Driving south on U.S. 41 from the North Trail into downtown Sarasota, Dr. Donal O’Shea was surprised by what he saw early last summer. Largely undeveloped and dotted with vacant storefronts, the five-mile stretch of highway that serves as a gateway to the city showed little sign of the educational hub he knew existed there.
The renowned mathematician and newly appointed president of New College of Florida had just relocated from Mount Holyoke College, a women’s liberal arts college in South Hadley, Mass., where he served as dean of faculty and vice president of academic affairs.
A liberal arts-college enthusiast, he was familiar with New College, but he says without prior knowledge he would have had no idea that he was in the middle of such a wealth of academic resources. These include: New College, consistently a top producer of Fulbright Scholars per capita; Ringling College of Art and Design, ranked among the top art schools in the world; and University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee, which offeris accredited undergraduate and graduate degrees.
“When you come out of the Sarasota airport and make a left (onto U.S. 41), you should realize that you’re hitting an educational corridor,” says O’Shea. “Instead, things are kind of haphazard. Our visitors — even some of our residents — don’t realize how many great educational institutions are right here, within just a few miles of each other.”
Meeting of the minds
O’Shea’s 32-year career at Mount Holyoke College largely influenced his first impression of the area. The college was a member of one of the most highly developed collaborative college systems in the country, called the Five College Consortium. The five participating schools shared resources, including transportation, a library system and joint departments and programs, and students were encouraged to cross-register and simultaneously take classes at more than one institution.
Shortly after his arrival, O’Shea recognized the potential for a similar system in Sarasota, especially considering none of the schools directly competes with one another.
“People never think of Sarasota and Bradenton as an educational destination,” he says. “We have the academic resources; we have all the infrastructure and a transportation system already in place. We have all the makings of a fine college town; it seems crazy that we don’t have that reputation.”
Two weeks ago, O’Shea’s idea sparked a meeting with the presidents of five area colleges. The three-day retreat took place in St. Petersburg, and the presidents discussed their visions for a more collaborative college community. The Gulf Coast Community Foundation sponsored the retreat.
Presidents and academic leaders from New College, Ringling College, USF Sarasota-Manatee, State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota and Eckerd College met for the first time in years to take stock of their existing collaborations — and create new ones.
The push for more collaboration between the colleges along the North Trail and their potential role in the area’s redevelopment is not a new one. In February 2006, New College, Ringling College and USF collaborated with the Ringling Museum of Art, Manatee County and Sarasota city and county officials with the same goal in mind.
Together, they created Innovation 41, a study intended to provide an outline to rebrand the North Trail as an educational-and-cultural corridor.
“The North Trail has always been an area that needs to be showcased just as much as downtown,” says Ringling College President Dr. Larry Thompson, who was involved in the study. “It’s a unique environment, and it’s phenomenal what we have here, not only in terms of education, but also with cultural institutions such as the Ringling Museum and the Van Wezel.”
The first step was to create a better sense of identity among the nearby colleges through increased signage, but, as the economic recession began, these efforts, and eventually all of Innovation 41, fell by the wayside. Since then, however, each school has grown and evolved — Ringling College expanded its campus and curriculum; and USF purchased its own campus and split with New College. Thompson says that, now, the schools are in a better position to continue the conversation they began seven years ago.
“There are a lot of new players involved now,” says Thompson. “And that’s great, because you can start to become a little discouraged. It’s refreshing to see someone like Dr. O’Shea bring a new sense of enthusiasm and experience to the table.”
Although collaborations already exist among the colleges, each president agrees that many additional opportunities remain. Sharing simple back-office functions, such as acquiring visas for faculty and visitors from abroad; creating a database to find housing and employment for faculty spouses; and standardizing an all-school disaster plan and emergency-alert system, would be easy first steps toward cost-sharing and could pave the way for bigger collaborations.
Dr. Arthur Guilford, regional chancellor of USF Sarasota-Manatee, envisions future large-scale projects, including a shared student dorm and student union, seamless cross-registration for students and new graduate programs that, for example, might combine USF’s business school with Ringling’s art and design resources.
Guilford also hopes a more unified college community will attract more businesses to help revitalize the North Trail.
“Students want coffee shops, better places to eat lunch and a place to congregate in a safe environment,” says Guilford. “I would be interested in looking into property that the colleges could develop jointly for something like that.”
Although all plans are still in their infancy, the colleges agreed to continue meeting on a monthly basis, and future meetings will include additional employees, including the provosts and other administrators, as well as finance, HR and security departments. Each school is compiling a list of current collaborations and ideas for the future, and they hope to develop a mutual list of ideas before presenting them to city and county officials.
“This really is an untapped resource,” says O’Shea. “Historically, universities have been tightly interwoven with community development, and we really think we can play a role. And we’re not starting from nothing; Sarasota has so much going for it. I really think this would not just change the perception of the area, but fundamentally alter it in good way.”
Presidents of local colleges share their views for a collaborative college community
and its effect on the North Trail.
Dr. Arthur Guilford
Regional chancellor of USF Sarasota-Manatee
• Large-scale projects, including a centrally located, shared dorm and student union
• Seamless course sharing and cross-registration for students among all area colleges
North Trail vision:
• Increased retail and dining options for students and a safer, pedestrian-friendly area
Dr. Donal O’Shea
President of New College of Florida
• Shared back-office functions, lecturers and enrollment
North Trail vision:
• A more vibrant area with activity for younger people and students
• Skilled-labor startups and college-centric businesses conducive to an economy less dependent on tourism
Dr. Larry Thompson
President of Ringling College of Art and Design
• Universal disaster plan and emergency-alert system
• Shared courses and master’s programs
• Increased social activities, including club sports
North Trail vision:
• Rebranding as an educational-and-cultural corridor
• Rezoning to attract increased business development
Contact Nick Friedman at email@example.com.