New College of Florida Provides a Haven

From Jewish Voice
Nov. 22, 2023

I recently joined the admissions team as executive director of a school you probably never heard of (but should know and will): New College of Florida, a 63-year-old public, liberal arts honors college on the bay in Sarasota. Earlier this year, Governor Ron DeSantis elevated fresh institutional leadership committed to rebuilding New College into what it had long been–the best liberal arts college in America–and we are looking for exactly the kind of students who are currently enrolled in Jewish day school high schools.

As executive director–and a proud graduate of Jewish Day Schools and High Schools (PreK-12)–I can’t help but recall Mordechai’s question to Esther in Megillat Esther 4:14: “Who knows if it is for a time like this that you have attained royalty?” Her unique position, to which she had risen for no evident reason, was suddenly ripe with purpose. Well, I’m hardly royal, but I do find myself uniquely positioned to offer something of value to the Jewish community.

First, a little about New College, a school that has long maintained low student/faculty ratios almost unheard of in a public college. The top producer of Fulbright Scholars in Florida, New College boasts a unique curriculum embracing classical education and traditional liberal (not leftist) values, critical thinking and applied skills, self-motivation, and collaborative research. The school has a history of producing graduates who go on to leadership positions in academia, business, and the professions. And with ample need-based and merit-based financial aid available, the average after-aid price of a New College education has been under $10,000 per year. Two-thirds of our students graduate with zero debt.

My job is to find students eager and able to take advantage of what we have to offer: Smart young men and women, self-directed, respectful, confident, grounded in tradition, looking to the future, and eager to engage in a broad exchange of ideas. New College’s administration and I know that the top Jewish college-preparatory high schools produce many such students.

Like you, I have long been distraught about the direction of American higher education, and in particular what it has meant for the safety of proud, open, Jewish college students. Sadly, events of recent weeks have thrust such concerns into the limelight. Many of today’s college campuses exhibit levels of overt antisemitism, unlike anything America has ever seen. Too many faculty members foment the hostility. Too many administrators seem ambivalent.

New College of Florida is different. Our campus is fully committed to restoring the sort of physically safe and intellectually open environments we all expected not too long ago. The moment the current round of campus antisemitism reared its ugly head, I recognized how fortunate I was to find myself at a school capable of retaining its moral compass, embedded in a State University System with a moral anchor, under the auspices of a State government that has proven serious and effective in standing strong against the full array of campus hostilities–explicitly including antisemitism.

This commitment comes from the very top. New College’s President Richard Corcoran recently took to the Wall Street Journal and Fox Business to contrast our approach to the dangerous embarrassment we’ve seen coming from America’s most prestigious Universities–beginning with Harvard. Corcoran presented a compelling offer to parents and students seeking a safe, moral alternative: Come join us at New College.

Those tempted to question his resolve should know: As Commissioner of Florida’s Board of Education, Corcoran stared down much of America’s leadership to keep Florida’s public schools open during Covid.

When this man makes a commitment to the students in his charge, he keeps it. And though he extended his offer to all students disgusted with the state of contemporary campus morality, it came at a moment when many proudly Jewish students and families were considering colleges that had not previously been on their radars.

Historically, New College has not had much in the way of Jewish life–largely because there has never been a demand for it. However, with new top leadership eager for the sorts of students Jewish high schools produce and Jewish students fearing their safety in the institutions to which they have long turned, that can change quickly. If enough applicants request kosher food or a Shabbat program, we can have them in place by next fall. Just consider: We hired our first Athletics Director this past May and fielded six teams in September. Given interest and demand, we can accommodate burgeoning Jewish campus life just as quickly. Our local Chabad is eager to help.

At New College, our leadership enthusiastically fosters the mixture of physical safety, intellectual rigor, academic excellence, and mutual respect no longer available at so many of America’s most prestigious institutions. We’re committed to making our campus community amenable to all students. Only the arrival of Jewish students, however, can light the spark of Jewish life.

All of this brings me to a concrete request for all qualified high school students, counselors, teachers, and administrators: please take a look at what we have to offer. Our application process is straightforward, and its open-ended questionnaire provides a way for you to express an interest in kashrut or Shabbat programs.

In the decades since America’s top universities opened their doors to full Jewish participation, Jewish students and faculty members have rewarded them with immeasurable value. Recent institutional actions have been shameful. Today’s students–including Jews–should take their talents to places that appreciate them and value what they have to offer. New College of Florida is such a place.

© Bruce D. Abramson. All Rights Reserved.