SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: January 31, 2023

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):New College of Florida

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On January 31, 2023, the board of trustees of the New College of Florida voted to fire its President, Patricia Okker, in apparent retaliation for her support for teaching of topics including critical race theory and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In the board meeting during which she was terminated, Okker spoke out about the conservative direction the University was going in, calling it a “hostile takeover.” A number of faculty, students, and community members also expressed their outrage and defended Okker, who had signed a 5-year contract in 2021. The contract reportedly stipulated the college had the power to terminate her with six months notice and a two-thirds board majority. While 9 out of the 13 members voted to fire Okker, Grace Keenan, New College’s student-body president was among the trustees who argued that Okker should be able to keep her job, noting the students’ disagreement with the termination.

Just prior to Okker’s firing, Governor Ron DeSantis appointed six new members to the Board of Trustees, saying he wants to reshape New College to be the “Hillsdale of the South,” a private conservative liberal arts college in Michigan, and reject “trendy” political views. Days later, Okker was replaced by former Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, another De Santis appointee.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the termination of a scholar in apparent connection with comments made about the university and university policy. Higher education authorities have an obligation not to interfere with expressive activity, so long as that activity is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, suspensions stemming from such activity undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.