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Opinion

Do or die for New College

With his recent appointments to the New College board, Gov. DeSantis has put the school on notice that it can no longer do what it has been doing. There is a better strategy for the future.


  • Sarasota
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Ahh, poor New College of Florida. Its saga of ambition and woe continues. 

It has always been thus.

And now, we see, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his staff are intervening in attempt to quit doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

By now most people who follow this region’s colleges know that DeSantis recently appointed six new members to the college’s board of governors, all of whom subscribe to a conservative political philosophy.

Indeed, Manny Diaz, Florida’s new secretary of education, ignited cherry bombs after the appointments were announced when he was quoted saying: “It is our hope that New College of Florida will become Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the South” — a reference to the most famous Christian liberal arts college in America, Hillsdale College in Michigan. One of its claims to fame is it refuses to accept any government funding. Its motto is “Learning, character, faith and freedom: These are the inseparable purposes of Hillsdale College.”

With that DeSantis sent shock waves through the New College community, present and past. 

And so suffice it to say we can all expect another tumultuous chapter in the college’s six-decade history, one that is likely to last at least two years, certainly no more than the term of DeSantis’ governorship, which will end either in 2025 if he is elected president or in 2026 when his second term ends. 

For the residents of Sarasota and Manatee counties who see New College as one of the region’s prized assets, expect a lot of headlines and controversy. Turnarounds and throwing out old ways are never easy or comfortable. Often, they are nasty and ugly.

But for sure, DeSantis has sent his opening message: New College cannot and will not maintain the status quo.

Nor should it.

For 63 years, its financial model has not worked. Nor will it ever without dramatic change. The accompanying chart pretty much tells you the problem. It’s difficult to justify New College as a good investment for taxpayers (shareholders) when its costs are so out of whack compared to the 11 other state universities.

“It’s stunning what a bad idea this is,” Rep. Randy Fine told us last week. “It’s $35 million a year just lit on fire.” 

Fine was the lawmaker who proposed in 2020 that New College be merged into Florida State University. In the staff analysis of the bill he proposed, it said: “The state cost per degree is $197,68121 at NCF compared to $36,857 at Florida State University.”


Faulty business model

New College has had a business model problem from its start in the 1960s. Back then, a group of civic-minded people thought that, amid the region’s rich arts community, that Sarasota and Bradenton needed its own liberal arts college. 

With seed money from Jane Bancroft Cook, an heiress to the Dow Jones & Co. enterprises, they came up with the idea of making New College a one-of-a-kind liberal arts honor college for talented students. At the time, there was little competition.

From 1964, when it opened to its first class, to 1970, its enrollment mushroomed from 100 to 500. But by 1975, the college was in debt and near bankruptcy. The state rescued it, with the New College board agreeing to hand over its land in exchange for wiping out its debt and folding New College into the University of South Florida Sarasota-Bradenton branch.

The two co-existed for 25 years in a relationship that could be described as an arranged marriage destined not to work. The two cultures clashed. New College honors professors and students looked down on the USF profs and students and vice versa. At the same time, the USF administration in Tampa wasn’t all that nice toward New College. But as the saying goes: The one with the money (USF) calls the shots.”

By 2000, the faculties and administrators at both institutions had enough of each other. Convinced by New College advocates that it would be economically sustainable and that it had a sufficient endowment to help it flourish, in 2001, the Legislature finalized the divorce. New College became New College of Florida, the independent honors college in the state university system.

As part of the separation, the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus was required to move off the New College property. The USF facilities north of New College on North Tamiami Trail are the results of the marriage split.


Atrophied physically

Ever since, New College has been operating as it always has. Enrollments fluctuated in the 900s. The school stuck to its original independent-study, no-letter-grade, honors college mission under Presidents Gordon Michalson Jr. (2001-2012) and Donal O’Shea (2012-2021). The endowment continued to grow, thanks to local fundraisers. And the college stayed under the radar of legislators, letting it do what it has always done.

But during this 20-year period, the college also atrophied physically. In a talk to the Harvard Club of Sarasota last week, New College President Patricia Okker acknowledged the physical campus is in need of extensive refurbishment and upgrading. 

“We have some real problems with our facilities,” she said.

It hurts recruitment. When parents and prospective students compare New College’s facilities with, say, those of Florida’s other bigger, better state university campuses, the sell becomes harder.

Indeed, during the past 20 years, New College now finds itself competing for Florida’s honor students with all 11 other state universities. This presents another challenge that Okker cited: New College doesn’t have branding and marketing power that comes with an institution that has championship football teams.


Conservatives excoriated

Okker acknowledged another challenge: The student body’s attitude toward conservatives. We learned elsewhere that in recent years an internal messaging system developed among the students that excoriated the school’s few conservative students. 

“I do want to address that,” Okker told the Harvard members. “I’m going on 19 months, and I would say we are not as welcoming to conservative students that we would like to be. This pains me greatly.”

Bingo.

You can be sure that situation greatly influenced Gov. DeSantis’ board appointments. 

Asked whether she had conversations with the governor before he made his board appointments, Okker emailed: 

“As president of New College, I report to the board of trustees … Throughout my term as president, I have met with senior members of the governor’s team but not directly with the governor as yet. 

“I continue to talk and meet with the new trustee members, and together we are taking the necessary time to learn, assess and build toward the future of New College.”

Okker told her Harvard Club listeners “New College will always be committed to change. We are designed to be that nimble institution. That is in our DNA.”

The test for Big Change is about to begin.

Heretofore, the administration and student body has resisted and fought it, holding on to New College’s model with a death grip.

Interviews with former members of the board of governors were full of stories of suggestions made to the administration to change its operating model to one that is economically sustainable.

Two former board members everything they suggested was rejected:

  • Eliminate the full-time police force and maintenance staffs (because there is no summer school); rejected.
  • Merge with State College of Florida to create a pathway for State College students to get into New College’s honors programs; rejected.
  • Partner with the Ringling College of Museum to create a nationally recognized arts and music program; rejected. The Ringling Museum, by the way, sits in the middle of New College’s property, of which only 8% is developed.
  • Merge with the Ringling College of Art and Design and go back to being a private college; rejected.
  • Outsource its marine science program to Mote Marine Laboratory; rejected.

As one former board member told us: “The college is not sustainable.” 

DeSantis, who is known not to take in much counsel or be a collaborator, obviously has made up his mind. 

By his appointments to the New College board, you can interpret that DeSantis wants his appointments to try to change the culture and direction of the college.

That will not go well.

Whenever a business brings in new leadership and a new direction, those two things result in a lot of blood, executions and exoduses of the old guard.

“It’s a shut down of New College,” Fine said. 

Or as Sen. Joe Gruters said last week at a public hearing: “The alternative, the school is going to be eliminated. It will be shut down. So the question is how do you keep it moving forward and how do you keep it open?” 

If New College is to remain the asset it has become to be known here, a better strategy than DeSantis’ approach is the one suggested by John Lilly, former board member from 2016-2021 and former Pillsbury Co. CEO: Okker should ask the governor for a year for her and the board of governors to examine bold options for New College’s future — and examine those options in public. Have debates.

“New College can go on defending the past or get ahead of the future,” Lilly said. “It should only do what only New College can do.”

 

author

Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.

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