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The New College try

As the tiny Sarasota campus hurries toward independence from USF on July 1, it faces pressures in growth and funding.

By BARRY KLEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 11, 2001


As the tiny Sarasota campus hurries toward independence from USF on July 1, it faces pressures in growth and funding.

SARASOTA -- Last week, Michael Bassis became the acting president of New College, Florida's newest university.

At least that's what people are assuming since Bassis is the dean of the 650-student liberal arts program, which makes him its top official, which would seem to make him its president now that state lawmakers have decided New College is ready to stand on its own.

Bassis says he is still trying to confirm his status, which he concedes is a little confusing. But that is the least of his problems as he scrambles to prepare his school for independence, which is scheduled to happen July 1.

No Florida university has ever had such an abrupt gestation. The last new school to open, Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, was six years in the making.

New College will have just eight weeks.

"About half of the people who have called me are offering congratulations," says Bassis, 56, a former president of Olivet College, a well-regarded private school in Michigan. "The other half are offering condolences."

Bassis isn't looking for sympathy. Like most people at New College, he is excited about the prospect of splitting away from the University of South Florida, which has run the college for 26 years.

He is, however, looking for money.

USF officials say the state spent about $9.2-million this year to operate New College. At the urging of Senate President John McKay, a Bradenton Republican, lawmakers added $1.2-million for next year.

Bassis says that will have to be enough for now. But the future, he warns, is likely to be more expensive.

While USF will continue providing the college with many services, including law enforcement, library operations and campus computing, Bassis says there will be substantial new costs associated with independence.

The school will have to hire its own lobbyist and legal staff. "We can't keep using USF's," he says.

And the college badly needs more space.

Half of the psychology department is housed in a converted home, Bassis says. Other faculty members have their offices in a former Howard Johnson motel, as does the campus police department.

"This place has been underfunded for years," he says.

State Sen. Don Sullivan, who helped arrange the deal with USF that gained New College its independence, agrees the campus has not been adequately supported.

But for the foreseeable future, he says, the school will just have to make do. He says there is no sentiment in the Legislature for large funding increases.

"I expect life will go on much as it has," Sullivan says.

Bassis isn't so sure. He says independence will surely fuel calls for growth, especially in enrollment.

He says the pressure is likely to come from the school's new governing board, from the community, even from Gov. Jeb Bush, who has expressed doubts that the school is large enough to support the administrative structure needed to run a full-service university.

The trick, Bassis says, will be keeping the pressure from harming the school's unusual culture.

Since its founding in 1964 as a private institution, New College has prided itself on its small classes, high standards and innovative curricula.

Professors don't issue grades, only narrative evaluations. Administrators think student progress should be based on demonstrated competence, not the accumulation of credits.

That approach works at a school with only 650 students and a 10-to-1 student-faculty ratio -- by far the lowest in Florida's university system.

But what happens if the pressure to grow becomes impossible to resist?

Several years ago, the faculty agreed that 800 students were the most the school could comfortably accommodate.

Bassis thinks that total is too low. He already has requested money for new hires, though he won't give a specific number.

Sullivan says Bassis has requested 30 new positions and raises for many of the people already employed.

"We certainly don't anticipate that level of need," Sullivan says.

But growth isn't the school's only concern.

While its tiny student-faculty ratio has earned it a national reputation, it also has made it one of the most expensive undergraduate programs in Florida.

USF says the state paid almost $15,000 this year to subsidize each student's studies. That's almost twice the cost of educating undergraduates in the rest of the university system.

The price tag wasn't a problem when the school's costs were buried within USF's massive, $280-million operating budget.

But it could be a big problem once it's separated, especially for budget-conscious lawmakers who may question whether a liberal arts education is worth that kind of price.

"Legislators are going to have to decide what value they place on this institution," Sullivan says.

Bassis says it shouldn't be a tough call.

"We think the increased visibility for New College will be a good thing for Florida," he says. "It will show people that this state is willing to invest in quality."

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