSantis, who appointed him, at a news conference to discuss DeSantis' plans to reshape Florida higher education.

SARASOTA — The announcement went out at 11:22 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 6 that Gov. Ron DeSantis had overhauled the board at New College of Florida with conservative intellectuals, and from that moment forward it was clear big changes were coming at the small Sarasota school.

How big became evident shortly after 6 p.m. on Jan. 31, when the new board replaced the college president with a prominent DeSantis ally in the culture wars and moved to start dismantling programs, with diversity efforts first on the chopping block.

Those 25 days between Jan. 6 and Jan. 31 are among the most momentous in New College’s 63-year history. The college was founded in 1960, but these weeks in January were akin to a new founding.

Big changes:New College board fires president, installs former GOP House speaker, DeSantis ally

Previous coverage:New College board member’s Twitter feed: COVID conspiracies and climate-change denial

In less than four weeks, the college morphed from a sleepy, though well-regarded, backwater in Florida’s public university system to a national conservative showcase, a high-profile experiment and a key political talking point for a governor who has presidential ambitions.

DeSantis' Jan. 6 announcement and all it unleashed has upended life at New College, alarming and disorienting many faculty, students, alumni and college supporters.

National media outlets have descended on the small school to document the governor’s transformation efforts.

Many college supporters are still shocked by how fast it all played out.

“Wow”

Felice Schulaner learned about DeSantis’ board appointments in an email from a friend on Jan. 6, who forwarded an article from the conservative National Review titled: “DeSantis shakes up leadership of woke Florida college, appoints conservative majority.”

Schulaner’s first reaction: “Wow.”

Schulaner is a New College alumnus who held top leadership positions in corporate America, including a stint as the chief human resources officer for Coach.

She served on New College’s board for 10 years and was chair for the last four. She once was the public face of New College for many, so the calls came pouring in — dozens of them — from “donors, parents, friends” about what DeSantis was doing.

Schulaner called it distressing to see the “the disruption this has caused for faculty, staff, students, donors and the community.”

The governor’s announcement landed like an atom bomb at New College, especially because he made it clear the new board members were on a mission.

“This institution has been completely captured by a political ideology that puts trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning,” DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said on Jan. 6.

The DeSantis administration held up Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian private school, as the new model for New College.

Turning New College into something resembling Hillsdale would entail a total reinvention. Many of the new board members have written extensively about reforming higher education to strip away perceived liberal excesses.

After College President Patricia Okker was fired Tuesday and replaced with former Florida Education Commissioner and DeSantis ally Richard Corcoran as interim president, some of the new board members told the Herald-Tribune that the school's transformation required an administrative shakeup.

Jan. 31: In her remarks during the meeting where she was fired as New College of Florida President, Patricia Okker, left, tells the audience that students are not being indoctrinated at New College.

Charles Kesler, a DeSantis board appointee who serves as a senior fellow with the conservative Claremont Institute, said he expected Okker to resign based on a conversation with her before the meeting.

"In the end, however, she chose not to resign and the Trustees chose, unhappily, to terminate her without cause. I regret it came to that," Kesler wrote in an email.  

New College of Florida Trustee Charles Kesler at the New College of Florida board of trustees meeting Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023 in Sarasota.

"But the simple principle is that after democratic elections which he and his party won overwhelming, the Governor has the right, and the duty, to steer the public higher education system towards the common good as he and the legislature see it," Kesler added. "And that includes nominating college and university presidents, and members of their boards of governors and trustees, who enjoy his confidence."

New College leaders were blindsided by the news that DeSantis was overhauling the board. Okker's firing was less of a surprise, but didn't initially seem certain.

Okker was diplomatic in her initial response to the new board appointments. Those who observed her during the early days of the takeover say she seemed to believe she could work with the new trustees, and some of the new board members indicated the same.

Off and running

Among the six new trustees appointed by DeSantis is Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist and celebrity with nearly 500,000 Twitter followers. He frequently appears on Fox News and says he is in regular communication with DeSantis.

New College of Florida Trustee Christopher Rufo at the New College of Florida board of trustees meeting Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023 in Sarasota.

Rufo and fellow new board member Eddie Speir, who founded a Christian school in Bradenton, have been the most outspoken about the changes they want to see at New College.

Rufo quickly outlined his plan in social media posts and interviews.

Shortly after the governor’s announcement on Jan. 6, Rufo tweeted out a memo titled: “Here is our agenda for transforming New College of Florida.” It includes abolishing diversity, equity and inclusion programs, changing to a “classic liberal arts model,” creating “a new core curriculum,” restructuring academic departments and hiring new faculty. He told the New York Times he wanted major changes in 120 days.

Other new board members were more measured in their calls for change, and skeptical that anything would happen soon. Mark Bauerlein, a former Emory University professor and new trustee, told the Herald-Tribune he didn’t expect Okker to lose her job.

New College of Florida Trustee Mark Bauerlein at the New College of Florida board of trustees meeting Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023 in Sarasota.

“I don’t see that happening unless some real tensions arise between us and the new president, and I don’t anticipate that happening,” Bauerlein said in an article published Jan. 12. “I like her.”

Even Rufo initially praised Okker.

While Rufo’s Jan. 6 memo said he wanted to “restructure the administration,” he tweeted on Jan. 10 that he had a "productive call" with Okker and "I have full confidence that she will provide sober, steady leadership as we begin these reforms together."

He later deleted that tweet.

Okker at first seemed hopeful she could hold onto her job as president and find common ground with the new board members, according to those who observed her.

An individual who spoke with Okker shortly after the governor’s announcement said she talked about welcoming the new board members “with open arms” and believed “there was a chance this would work.”

Another individual who spoke with Okker said: “My sense was initially she thought she could make it work and I think she had conversations with each of the trustees and initially she was planning in that direction.”

“I don’t know exactly the moment when that changed, but it seems like over the course of the month” the situation between Okker and some board members deteriorated, said the individual, who didn't want to be identified for fear of retribution.

Tensions between New College’s leadership and some new trustees soon spilled into public view.

Death threat against Eddie Speir leads to debate

Rufo and Speir criticized the college’s leadership over how it handled a death threat issued in advance of a pair of Jan. 25 meetings on campus.

The two new board members convened the meetings to give students and faculty the chance to ask them questions in a public forum.

New College of Florida Trustee Jason "Eddie" Speir at the New College of Florida board of trustees meeting Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023 in Sarasota.

More:New College officials deny new board member's request for prayer

The death threat was received the night before, prompting college Provost Suzanne Sherman to argue for canceling the meetings, according to video released by Rufo. Okker apparently did the same over the phone, based on Rufo’s responses to her in the video.

Rufo later told reporters that he thought it was “cowardice”” to try to cancel the meetings.

"We're going to be reconsidering leadership here because what I saw demonstrated here was cowardice, not leadership,” he said.

The same day that Rufo was blasting college leadership, Okker was participating in a meeting of the Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system. Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez criticized New College during that two-day meeting, saying the school was "co-opted" and "lost it's way."

It’s not clear when the effort to fire Okker began, but an individual who interacted with her noticed a change in her demeanor around this time.

“Her mood was down,” said the individual.

Pressure seemed to be mounting, with signs increasingly pointing to a big leadership shakeup.

On Jan. 25, the Board of Governors appointed another new trustee at New College, the seventh in a month, giving conservatives a majority on the 13-member board. Kesler spoke with Okker the next day, and said he came away from the conversation thinking she would resign.

"I gathered hints (or so I thought) that she would resign at the Trustee meeting, which is what I expected her to do," Kesler said. "Our phone chat was very cordial, and I asked her what she thought the biggest challenges facing New College were. The biggest one, she said, was the division between the 'culture' of the College and the 'politics' of the state, and as I recall she admitted she might not be the person to be able to bridge that gap. She left it at that, as did I." 

Around this time, the agenda was released for the Jan. 31 Board of Trustees meeting, the first with the reconfigured board. The agenda invited speculation about a leadership shakeup, with items to discuss Okker’s employment agreement, elect a new board chair and discuss the general counsel position.

Speir wrote a Substack post on Jan. 29 calling for a new board chair, new legal counsel and discussion of the "need for new president."

Patricia Okker fired, Richard Corcoran hired

The atmosphere on New College’s campus was electric on Jan. 31, with national media outlets and hundreds of protesters gathered for what would prove to be a hugely consequential meeting.

The meeting began at 3 p.m. Less than four hours later, New College’s president and board chair had been replaced, a new legal counsel was being sought and plans were in motion to abolish the college office handling diversity issues, and fire its four employees.

The reconfigured board was moving so quickly that veteran trustees cautioned that at a small school everyone has multiple jobs, and they might be firing people who oversee required work for grants or other functions unrelated to diversity training that needed to continue.

Before the meeting had even begun, a conservative news outlet aligned with DeSantis reported that Okker would resign and Corcoran would take her place, which the governor's office confirmed, suggesting it had been orchestrated behind the scenes. Okker ultimately forced the board to terminate her, though.

Who is Richard Corcoran?A look at the new interim president of New College

New College of Florida President Patricia Okker at the New College of Florida board of trustees meeting Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023 in Sarasota.

“I was so disappointed because it was so disrespectful to President Okker,” Schulaner said. “That was almost a four-hour meeting and all of this had been orchestrated before.”

“It could have been done so much more gracefully and appropriately,” she added.

The speed and breadth of the sweeping overhaul has been shocking.

“Worthwhile institutional reform requires care and deliberation,” said math professor Chris Kottke, who read a statement at the board meeting endorsed by 68 faculty opposing Okker’s termination. “Yet the speed with which this plan has been executed so far was clearly meant to cause shock, fear, and uncertainty among students and faculty to score political points.”

The details on how all of this played out behind the scenes aren’t clear, and have raised questions about whether it comports with the state's Sunshine laws and conducting public business in the open.

Okker declined to be interviewed by the Herald-Tribune after the meeting and has not responded to efforts to reach her since, nor has Ruiz.

Before the meeting, Okker negotiated an amendment to her contract that allowed her to take a year off with pay and return to the school as a professor if she is terminated without cause, which required nine board votes.

All Okker said during the meeting about the pressure she faced was that: "There is a new mandate for this college, and I have been informed that the plan includes the termination of my employment as president, that is my understanding.”

The board then voted 9 to 3 with Ruiz abstaining to terminate Okker without cause.

New College of Florida Trustee and board chair Mary Ruiz at the New College of Florida board of trustees meeting Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023 in Sarasota.

All seven of the new board members voted to terminate Okker, along with holdover trustees Ronald Christaldi and Sarah Mackie.

The transition to a new era at New College was smoother within the board itself than it has been in the community. While some of the holdover board members opposed Okker's termination and raised other concerns, most went along with the motion to hire Corcoran and generally tried to be diplomatic.

The new board even kept Christaldi on as vice chair.

Christaldi made the motion to fire Okker.

New College of Florida Trustees Debra Jenks and Ron Christaldi at the New College of Florida board of trustees meeting Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023 in Sarasota.

"We recruited you for a specific set of circumstances and you were the absolute right person at the right place at the right time, but the world has changed around us," he said.

New board member Matthew Spalding, a dean at Hillsdale, then floated Corcoran – who was speaker of the Florida House before becoming DeSantis' first education commissioner – as interim president, describing him as longtime friend.

New College of Florida Trustee Matthew Spalding at the New College of Florida board of trustees meeting Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023 in Sarasota.

Another DeSantis ally, former Senate President Bill Galvano, is in line to become the school’s new general counsel after the board voted to negotiate with his firm.

The student representative on the board raised concerns about showing favoritism in the hiring process toward the governor's allies, but board members brushed it aside.

Corcoran declined to comment when reached this week by the Herald-Tribune, as did Galvano. The governor's office did not respond to an emailed list of questions.

The Herald-Tribune emailed questions to all nine board members who voted to fire Okker. Bauerlein, Kesler, Spalding and Christaldi sent responses, while Speir said: "I still won’t give your employer any interviews." He is upset about how the Herald-Tribune handled reader comments about him.

More:New board member says his assignment is 'to lead New College of Florida out of wokeness'

Bauerlein said he didn't discuss Okker's termination with anyone before the meeting, and Christaldi said "I didn’t discuss Dr. Okker’s role with anyone other than Dr. Okker before the meeting." Bauerlein said he only learned about what was happening when the amendment to Okker's contract was emailed to him the night before.

Both men also said they didn't know Corcoran was being floated as Okker's replacement until the day of the meeting, with Christaldi saying he found out from a news report and Bauerlein saying he found out at the meeting.

Spalding said at the meeting that he reached out to Corcoran beforehand. He elaborated in an email to the Herald-Tribune.

"When the question of President Okker’s employment earlier had been placed on the agenda, I assumed the possibility of a presidential transition," Spalding wrote. "I reached out to Richard Corcoran — we have been friends for many years — to see if he would be interested in stepping in... I thought ahead and brought ideas with me. The board did its job: It proposed, deliberated, and acted. Elections have consequences." 

Asked about potential Sunshine Law violations, Bauerlein said he doesn't "believe we have broken any laws." He also isn't concerned about the perception that the college is favoring DeSantis allies in the hiring process.

"Corcoran's contacts can only be a boon to New College, bringing legislative and financial support," he said.

As to why he supported Okker's firing, which he initially said he didn't foresee happening, Bauerlein said that while he was impressed by Okker, "It is my experience that a drastic change among the board really does require a change in the office of the president."

Fallout

While many individuals with close ties to New College have been dismayed by what is happening there, the overhaul has been cheered by GOP leaders, the governor’s supporters and some in the college orbit.

Henry Smyth, an alumnus who serves on the New College Foundation board and has been heavily involved with the college for many years, believes the governor’s interest in the college is a golden opportunity for a reset, and a return to what he views as a previous era of higher standards.

“I am constructive on this,” Smyth said. “I don't think the barbarians are at the gate. I think that frankly this is a huge opportunity. I think that a lot of resources are going to come into the college.”

DeSantis announced on Jan. 31 during a press conference with Rufo that $15 million in new funds will flow into New College this year, and $10 million annually in recurring funding going forward.

New College advocates argue the school historically has been starved for funding.

They believe that lack of funding has contributed to many of the problems that DeSantis and his allies are now pointing to as reasons to overhaul the school. They wonder where the school would be if GOP leaders had committed more resources to it earlier.

Resources don’t seem to be a problem now, though.

“I’m assuming the governor wants to set up his new leadership team for success,” Schulaner said.

Jan. 31: Students at New College of Florida hold up signs during the Board of Trustees meeting.
Jan. 31: Members of the New College of Florida board of trustees, from left, Christopher Rufo, Lance Karp, Matthew Spalding, Eddie Speir, Debra Jenks and Ron Christaldi, listen to remarks during the public comment portion of the Board of Trustees meeting in Sarasota.
Jan. 31: Protesters outside of Sudakoff Hall before the New College of Florida Board of Trustees meeting.
Jan. 25: New College of Florida students listen as Christopher Rufo and Jason "Eddie" Speir speak about their new roles with the college during a meeting for students on campus.
Jan. 25: Recently appointed trustee of New College of Florida, Christopher Rufo, speaks to faculty and staff during a meeting on campus.
Jan. 6: Gov. Ron DeSantis appoints six new trustees to New College of Florida, promising a conservative overhaul of the Sarasota liberal arts college.
New College of Florida Trustee Matthew Lepinski at the New College of Florida board of trustees meeting Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023 in Sarasota.
New College of Florida trustee Mark Bauerlein speaks to members in the audience about why he believes there is a need for change at the College, during the Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday evening in Sarasota.
New College of Florida interim general counsel David Smolker at the New College of Florida board of trustees meeting Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023 in Sarasota.
New College of Florida Trustee Ryan Anderson at the New College of Florida board of trustees meeting Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023 in Sarasota.
New College of Florida trustee Sarah Mackie votes on one of the agenda items during the Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday evening in Sarasota.