Inaugural Address of President Donal O'Shea

New College of Florida
Friday, February 15, 2013

Lieutenant Governor Carroll, Chancellor Brogan, Representative Boyd and other elected officials, Chair Johnston, former Chair Johnson, Foundation Chair Schulaner, trustees of the College and Foundation, President Creighton, delegates from other colleges and universities, my faculty and staff colleagues, current and former students, friends and family, thanks for this honor and the confidence you have placed in me. Thanks so much for being here, and for the warm welcome.

Welcome to all of you in turn.

I would especially like to welcome three of my children, their spouses, and Mary, my wife, best friend, critic, confidante, and mother of our children. And my brother and his family, and Mary’s cousin, Mary, and their cousins.

Inaugurations are about institutions, not individuals. And about moments in time.

New College’s last presidential inauguration was in 1967 – just seven years after the College’s founding and three after the first students arrived. The College is now more than a half-century old. A more mature institution at a very different time. But from its beginnings, New College has been animated by one of the deepest impulses of our civilization, the bringing of students and professors together to explore and create new knowledge. To have a new generation reshape and recast the learning of the past and to create a new present.

Our first universities emerged nearly a thousand years ago when our current civilization began to take shape in Western Europe after centuries of disarray following the collapse of the Roman Empire. The University of Bologna dates to 1088, when students congregated in the city from all over Europe and hired their first professors. They were drawn by new knowledge making its way into Europe, partly through Sicily and Italy, but mostly from the Arab scholars of Spain working to translate the newly rediscovered works of Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, Ptolemy, Hippocrates and others. The University of Paris followed in 1150, Oxford sometime before 1167, Cambridge in 1209. Forty-two of our universities date to before 1500.

So universities are co-extensive with our civilization and, in fact, inextricably intertwined with our civilization’s success.

The same is true nationally. In the United States, 18 of our colleges and universities date to before the revolution. Delegates from several are here today.

Likewise. Florida State University and the University of Florida were founded just after Florida achieved statehood in 1845.

New College was set up a little over fifty years ago by members of the Sarasota and Bradenton communities who felt that the region would benefit from a first-rate college.

Part of the model for New College was New College of Oxford (founded in 1379) and the fine American residential liberal arts colleges patterned after it. The term “liberal arts” refers to an education that insists that students acquire both intellectual breadth and depth. The breadth is acquired by studying a range of disciplines drawn from the humanities, the sciences, the arts and social sciences. The depth is achieved by sustained specialized study (or, here at New College, by the completion of a substantial piece of work, namely our senior thesis or project). The liberal arts, also known as the arts and sciences, are at the core of the undergraduate education at our nation’s research universities and, of course, the residential liberal arts colleges (which includes our best military academies).

These institutions offer an education that is non-vocational in the sense that it is not directed at any one profession or set of jobs. Rather the goal is to awaken in students a life in which good vocations are found. Here, by a vocation, I mean something you love, something you’re good at (which is not always the same thing as what you love), and something that makes this world a better place – and, hence, allows you to make a living.

This education has served our society well. As our civilization has become ever more complex and specialized, it desperately needs individuals who can integrate knowledge from different areas and communicate across very disparate specialties. Individuals who can think critically, take stands and act. Students need to be able to learn over the course of their lifetimes (which, incidentally are longer), and our society needs individuals who can adapt. A vastly disproportionate number of the nation’s scientists, the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, our top physicians, lawyers, judges, generals come from liberal arts colleges, or out of the liberal arts core of the nation’s Research One institutions. That is no accident.

So, on the one hand New College is heir to Bologna and Paris, Oxford and Harvard, Ohio and Florida State. But on the other hand, New College is also a child of the 1960s, one of the times of greatest change in higher education, both in the US and globally. And it was founded to self-consciously embrace the best of the old and the exciting new innovations of that time.

New College incorporated a new feature. It would retain the close faculty-student interaction of the best colleges and universities. But students were to be active participants in their own education, and ultimately each student was to be responsible for that education. And a New College education was to be open to all comers, regardless of gender or race or family income. The only requirement was ability and willingness to handle the work.

New College was never to be just about imparting knowledge. It was to give students the courage to discover, to use knowledge, to make it their own, and to take a stand. We didn’t want the student fascinated by things medieval to merely learn three or four different languages. We wanted him or her to creatively imagine those times and what they tell us about today and ourselves. We didn’t want a student to merely learn to use recombinant DNA techniques. We wanted him or her to think: wait, that gene that makes some jellyfish fluoresce green would make a great tag to follow biochemical reactions. We didn’t want a student to just be able to rattle off the challenges of some sectors of an economy. We wanted him or her to note that real estate brokers could really use databases customized to their area and clientele, and then to think maybe I could sell that service to them. We want a student who has done more than master current tablet technologies. We want one who would observe the ease with which a three-year-old masters touchscreen technologies and two-dimensional representations of the world, and who would create lesson plans and curricula for primary schools that take advantage of this.

I don’t need to tell you how valuable this sort of curiosity and agency is. New College has an enviable record of producing graduates who go on to change the fields and areas in which they choose to practice.

So what do I see for the future of New College, this heir, on the one hand, to the most enduring tradition in western civilization, and this child of the time of greatest period of change in higher education, save today?

Well, some changes are easy to foresee:

For instance, while we will continue to help students explore vocations – the things you love, are good at and that make the world better -- we will become more mindful about helping students bridge vocations and earning a living. You can expect to see us help students become more self-conscious and deliberative about pairing vocation and work.

In a similar vein, we have always assumed our students would go on to graduate and professional training. Most do. But in an era of rising costs, and longer lives, more students look to find work between undergraduate and graduate and professional schools. Therefore, it makes sense for us to explore offering a small number of post-baccalaureate opportunities for our own students and the community.

New College and residential liberal arts colleges, more generally, are a national treasure. The close interaction among superb faculty and talented students in a residential setting outperforms any other type of teaching and learning. However, they are not for everyone. We have many fine higher educational institutions nearby. Our missions are different. We do not compete. But the days in which we could operate independently are long gone. We must cooperate. And we shall.

That cooperation will bring ancillary benefits. You will find us playing a larger role in the region that gave us birth. In partnership with others, New College will ensure a rich intellectual and academic life across generations and that in turn will draw others here. Individuals currently flock to Sarasota and Bradenton for the cultural amenities, but no one thinks of our region as great college and university center. That will change. And national appreciation of the educational resources of the area will help to retain our graduates and cause employers to relocate here.

You will also find us partnering more internationally. Other countries have noticed the advantage that American higher education affords its graduates, and countries like India and China are trying to replicate the intellectual capaciousness provided by integrating research and the liberal arts. Faculty and students benefit from collaborations abroad. Today’s students inherit a society and economy that is thoroughly global. We will hear more on the liberal arts in the world in a panel tomorrow at 10 AM.

We could, and we should, grow a little. We are committed to serving students within the state of Florida. But the best way to prepare students for our diverse world is to have them work and learn alongside students who are very different from themselves, and who come from other areas of the United States and from other countries. Increasing our size would allow us to diversify our student body without reducing the number of students that we take from Florida.

Nonetheless, I anticipate that we will always be the smallest member of the State University System of Florida. If you think of the SUS and the parallel collegiate system as an educational portfolio, akin to a financial portfolio, New College is the hedge fund. The alternative investment. It will produce, unpredictably but reliably, enormous, outsized returns. It might be a graduate who transforms an entire field. You’ll meet some tomorrow. Or it may be almost unbelievable success rates for rare, but highly prized, educational outcomes averaged over time. Over the last decade, for instance, you are over 900 times more likely to have won a Fulbright Fellowship if you attended New College than another SUS school chosen at random. (Of course, truth in advertising compels me to observe that your chances of becoming captain of the men’s football or women’s basketball team at any other SUS school, while small, are infinitely greater than your chances at New College.)

Incidentally, I am often asked about the future of residential liberal arts education in view of technological change such as online learning and MOOCS – massive open, online courses. Perhaps residential liberal arts colleges will disappear?

I don’t think so.

The past offers some pretty compelling guidance. Our oldest universities date to well before the printing press, which was invented in 1436. By 1500, printing presses had popped up all over Europe and produced more than 20 million books. Any person of that time could be forgiven for thinking that cheaper, easily available books would have put the fledgling universities out of business.

But they did not. Quite the contrary.

Universities developed libraries, and books became an essential part of the instruction. So, I’m certain that, just as with books, online education and MOOCS will change us in ways that are now hard to foresee.

But that there will always be a need for high quality residential colleges. We are a social species, and we learn from each other and from broadband, relatively unmediated interaction between student and student, and student and professor.

There is so much noise out there, so much hype and bs and misinformation.

Learning to filter, learning what questions are worth asking, acquiring genuine expertise, and hence ultimately style, is highly individual and learned in one-on -one interaction with others who are masters in what they do.

So to conclude, I see us changing, but not in ways that alter our essential nature. In fact, change will make New College even more itself, and allow us to confidently claim our place among the nation’s and the world’s great institutions of higher learning.

We will always be focused on the individual student and will always be a place that combines curiosity, academic rigor and freedom.

For it is in engaging students in the search for truth, and in the creation and application of knowledge, that we transcend ourselves and the limitations of place and time.

And in so doing, we best serve our students, our region, our state and our society.

Thank you.

Office of the President
New College of Florida
COH 204
5800 Bay Shore Road
Sarasota, FL 34243

Phone: (941) 487-4100
Fax: (941) 487-4101
doshea@ncf.edu