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Effort brings New College closer to independence

A push by Sen. John McKay is likely to sever ties between the liberal arts college and USF, raising fears about its future.

By BARRY KLEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2001


A push by Sen. John McKay is likely to sever ties between the liberal arts college and USF, raising fears about its future.

SARASOTA -- Ethan Hirsch-Tauber is a typical New College student -- smart, ambitious and, by Florida standards, very expensive to educate.

This year, the state is paying almost $15,000 to underwrite his studies, the subsidy needed for every student at New College, a well-regarded liberal arts program where there are no grades and no course requirements but an increasingly heady sense of independence.

The excitement stems from the very likely prospect that this 650-student school will soon become the state's newest, and most unusual, public university.

Senate President John McKay, a Bradenton Republican, wants to sever New College from the University of South Florida. His proposal cleared a key legislative committee Tuesday.

But even supporters acknowledge that independence is a gamble.

While they hope it will allow the college to gain national status, they worry that the $15,000 price tag -- almost twice the cost of educating undergraduates in the rest of Florida's university system -- could make it a fat target for budget cutters.

"If the college is not adequately funded, it will flounder," says Michael Bassis, the college's dean. He says it is essential that the college maintain its gaudy, 10-to-1 student-faculty ratio, a major reason for its relatively high costs.

"There are risks," says Rolland Heiser, president of the New College Foundation. "But I think there are greater risks in staying with the status quo."

That sentiment is echoed by McKay, whose political muscle is expected to finally wrest New College away from USF, which has run the program since 1975.

He says he is confident lawmakers will protect New College, despite its eccentricities.

He notes that other universities, especially historically black Florida A&M University, receive considerably more money per student than the state average. He says New College will benefit by being funded directly by the Legislature, rather than having its fortunes fluctuate depending on the generosity of USF administrators.

McKay dismisses questions about the possibility of a culture clash between conservative lawmakers and what is widely regarded as the most liberal campus in Florida.

Many of the students at New College are the children of college professors. Instead of grades, they receive narrative evaluations from their professors. Instead of required courses, they sign "academic contracts" that detail specific goals they must complete in order to graduate.

"Lawmakers have to represent all kinds of constituents," says McKay, who says most of his colleagues understand that a premier liberal arts program has significant value to Florida.

If New College does become independent, the transformation could mark the final act in a long drama over the future of all of USF's regional campuses.

State Sen. Don Sullivan, a Largo Republican who fought for two years to make USF's St. Petersburg branch independent, says the changes planned for New College are part of a larger deal.

In exchange for USF's cooperation, he says, lawmakers have crafted a series of agreements that will allow the university to keep control of its branches in St. Petersburg and Sarasota, where it also runs a commuter program that shares a 140-acre site with New College.

And if the transition goes smoothly, Sullivan says, the Legislature could eventually award USF the 29-acre Crosley Estate, a nearby tract that would become the new home for the Sarasota-Manatee campus.

That would leave New College by itself, which it very much wants to be.

USF President Judy Genshaft insists she did not offer up New College to protect the other branches. McKay also denies there was any quid pro quo.

Genshaft says the situation was simply different at New College.

"There was strong, strong support on the other campuses to stay with USF," she says. "But New College has always had the dream of becoming independent. I'm not going to stand in its way."

Support for independence seems especially strong among alumni and donors, many of whom remember New College's beginnings in the 1960s as an independent school affiliated with the Congregational and Christian churches.

The college merged with USF after nearly going bankrupt in the mid-1970s. It has done well since, earning praise for its high-quality programs, especially given its tuition of less than $3,000 a year, a pittance compared to prices charged by comparable, private schools.

But supporters want more. Heiser, the foundation president, thinks the affiliation with USF is holding New College back, especially in building a national profile.

The college, for example, isn't included in the popular rankings compiled by U.S. News & World Report and other publications because it is part of a larger institution.

"If we want to compete nationally for students, we need that," he says.

Many students and faculty members, however, are ambivalent about the drive for independence. Some say they had no idea it was brewing until very recently. Professors, especially, are angry about not being consulted.

Political science professor Keith Fitzgerald says most of the faculty prefers an alternative Genshaft proposed last fall. It called for greater autonomy, separate accreditation and separation from the Sarasota-Manatee program.

The faculty passed a resolution indicating their support for that proposal last week.

But that offer seems dead now, since there is no money available to split the two campuses.

Fitzgerald says the faculty doesn't oppose independence. The problem, he says, is no one is sure what it means.

"I think in the long run we could convince lawmakers we have lots to offer this state," he says. "But budgets are done in the short run. If we go independent, we are going to need a large influx of money."

There is another possible twist hanging over New College: Rumors have persisted for years that Florida State University wants to take over the college, adding it to the nearby Ringling Museum and Asolo Performing Arts Center, which it already controls.

The Ringling, in fact, became part of FSU only last year, after McKay, an FSU graduate, pushed it through.

FSU officials have denied any predatory intentions. McKay says the rumors simply aren't true.

"The distance between the two campuses would create even more problems than you have today," he says. "I plan on living in this community the rest of my life. I have no interest in seeing that."

New College: a statistical profile

ENROLLMENT: 649 (63 percent women; 37 percent men).

ETHNICITY: White, 84 percent; Hispanic, 6.2 percent; Asian, 3.4 percent; African-Americans, 2.7 percent; other, 3.7 percent.

AVERAGE AGE: 21

INCOMING FRESHMEN: Average SAT, 1,308; grade point average: 3.9.

GRADUATES SINCE 1990: 25 percent went into education; 23 percent went into business; 21 percent went into professions; 10 percent went into the arts.

-- Source: New College 2000-2001 Fact Book

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