By Dr. Barbara Feldman, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs
At first glance, it seemed just like just what a newly arrived college provost could ever want: Approval from the governor to hire 15 new faculty – and the funding with which to do it. But as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. I’ll explain.
I had arrived at New College on July 1, and just one month earlier, Gov. Rick Scott signed the budget that allocated the state funds necessary to set in motion New College’s transformative growth plan: Boosting our enrollment by 50 percent by 2023, and increasing the faculty proportionately, to maintain our 10-1 student-faculty ratio.
What that meant, though, was that we had to increase our faculty size by almost 20 percent in one hiring season. Our faculty of approximately 80 full-time professors had to add 15 new members.
The magnitude of the work that required was vast. Fifteen searches require 15 search committees, each with three or four people hosting an average of four candidates per search. This involves nearly 60 faculty and does not include the other three searches that we were conducting for replacement positions – which means another 12 people. That means just about every New College faculty member, and most staff members, participated in some way in these searches, and many served on multiple searches. And it was being led by a provost who had just stepped on campus. (I have never met a faculty member who isn’t nervous about the prospect of a new provost, and throwing in an unprecedented number of faculty searches, the most coveted of academic resources, only added to the jitters.)
Please also bear in mind all of this occurred while the faculty were teaching, advising students and conducting their own research. And it required heavy lifting by our staff to plan the logistics of candidate visits, staff who also were continuing to do their daily jobs.
There are two notable aspects to this feat. The first is that every search ended with a hire. In higher education terms, “there were no failed searches.” (Anyone in higher education knows that failed searches are quite common.) The second is that each of these searches was filled with either our first- or second-choice candidate. Again, anyone in higher education knows that it is quite common to go deep into one’s pool of candidates to fill a vacancy. I credit the faculty and staff for this remarkable achievement.
Now that I have finished interviewing every one of these nearly 100 candidates, I am reflecting on the reasons for our noteworthy and unusual degree of success. Of course, it has to do with New College being a great institution, our faculty and staff being top-notch, and the fact that we are located in the beautiful city of Sarasota.
However, it is also about our strategic approach to hiring, based on our philosophical commitment to a high-quality, interdisciplinary approach to a liberal arts education. We engaged in what is called “cluster hiring”. We chose to hire in certain areas — Arts, Environmental Sustainability, Global, and Human and Artificial Intelligence — that accentuated our strengths and capitalized on our location and were true to our ideas of a liberal arts education. Each of our new faculty members cross disciplinary boundaries in their approaches to teaching and research. For example, our new environmental ethicist and our new environmental economist will augment our Environmental Studies program, while linking it neatly with these other traditional disciplines.
I believe this multidisciplinary approach, which builds on much of the interdisciplinary work already happening at New College, is critical for the future success of our students and our world. In his 1998 book, “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge,” sociologist E. O. Wilson writes, “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time think critically about it and make important choices wisely.” Through these hires, NCF is committed to preparing synthesizers.
I am a sociologist by training. Much as I try, I cannot stop viewing the world from a sociological perspective. This is what I have seen since my arrival at New College. The search for 15 new hires (both a dream and a nightmare) has already changed the college. Not only did the searches require participation by almost everyone, it necessitated that faculty who rarely interact with each other serve together. Art historians served with chemists, who served with philosophers, and so on. Veteran faculty served with newer faculty, and the result was an increased sense of community and greater appreciation for the work of colleagues in other disciplines. The unintended consequence of an arrangement created from necessity resulted in a more cohesive college community. As a sociologist, I appreciate the value of a strong sense of community and am thrilled and even in awe. I am also quite grateful because we will need to do the entire thing all over again next year with the granting of another round of 15 hires!
But that’s for next year. Right now we can be proud that the New College faculty and staff have achieved something rarely seen in higher education, and something that will propel it into the future ever readier to prepare our students for lives of consequence, meaning and success.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the March 30 issue of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.