From the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on 5-21-21
By Donal O’Shea
In the best of times, commencements are freighted with conflicting emotions. They are both endings and beginnings. Graduates celebrate the completion of a course of study, while looking to a future full of possibility and uncertainty.
Last year’s ceremony was postponed as a result of the pandemic, heightening the poignancy of New College’s 54th commencement today, at which students from two classes will receive their degrees.
For me, too, this commencement will be bittersweet. It will be my last as president of New College of Florida.
The impending separation has triggered a swirl of emotions akin to what I imagine our graduates are experiencing. I have not had time to sort it out but, for me, the dominant emotions are wonder and gratitude. Wonder at the quality and uniqueness of this remarkable institution, and gratitude for having had the privilege to lead it these past nine years.
Let me begin with the wonder. I knew coming in that New College is one of the nation’s most extraordinary liberal arts and sciences institutions. I’d expected brilliant students and faculty, and a dedicated staff.
But I did not expect, and still marvel at, the way New College punches way above its weight.
Ninety percent of our incoming students expect to continue on to graduate or professional school. New College has the highest per-capita percentage of graduates among all public universities who go on to receive doctoral degrees. We nearly double second-place William & Mary, and we’re way ahead of Georgia Tech and the University of California, Berkeley.
Between one-eighth and one-sixth of our graduates go on to receive doctoral degrees in science and engineering – a proportion higher than all Ivy League institutions. Among Florida’s public universities, the next highest proportion is a little more than one-hundredth. So, despite its size, New College produces a significant proportion of Florida scientists.
The awards our students win tell the same story. In the past two decades, we have had 80 Fulbright scholars. Only two schools in Florida have had more: Florida State University baccalaureate graduates have earned slightly less than 100 Fulbrights, and the University of Florida has had slightly more. Both are more than 50 times our size. On a per-capita basis, we have almost double the number that Harvard has.
Other national awards mirror the overachievement. Our students garnered 32 Gilman International Scholarships and six Udall Undergraduate Scholarships over the same period. This year, five graduates won National Science Foundation graduate study awards – the third-highest proportion in the nation, trailing only Harvey Mudd College and Caltech.
Accordingly, we rank No. 2 among national public liberal arts colleges in the recently published Washington Monthly, and No. 6 in U.S. News & World Report (behind the military academies).
These outcomes depend on the support from our legislators, the Florida Board of Governors, the New College Board of Trustees, the Foundation Board, the Alumni Association, staff, faculty, students, graduates, and the plethora of our community friends and supporters (and on the way these groups work together). They also owe much to the wonderful Sarasota-Manatee community in which New College is located.
One of the surprises I encountered in moving to New College was the number of other fine educational institutions in the area. The Cross College Alliance is just in its early phases, but it will serve this area and our students well in the future. We are also extraordinarily fortunate to live in a very philanthropic community with a number of fine community foundations.
Despite New College’s allure, I am eager to spend more time with my family and first loves: Mary (my wife) and mathematics. When I started at New College, Mary and I had three grandchildren. We now have 10. It’s time to visit them. And I hope to catch up on some of the mathematical advances of the last decade, and possibly even return with wiser eyes and new methods to some of the problems that I could never solve.
Succeeding me as president on July 1 is Patricia Okker, Ph.D., who previously served as dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri since 2017.
In her words: “One of the reasons I am so excited about New College’s future is that it has always combined my two great academic passions: affordable public education, and the arts and sciences. But this is not simply a personal preference. New College has every reason to be optimistic about its future because the very things that make New College unique are precisely the things that students are demanding of higher education more broadly.”
I look forward to watching New College grow under President Okker’s leadership, to seeing our alumni and this community continue to prosper, and to reminiscing about (and marveling at) the fact that I was able to spend nearly a decade of my life at such a magnificent institution in this corner of paradise. I am so grateful.