At the home of humanities professor Gordon E. “Mike” Michalson Jr., Ph.D., there is a football sitting in a transparent case. A gift from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, it bears a signed message: “To President Michalson – Stay Undefeated.”
The football was an appropriate farewell to Michalson when he stepped down as New College’s president in 2012, and it is just as fitting now, as Michalson retires after 28 years at the College.
Michalson has served New College through some of its most tumultuous and critical times. From 1992 through 1997, he was dean and warden while the College was part of the University of South Florida (USF). Douglas Langston, professor of religion and chair of the search committee for the dean and warden position, recruited Michalson.
“I said [to Douglas], ‘What makes you think I’d be good at it?,’” Michalson recalled. “And he said, “‘Because you can talk to people.’”
And it took a particular sort of talking during the USF years. For example, at the time, New College faculty members were underpaid compared to their USF counterparts. So there were arguments to be made and people to be persuaded. Michalson’s background in religion and philosophy proved useful “in the sense of discovering premises and discovering flaws in arguments,” he said.
When New College became independent from USF in 2001, Michalson was named president and served until June 2012. He shepherded New College through a gauntlet of tasks: accreditation, adoption of a campus master plan and the creation of the necessary back-office infrastructure.
“It was a nightmare, that first year of our independence,” Michalson said, chuckling. “We worked really hard, covering for our despair.”
But the most daunting challenge, perhaps, was dealing with expectations that New College could not survive on its own.
“A lot of people wanted us to fail,” he said. “They were very public about it.”
Crucial to New College’s survival was building its reputation with the state legislature, members of the newly formed board of governors, and staff members of both. So Michalson, senior staff members and retired Sen. Bob Johnson (a universally respected lawmaker and supporter of the College), traveled to Tallahassee to make New College’s case.
“My mantra from day one was that a quality liberal arts education is not a partisan matter. And that has the advantage of being true,” Michalson said. “The things we give our students here might not seem relevant to job training but, as we all know, the kind of world they are going off into, the ability to learn how to learn (and to do critical thinking both individually and in a group setting, to learn how to cooperate, to learn how to think across boundary lines), these are keys to success. And who’s going to argue against those if they’re correctly communicated and understood?”
Michalson’s commitment to these ideas made an impression on government officials and, over time, he built relationships with key players like Gov. Bush.
“In meetings with the college presidents, Gov. Bush would say, ‘How’s that football team doing? Still undefeated?’ And I knew we were in,” Michalson said.
Hence the autographed football from Gov. Bush when Michalson stepped down as president.
Looking back through all the changes that New College has endured, the constant that defines it is the students, Michalson said.
“I came away realizing, and deeply appreciating, that the real energy of this place, year in and year out, is provided by the students,” Michalson said. “Student bodies have changed quite a bit over the last 20 years, but that sense of intellectual curiosity is the electricity of this place.”