When we think of universities, we tend to think of students. And students, of course, are their most visible manifestation. The C4 (College Consortium on the Creative Coast) four local colleges enrolled over 13,000 students this fall, a fact that is justly celebrated.
But if students are the heart of every university, its faculty members are the soul. What powers a great university is the interaction between students and faculty, the collision of energetic inexperience and hard won knowledge, painstakingly acquired over lifetimes.
The C4 institutions — New College of Florida, Ringling College of Art and Design, State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota and the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee — are home to 522 full-time continuing faculty members with specialties in fields ranging across all of human experience. In an age when “knowledge” is easily available to all on the internet, it is easy to take for granted the extraordinary value of their collective expertise.
Knowledge packaged in books or YouTube videos is relatively inert and hard to use. On some level, we all know this: imagine yourself showing up at a local hospital with advanced renal failure and being told that everything you want to know can be found in books or online. But when lives are not at stake, it is easy to forget how difficult mastery is to acquire. We underestimate what we learn from others.
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Because of the range of interests of the faculty who live in our community, any person can easily identify any artifact found on a local beach, find out details of local history, and ascertain what it would be like to live in any country at any time in the last several hundred years. You can learn the precise details of the code hacked at Yahoo, the algorithms that sort through large data sets, what is happening with the Pluto probe, and the significance of the recent discoveries in epigenetics of dogs.
You can get help identifying any worm, learning the latest in infrared photography, and finding out what is actually known about the linguistic structure of cetacean sounds. Most important, you can learn what is not known in a particular area — something that is very hard to do on the internet.
That knowledge base is multiplied, because faculty members bring connections to other centers of learning worldwide. Faculty members at different universities around the country and worldwide are in constant touch with one another.
In a given year, there are an additional couple of hundred visiting faculty who come from around the world to Manatee and Sarasota counties to pursue research projects with the continuing faculty or to teach for short periods. Both those visitors and the permanent faculty and their families, of course, also have a significant economic impact on our region.
Apart from intellectual and financial capital, faculty members bring diversity to a community. Faculty openings are advertised nationally and internationally, and draw candidates from across the nation and internationally. The successful candidates bring families, new habits, new foods and new ways of looking at things. They share those perspectives with their colleagues, of course, but they also do so with members of our community.
Academia has no borders and that principle extends beyond the property lines of our colleges.
Donal O’Shea is president of New College of Florida.