By Abby Weingarten
Deeply compassionate. Mathematically brilliant. A strong leader with a tireless work ethic. These are just a few of the ways New College colleagues have described President Donal O’Shea over the years.
But, while his reviews from others may be glowing, O’Shea is not inclined to boast about himself. He is known for deflecting attention away from his own accomplishments and toward those of New College—a place he proudly led since 2012 before stepping down at the end of the 2020-2021 academic year.
“It has been an enormous privilege and pleasure to have served in this role for nine years,” O’Shea said. “I am deeply grateful to all who have made that possible.”
Trained as a mathematician with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from Queen’s University in Canada, O’Shea arrived at New College with a passion for promoting academic rigor and the life of the mind.
He has co-authored seven mathematics books, won two prestigious mathematics publishing awards (the Peano Prize in 2007 and the Leroy P. Steele Prize in 2015), and held tenured professorships on the mathematics faculty at both New College and Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. At the latter, O’Shea served as the dean of faculty and vice president of academic affairs for 14 years.
During his near-decade as president of New College, O’Shea moved the institution toward a path of significant growth. He helped the College acquire $10 million from the state legislature to increase enrollment to 1,200 students and boost four-year graduation rates to 80 percent by 2028. He secured funding for a Heiser Natural Sciences Complex addition and the launch of the data science graduate program; two $750,000 grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the arts, humanities and community engagement; and several private gifts for student scholarships.
A firm believer in collaboration, O’Shea spearheaded the creation of the Cross College Alliance—a consortium of five Sarasota-Manatee colleges and universities that provides course cross-registration, faculty collaborations and social activities. He oversaw the launch of a dual-degree program with the University of Florida (UF), in which students can earn a bachelor of arts degree in liberal arts from New College as well as a bachelor of science degree in engineering from the UF Wertheim College of Engineering in five years.
O’Shea led the development of New College’s 10-year strategic plan, “Cultivating Curiosity. Unleashing Potential,” which lays out the College’s roadmap for achieving its long-term institutional goals. Under his watch, the College’s curriculum expanded with the addition of new areas of concentration, minors and certificate programs. He created the position of dean of outreach and chief diversity officer (held by Bill Woodson, Ph.D.), and led the College through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“One thing I never could do here at New College, which I regret, was teach. I’m sorry I missed that,” O’Shea said. “There’s still a lot still to be done at New College—a lot I’ve wanted to do—and I have very mixed feelings about leaving.”
When O’Shea first announced his retirement, New College Board of Trustees (BOT) Chair Mary Ruiz told the campus community, “This is a fitting time to express gratitude for [President O’Shea’s] vision of an expansive future for New College. In choosing his successor, our task is to bring the future to realization.”
Ruiz helped assemble a Presidential Search Committee to find O’Shea’s replacement, which was comprised of students, faculty, alumni, trustees, and members of the New College Foundation and the local community. The executive search firm, WittKieffer, was hired to lead the candidate recruitment process. The Foundation decided to host one unified event at the end of the academic year, in lieu of the annual Clambake, to celebrate O’Shea’s retirement (with the goal of raising $1 million for scholarships in his honor).
O’Shea hopes to see his successor steer New College toward more accessibility, visibility and prestige. Succeeding O’Shea 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.
“There’s a role New College and its students should be playing in the community. I think there are real obligations to educate all comers who are willing to do the work,” O’Shea said. “We should be doing more to make New College financially affordable. I think it’s so important that students without a large amount of means can get a really first-rate education here. That’s so critical to our future, to Florida, and to the U.S.”
As for O’Shea, there were many reasons for his retiring—chief among them, health and family.
“I did have a number of health issues that made me realize I’m a little more mortal,” O’Shea said. “It made me realize I’m 68 now and I don’t have forever.”
Also, O’Shea and his wife, Mary, now have 10 grandchildren (they only had three back in 2012) who live with their four children in Massachusetts, Ohio and Wisconsin—places the couple hopes to travel. More time will also afford O’Shea a much-anticipated opportunity to pursue his mathematics interests.
“I’m taking a sabbatical and I’m going to do a lot of mathematics, and I want to write a couple books,” O’Shea said. “There’s a whole pile of mathematics that I worked on with different teams of people, and a lot has been discovered in the last nine years (a lot of new techniques). If you do math, you’ve always got a kind of problem in the back of your head and it becomes a bit of an obsession. I want to look at some of those things I haven’t been able to look at.”
It won’t be easy to leave New College, especially during a pandemic, but O’Shea has faith that his successor will lead the institution to future greatness.
“I will miss New College. I will miss the faculty. And I will really, really miss the students. They inspired me so much,” O’Shea said. “I think New College is a marvelous institution and it has a very bright future ahead.”
You Will be Missed, President O’Shea
Reflections from the New College Campus Community
“Dr. O’Shea has been a joy to work with. Not only is he generally student-facing but he also genuinely cares about each and every student. At the beginning of every meeting we have, he takes a few minutes to check in with me about my life, academics and family. His common phrases of ‘Holy cow!’ and ‘Jeepers!,’ while listening to my concerns, never fail to make me smile. I could not have asked for a more pleasant president to work alongside with.” —Sofia Lombardi, president of the New College Student Alliance
“My memories of Don are twofold: his accomplishments and his temperament. First, Don left New College much improved. He strategically placed talent in critical positions, he strengthened college funding, and he developed and implemented a plan to deliver a preferred future. For more, we cannot ask. Second, Don approached all things with gentleness. Yes, he always had a ready smile, and yes, he could easily and quickly fall into conversation with anyone. Most importantly, Don’s ability to engage in challenges without defensiveness—and with grace, with humor, with intelligence and with humility—set a bar to which most others aspire.” —Dan Stults ’77, chair-elect of the New College Alumni Association
“Don’s deep understanding of the liberal arts has allowed New College to dream big. We have the funding for a growth plan, a collaboration with three other local colleges and an initiative for supporting liberal arts graduates in their careers. Personally, what I will always remember most about Don is his deep compassion for each member of the New College community. Don really cares.” —Mary Ruiz ’73, chair of the New College Board of Trustees
“As Don starts the next phase of his career with his promotion back to the faculty, I want to thank him for everything he accomplished as president of New College. He was great to work with and he has given the entire campus community tons of memories to relive and cherish. I am so very appreciative of the kindness, life lessons and honesty he provided over the years we worked together. I want to thank him for being a tireless professional, a helpful boss and a good friend. Now he’ll have time to focus on enjoyable academic endeavors instead of administrative headaches, plus spend more time with Mary and his family. I can only imagine the kinds of mischief he’s going to get into. May much success, happiness and cold beer find him in all his future endeavors.” —John Martin, retired vice president for finance and administration for New College
“Among the many initiatives Don brought to us was the Daughters for Life (DFL) project, which brought students to New College from a number of countries in the Middle East. Don hosted a casual dinner with the DFL students and a few of us (who were their academic advisers) at a local Middle Eastern café, where we bonded over hummus and shawarma. A student mentioned missing lamb dishes from home (lamb was not on the menu). After talking with Don, my spouse and I arranged a dinner at our house for the students (which Don and his spouse, Mary, attended), and we grilled and served lamb. One of the things Don loves is good food, and he never arrives for a meal without bringing something to share—fig and almond cake, seaweed appetizers, etc. There’s something about eating together that creates community and connection (our deepest memories are tied to taste and smell) and Don understands this. From the barbeques on the bayfront with outdoor furniture to this kind of more targeted gathering, I’ll remember some of the good meals we’ve shared.” —Miriam Wallace, Ph.D., professor of English and gender studies at New College
“President O’Shea is a brilliant mathematician and a gifted, inspiring, strategic academic leader. A voracious reader, he knows something about almost everything and can have deeply-informed conversations on a plethora of topics with true subject matter experts. I have consistently been awed by his knowledge of science, history, literature, politics, music…the list goes on and on. Frequently, I had to confess that I did not have a clue what he was talking about when he was pontificating on one subject or another.
One of the days with Don that I will treasure was on Jan. 11, 2018. New College was presenting a talk by Pam Fiori, the former editor of Town & Country Magazine, who had just written a book about Audrey Hepburn. I had the opportunity to sit at Ms. Fiori’s table with her friend, Rose Marie Bravo, the former CEO of Burberry. Early in my human resources career, I worked for Macy’s in New York, and Ms. Bravo was one of the most senior female leaders in the company and a true role model for me. We had a lovely time catching up before the lecture, and our table talked about fashion and celebrity. At the lecture, Ms. Fiori shared pictures and anecdotes about Audrey Hepburn. As a longtime fan of Ms. Hepburn, I was transfixed and able to answer some questions that Ms. Fiori posed to the audience. After the session, I caught up with President O’Shea, and he looked truly befuddled. I asked him why and he said, ‘I did not understand what anyone was talking about at that lunch or know anything shared at the lecture. It was like a foreign language.’ It was the first, and possibly last, time I experienced knowing something that Don did not. Truly a day worth remembering.” —Felice Schulaner ’78, former chair of the New College Board of Trustees
“Don is a renowned mathematician and a distinguished scholar, so it’s hardly surprising that he can be methodical and linear in his thinking. The surprise is that Don is also an improvisor—someone who thinks in the moment and is ready to throw the script aside and engage others in a kind of dance. I learned this about Don when we first met—the day I interviewed him for the position of president. What began as an interview quickly evolved into a working session, in which we didn’t simply discuss topics so much as explore possibilities together. That was the moment I knew that Don and I would make a good team.
Don’s ability to improvise proved critical on June 22, 2016, when he and I made a presentation to the Strategic Planning Committee of the State University System of Florida Board of Governors. The topic was New College’s annual workplan, which entailed a discussion of the College’s scoring on the performance-based funding metrics from the previous academic year. While the College had scored well on some of the metrics, we were prepared for criticism on several fronts, and were armed with facts and figures to bolster our case. Midway through the presentation, Don suggested that some of our challenges (with retention and graduation rates) stemmed from our small size. If our enrollment were larger, some of these problems would go away. Don had sparked the interest of the Committee, and we did our best to stoke this tiny flame, hoping that it might catch fire with the rest of the Committee—and it worked. Committee member Ned Lautenbach eventually said, ‘You’re clearly underfunded to do what you’re supposed to do. I think you should give us a proposal and tell us how much money it would take.’ Before Lautenbach had even closed his mouth, Don said, ‘$6 million.’ Don’s response was
so swift and so specific that some people in the room started laughing. But the Committee took him seriously and began to consider Don’s off-the-top-of-his-head figure. The meeting ended with Lautenbach reiterating his request for a written proposal. That proposal was ultimately accepted by the Committee, supported by the full Board, and passed by the Florida Legislature. Because Don was willing to dance with the Committee, they started to see the appeal of a larger New College that very afternoon. Because Don didn’t hesitate, because he was willing to think and act in the moment, New College would be changed forever.” —Stephen Miles, former provost and vice president for academic affairs at New College
“I’ve known Don for over 35 years. I’ve worked for seven college presidents over my career and he’s the eighth. What are the things I admire most about Don? He’s a true renaissance man and is brilliant yet down-to-earth. He genuinely cares about people and will go to great lengths to help someone. He cares deeply about people as individuals and humans. He can talk with anyone about any subject in an engaging way, whether it’s physics, philosophy, economics, cooking or opera. His brain is always 500 steps ahead of what he’s saying. He has a love of learning and the inquiry of the mind. He is a voracious reader. When he was provost/dean of faculty at Mount Holyoke, he would read every new publication, book and article of the faculty. He would write up a brief synopsis of that work and compile it several times a year; it would be shared as part of his report at faculty meetings and then with the campus. Honestly, we all looked forward to reading this part of his report, as it spurred many of us on to read books we might not have. Here at New College, he is quite skilled at engaging with current and new supporters. They truly enjoy talking with him, as he brings the College to life through stories about the academic rigor, our brilliant faculty, and our incredibly smart and talented students. He has specific stories about any area of study, our students’ academic work, the artistic and cultural events on our campus, faculty research and teaching. It has made the work of the Foundation more effective with a stronger outcome for the College. He is such a fierce advocate for liberal arts, and for New College.” —MaryAnne Young, vice president of advancement and executive director for the New College Foundation
Read this story and more in the latest issue of Nimbus here.
Abby Weingarten is the senior editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing.