New College president wants to raise awareness of the college

kbergen@bradenton.comSeptember 30, 2012 

SARASOTA -- Donal O'Shea sits back in his New College of Florida office overlooking Sarasota Bay and jokes:

"They say the mathematician looking at your shoes is at least an extrovert, because he's looking at you," he says.

But the new president of New College is a respected mathematician and is hardly introverted. The long-time dean of faculty and vice president for academic affairs at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts wants to help raise awareness for the public liberal arts school that he feels should be better known for being consistently ranked nationally.

O'Shea is an enthusiastic advocate for the liberal arts -- a course of study he believes is "truly American."

His humor and passion for the liberal arts make him a good fit for a school with an atypical curriculum, says At New College, students receive narrative evaluations instead of letter grades, and outline their own learning goals for classes, on which they are evaluated.

"He gets us," said the French language and literature professor, adding that O'Shea is the kind of president who takes time to read the pub

lished work of faculty and can talk to you for hours without realizing it. O'Shea joined the staff in July.

O'Shea says he doesn't feel quirky or administrative, and he has some specific goals for the public school that recently was ranked No. 5 among all public liberal arts colleges by U.S. News & World Report.

"The college could use more money. I enjoy raising money." O'Shea said. "The college could be a little more shameless. I'm not bad with shamelessness, either."

Of course, O'Shea says, his math background helps with the financial aspects of running a college. But he's more concerned about raising the awareness of the school, which he says is undervalued in Florida and across the county.

Part of doing that, he says, is attracting more out-of-state students.

It's a tricky scenario, O'Shea acknowledges. The college needs to expand without losing the 10:1 student/teacher ratio for which it is known.

He plans to be more proactive about tapping into the college's extensive alumni network, setting up events across the state for high school guidance counselors and enlisting the help of celebrity graduates. New College alumni includes the current president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank William C. Dudley, for instance.

This, says Van Tuyl, is a relief to teachers who are proud of the work New College does and want to share it.

"We wish more people knew what we are doing," Van Tuyl said.

There was uncertainty in the college when the revered former president Gordon Michalson Jr. retired, but the teachers have been impressed with O'Shea's passion for spreading the word about the institution.

"We're all optimistic because he's such a fan of the liberal arts," Van Tuyl said.

But while the faculty and students value the more personalized grading system and special culture at New College, O'Shea understands that much of the outside world operates in a different way. He'd like to look into ways to make it easier for students to apply to institutions with more standardized evaluation processes.

"If some student is going to medical school, they might need grade equivalents," O'Shea. "We might need to find ways to translate the narrative evaluations."

New College junior Annie Carter, 20, is already communicating with faculty for a graduate school program in Adelaide, Australia partly to avoid this. Carter says some students have to take advantage of a grade conversion system in the college, but that most accept narrative evaluations with a little extra communicating.

"If you are proactive about it, they'll look at your narrative evaluations," Carter said.

O'Shea also would like to help his students continue their education closer to home. He'd like to see ways to collaborate with area schools so students can jointly pursue graduate degrees or alternative degrees with nearby colleges that might have programs New College doesn't offer, such as education.

O'Shea is planning an inauguration in February that should also bring attention to the school.

In the meantime, he's still getting used to how wide the roads are, the "intensely social" Sarasota and the idea that hurricanes are more serious than snowstorms. And he's got to watch out for that panoramic view outside his office window when he comes to work.

"I grab a cup of coffee..." O'Shea said. "And try not to look out the window."

Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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