A new New College?
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2001
The marriage of convenience between New College and the University of South Florida always has been an uncomfortable one. USF and the state university system bailed out New College in 1975 when the Sarasota school was a religiously affiliated private college on the verge of insolvency. The move gave New College the support it needed to solidify a national reputation for innovative excellence in undergraduate education, but the small liberal arts honors campus has struggled to establish a national identity as part of a huge urban university.
Senate President John McKay and other legislative leaders want to give New College its independence within the university system, and some campus leaders support the plan. But uncomfortable marriages can cause people to have unrealistic expectations about single life. Independence has some potential benefits for New College -- but it also would leave the school more vulnerable to political interference that could destroy what is special about the campus.
The timing of the move to strip New College from USF could not be worse. Governance of the university system is being turned on its head. The Board of Regents has been abolished, and no comparable central authority will be created in its place. At the same time, Tallahassee lawmakers are requiring the universities to make painful economic sacrifices in a tight budget year. How would the Board of Trustees of an independent New College manage to protect the college's budget and academic independence in a new competition with much more powerful campuses in Gainesville, Tampa and Tallahassee?
As part of USF, New College has become a small campus with a big academic reputation. Its 650 undergraduate students have an average SAT score of more than 1300, and its faculty has distinguished itself in research and in the classroom. New College annually is ranked among the nation's best bargains in liberal arts education.
However, that distinction comes at a price. The state spends about $15,000 per student at New College, twice the system average. In the context of USF's 40,000 enrollment, those costs can be put in perspective. As an independent item in the state's higher education budget, they become an inviting target for lawmakers who may not value New College's unique attributes. The start-up costs associated with independent governance would add to those budgetary disparities in the short run.
Affiliation with USF has given New College breathing room to develop into a rare jewel in a system otherwise known for underfunded mediocrity. Independence could imperil that status, as New College learned in the 1970s. Even assuming McKay is acting entirely in New College's best interests, he'll be gone from Tallahassee soon. Can future leaders from Fort Lauderdale or Jacksonville be counted on to give little New College the financial and political support it will need to survive intact?
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