New College’s ceremony was a joyful event. But then juvenile ‘rebels’ took away the joy.

Sarasota Herald-Tribune – The New College of Florida faculty chair’s May 29 guest column regarding the college’s graduation exercises, co-authored with five other faculty members, was a distortion.

I know, because I attended the graduation ceremony.

In fact, the evening of the ceremony was beautiful and the view of Sarasota Bay from the grounds of the Charles Ringling Mansion was spectacular, as it always is.

The feeling was joyful.

The chancellor of Florida’s university system was there. He, the college’s trustees, president, faculty and the invited speakers paraded to the stage with the usual pomp attendant to these events. The graduates’ families and guests filled the seats under a huge tent protecting all from the sun. Smiles abounding, the joy was palpable.

New College President Richard Corcoran welcomed all and then introduced, representing the faculty, Dr. Heidi Harley, who shared how her research in dolphin psychology taught her lessons about human interaction – and particularly about the importance of listening.

The joy was evident in Heidi’s voice throughout her speech.

Mark Famiglio was the next speaker, and he was on hand to represent the New College alumni. Mark came to New College from a Northeastern state at age 15, graduated at 18, stayed in Sarasota and became a visionary businessman and philanthropist.

With a humorous reference to how he learned to mix the ingredients of meatballs while working in the college’s dining hall, Mark shared how New College taught him that mixing freedom with personal responsibility was necessary to live a successful life.

Mark felt honored to introduce Joe Ricketts, the founder of TD Ameritrade, and highlight the achievements of a man of modest means who changed an entire industry through the revolutionary use of technology. Joe made direct access to the financial markets available for the first time to middle-class Americans. Now a billionaire many times over, Joe has already invested in New College’s project to expand classical liberal arts education.

It was clear that Mark felt the joy of recognizing the genius of a trail-blazing pioneer like Joe.

What followed, however, was disheartening.

Before Joe even said a word, a chorus of boos erupted from the graduating students’ seats. Then, when Joe actually began to speak, F-bombs erupted from the student section. When one of the unruly students was told by security to take his seat, he responded by starting a chant of “Free Palestine!” – and then, as if on cue, some of the graduating students joined in.

The disrespect of the “tolerant” made it impossible for Joe to continue. We could hear him say, “They don’t want to hear me” as he left the stage accompanied by President Corcoran.

The joy was gone.

The next speaker, New College’s student body president, had a chance to make things better.

But she didn’t.

The student body president didn’t offer a single word of apology for how Joe Ricketts had been treated. Instead, the speaker, who also served as a student trustee on the New College Board of Trustees, chided her former fellow board members for being difficult to work with. Then, claiming particular concerns for fiscal responsibility and the well-being of New College students – as if her fellow board trustees had no such similar concerns – the student speaker postulated it was the pursuit of virtue, guided by Cicero’s wisdom, that allowed her to work with people she didn’t really like.

She acknowledged the students’ ovation with an effusive smile.

As one professor put it to me: “Education should result in people being able to listen deeply and take turns in conversation. That we have students engaging in such juvenile behavior is not a good sign for how they’ve been educated in our culture and at New College.”

Last year’s graduating students made a fiasco of the commencement exercise, shouting down the speaker and justifying their immaturity as a protest against an illusory “right-wing takeover” of New College.

This year, sadly, the deficient work of some of the faculty in teaching students about life outside the ivory tower –and, in particular, the destructive leadership of the faculty chair and her acolytes representing the last vestiges of the left-wing activism that had long poisoned New College – was still evident.

A dysfunctional subgroup of the graduating students showed their lack of seriousness in a sickening mix of the heckler’s veto and a “cool” historically ignorant antisemitism – the flavor of the moment for juvenile “rebels.”  And then, to protect them, the faculty chair has intentionally distorted the truth.

What better evidence could be presented for the need for change at New College of Florida?

Thank God it came. And may the joy return.

New College trustees board deserves praise for refusing to be a rubber stamp for faculty

Herald Tribune – Critics of change at New College of Florida have recently pointed to the decision not to grant early tenure to five professors as evidence that something is amiss. They have also perpetuated the misperception that in the Board of Trustees’ actions to approve Richard Corcoran as interim president there was a violation of at least the spirit of Florida’s Sunshine Law.

As to the tenure issue, I served two terms as a trustee of New College and twice as a board member of its affiliated New College Foundation. It is, in fact, the legal responsibility of the trustees to decide issues of tenure.

Those who find something nefarious in the trustees’ decision point to another fact: that it is extremely rare for tenure applications to be denied. That is true. But why has this been the history of tenure decisions?

The answer is that trustee boards have historically been rubber-stamping organizations on tenure decisions: They have rarely (if ever) exercised independent judgment on the issue – and they have rarely (if ever) considered each application on its true merits. That is what the New College faculty and college faculties all around America have come to expect in the name of “faculty self-governance,” which they claim is essential to “academic freedom.”

They are wrong.Those who supported tenure being granted to the New College professors under consideration have justified that belief by pointing to the approval of the former provost and an interim provost. But the fact is they did not want to give the new Board of Trustees a real opportunity and ample time to review the applicants’ files. And they also wanted to push through these tenure approvals against the recommendation of the college’s interim president, who was likewise expected to merely be some sort of token figurehead on the issue.

But taking such an approach would have been highly irresponsible of the trustees; it would have been a violation of their fiduciary and statutory duties given that tenure a very serious decision. In reality, tenure is a grant of long-term job protection that doesn’t exist in society outside of life appointments to the federal judiciary.

Faculties don’t rule the roost

It all boils down to a singular question about the governance of public colleges: Do they belong to their faculties –whereby the professors are justified in expecting a Board of Trustees to serve as a rubber stamp – or do they belong to the citizens of the state?

In Florida, the trustees – who are responsible for an institution created by its citizens through their elected representatives – have an obligation to the people to think about their decisions. Should tenure be given at all? That’s an open question. But what should not be questioned is this: Tenure is a privilege that should not be casually granted to all professors; in fact, it is one that should only be given to professors who the trustees believe can play vital roles in helping the college thrive and grow.

Faculties have grown accustomed to thinking they rule the roost inside colleges – but they don’t, and the decision by the New College Board of Trustees to deny tenure sent that clear message. The decision also served as a clarion call to boards around the country to show the necessary courage to responsibly serve the citizens of their states –and to no longer serve as rubber-stamping tools for their faculties.

No lack of transparency

As to the insinuation that the trustees either violated the Sunshine Law or used loopholes to get around it, even the best intentioned of these critics simply misapprehend how the process works.

Liberals have long dominated most public university and college boards in Florida, so they see nothing invidious when they naturally agree with each other. But when conservatives naturally agree with each other while making policies, liberals will suddenly and predictably proclaim that such decisions must have been reached solely through “collusion” – and must have been driven solely by “the lack of a moral compass.”

The appointment of Richard Corcoran as New College’s interim president was a natural outcome of a process that required no “collusion” among the trustees. Corcoran was a well-known conservative while serving as the speaker of Florida’s House of Representatives.  He was well known among conservatives as a proponent of educational reform.  And Corcoran was well known for his past role as Florida’s education commissioner, a position he was appointed to hold by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Indeed, once I heard that Gov. DeSantis wanted Corcoran to lead New College, I knew that my fellow conservatives – including those on the school’s Board of Trustees – would support the idea. And I state this as someone who worked very hard to help former New College President Patricia Okker try to develop a vision for the school that was consistent with the goals set out by the governor and the Florida Legislature.

Just because others fail to share your views does not mean they also fail to possess good faith and goodwill. It would serve Florida, Sarasota and New College itself well if more people would begin to recognize this fact – and begin to embrace it.

Robert Allen Jr. is a corporate international lawyer who lives in South Florida. He is a former New College of Florida board trustee and graduated from New College in 1978.

Here’s how Ron DeSantis saved New College of Florida from mediocrity

Tampa Bay Times – Once a great school, New College had fallen to 405th in the nation, writes guest columnist and New College alum Robert Allen Jr.

Critics of change at Sarasota’s New College of Florida have read too much into statements by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ chief of staff and others that they would like to see New College become more like Hillsdale College.

Hillsdale is a private Christian college in Michigan, which unlike virtually every other college or university in America, accepts no government funding. Suggesting that the governor wants to turn New College into Hillsdale is misinformed. As a unit of the state of Florida, it is constitutionally prohibited from advancing Christianity or any other religion. Gov. DeSantis, the trustees, interim President Richard Corcoran and their teams of course understand that completely.

What Hillsdale’s admirers are referring to is its “classical liberal arts” curriculum, which Hillsdale describes as “a journey through literature, philosophy, theology, history, the fine arts and the natural sciences,” with the goal of allowing students “to see the world as a cohesive whole.” It is intended to be a shared experience, a foundation for further intellectual exploration.

Those who know New College’s history understand that Hillsdale’s approach coincides in many respects with that of New College’s own founders, who in 1964 implemented a core curriculum very similar to Hillsdale’s. Five years later, they added a student-contract system emphasizing the role of individualized study plans, field study and undergraduate research.

The results were remarkable. New College students’ SAT averages were the third highest in the country when I applied in 1973, according to college guides at the time. Wherever the fault lies, New College’s leadership and faculty were unable to maintain the standards it inherited when the college was merged into the University of South Florida in 1975. According to the Niche ranking, today New College ranks 405th in the nation, 21st in Florida.

New College stopped being a real honors college some time ago. Its administration and faculty chose, instead, to become a haven for those who embrace the ideology of so-called progressivism. Think about what DeSantis calls “woke” — an emphasis on unconventional pronouns, a dominant LGBTQ+ community, referring to conservatives as fascists, homophobes, transphobes and so on.

This choice coincided with a decline in academic standards among its faculty and students, with notable exceptions, to a point where many graduates openly state they would not even have considered applying to the New College that emerged in the last decade or so.

Reflecting on the implicit aspersions cast on Hillsdale by critics of the governor, it’s worth taking a quick look at its history. Founded in 1844 by abolitionists, it was the first American college to prohibit — in its charter — any discrimination based on race, religion or sex.

It was also only the second college in the nation to grant four-year liberal arts degrees to women. And a higher percentage of Hillsdale students enlisted during the Civil War than from any other northern college — nearly 80%. Sixty gave their lives.

The governor’s critics not only know very little about Hillsdale, they seem oblivious to New College’s predicament before the governor got involved. It’s no wonder that the Legislature was ready to close it down in 2020, an outcome only avoided through the intervention of the area’s state senators.

Interim President Corcoran and New College’s trustees looked to Hillsdale because they believe in the classical liberal arts, which most of America’s colleges have abandoned. Pragmatically, they also understand that demand for admission into Hillsdale is at an all-time high while demand for admission to New College in recent years has been at an all-time low. What they are seeking is a balance between a core curriculum and independent study — a blend of the best of New College’s academic traditions.

Let’s hope that New College’s board of trustees is inspired not only by the courage of Hillsdale’s founders but by the wisdom of its own. And that Floridians begin to view the “Save New College” signs that abound near the campus in a different light. DeSantis and the Florida Legislature saved New College.

What is happening at New College — as it moves away from the mediocrity, intolerance, and group-think that have come to dominate much of modern American university culture — gives us hope that we might just save American higher education.

Robert Allen Jr., a 1978 graduate of New College, serves on its presidential search committee and as chairperson of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute.