5 Questions

By Beau Denton September 30, 2010

Dr. Gordon “Mike” Michalson has been the president of New College of Florida since 2001. We spoke with him about the local legacy of New College, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

What does the 50th anniversary symbolize to you?

New College’s 50th is an ideal time to reflect on the role that the area played in the creation of the college, since it emerged from the hopes and ambitions of those living here in the late ’50s and early ’60s. At that time, people said, “Sarasota is a college town without a college,” and they insisted that our community’s college would be something innovative, reflecting the creative energies of Sarasota.

What has been the school’s biggest impact on the community?  

Producing bright self-starters out there now as mature professionals and citizens, who bring intelligence and fresh thinking to whatever they undertake. Close to 20 percent of our graduates live somewhere between Tampa and Fort Myers. A lot of students develop internships or job opportunities during college that are promising for their first job after college, and more and more of our students tend to be hooking up with software and information technology enterprises in the community and staying local longer. We also bring positive attention to the community through our success in polls and rankings, like in Parade magazine’s recent story [“College A-List,” Aug. 1, 2010] about outstanding colleges flying under the radar.

How do you convince donors that a liberal arts education is a worthwhile investment? 

We point to the success of our graduates. But if you think about it, the point of a liberal arts education isn’t just to prepare you for your first job, it’s to give you the critical thinking skills and the intellectual adaptabilities that help you with a lifetime of career changes.

We’re going through a time in our history when sloppy argumentation, fearmongering and demonizing the opponent are all part of the wider arena. I often say that the mission of New College is to subvert the least attractive features of the culture around us, and right now one of those least attractive features is the quality of civil discourse.

But when you’re in a class debating the meaning of Shakespeare’s plays or the ratio between manmade and natural causes of red tide, you get used to dealing with complexity and ambiguity. That’s finally what a liberal arts education is all about.

How might New College shape the region in the future? 

Because of our bayfront location and our traditional interest in science and science policy, we will continue to raise the profile within the community of environmental issues. And we’re going to be expanding our arts connections with the community in the years ahead. When we highlight things like environmental science, the arts, quantitative skills, I think we send signals to the wider community about what’s on the cutting edge of liberal arts education. 

Any big changes or updates? 

We have three construction projects. The obvious one is our 35,000-square-foot academic center, and we’ve already completed a public archaeology lab that will provide a more visible setting for an extremely successful curriculum innovation that is also a nice town-gown connection. We are completing a black box theater for students in our student center. We are also on the verge of completing funding for an International Studies building. This community has a large number of retired foreign service workers, and I think they would welcome a physical place to work with one another.

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