“There is some obvious student apprehension of your candidacy,” NSCA President Sofia Lombardi said to New College presidential candidate Dr. Alan Shao during the final question of the student-led Q&A at Sudakoff Conference Center on March 30. About 40 students and staff were present for Shao’s penultimate interview in a series of in-person and Zoom interviews with students, faculty, staff and alumni over the course of two days. Some students brought signs to the Q&A in protest of Shao’s candidacy. Others snapped after Lombardi asked certain, loaded questions.
“Can you talk about why you think that is and what you would do to rectify that, should your candidacy be successful?” Lombardi asked Shao.
“I don’t blame one of them,” Shao said, turning to speak directly to the crowd. “I’ve read every sign here and I applaud you.”
“But I can tell you,” Shao continued, “you don’t know me. I respect the fact that you know things that I’ve done, but you’ve never known me as a president. Just because I’ve had a certain past that you may or may not agree with, I ask you to know me first before you judge me.”
The purpose of these on-campus interviews—as expressed by the presidential search committee members once the top five candidates were determined—are to learn how promising candidates interact with the campus in order to get a better idea of who they are as a person and who they could be as a president. Students, staff, faculty and alumni have gotten to know Shao through the interviews on March 29 and 30. The question that now remains is whether students think getting to know Shao past this point is worthwhile.
Shao’s Plans for New College
Shao was best known among the student body prior to these interviews for his strong business background, but Shao’s experiences with New College first began about 30 years ago. While his specific work history at New College is not mentioned in his CV, he revealed during his Zoom interview with alumni and community members on March 30 that he was the visiting assistant professor of marketing at the University of South Florida (USF) for one year and taught a class at NCF once a week during that time. Shao also said during the student Q&A that he studied abroad at the National Taiwan University for one year, where he took “all liberal arts classes.”
“I do have a business dean background, and I’m not going to apologize for that, because 80% of all college graduates do something in business,” Shao said during the in-person interview with faculty and staff at Sudakoff on March 29. “But what I have at the core is a liberal arts heart.”
With this in mind, the plans Shao currently has in place if he were to be elected revolve around enrollment, fundraising and building relationships with legislators in Tallahassee. Decreasing enrollment has been a longstanding problem for New College and Shao listed continuing online and hybrid opportunities and availability, “strengthening” Areas of Concentration (AOCs) and international recruitment as potential strategies during the interview with faculty and staff, stating that he wants to create a “brand” for NCF “to be promoted worldwide.”
“You need a president that is aggressive, builds relationships with legislators in Tallahassee, and educates them,” Shao said during the Zoom interview with alumni and community members.
Similar to this sentiment, Shao responded to questions during the student Q&A about state metrics and responding to legislative challenges, such as last spring’s unsuccessful surprise merger, by reaffirming that Florida legislators “need to understand the New College story.”
Shao consistently cited the “four C’s”—commonly referenced in education as “21st century skills”—as elements of liberal arts education that he aims to encourage: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication. However, there were concerns during the student Q&A about a focus on performance-based funding in Shao’s cover letter and about the types of donors he plans to do business with, considering his connections to Republican legislators.
“I can assure you as a president that we’re going to do our background research on every prospective donor that we do,” Shao said in response to the latter concern.
A Clash with Campus Culture
When asked during the student Q&A what Shao knew about the student body, he said he had been contacted by people who “knew the students” once he was determined to be one of the final five presidential candidates. He also said that he conducted research through the NCF site and by looking up various alumni.
“I’ve done my homework,” Shao said. “I want you to understand me, though. I want to be your biggest advocate. Get to know me, let’s sit down and talk and if there are compelling situations we need to remedy, we will remedy those situations together.”
When asked about New College’s greatest strengths, Shao cited the tight-knit relationships between students and faculty as a specific example, as well as NCF’s openness, uniqueness and “liberal arts core.” He also restated the New College’s greatest weaknesses were low enrollment, student retention and lack of support from the state, but also the state of buildings on the residential side of campus, particularly the Pei dorms.
However, Shao’s knowledge of New College culture and infrastructure seemed to dwindle from here. When asked during the interview with faculty and staff on March 29 about presidential support for Student Affairs, Shao simply said that he was not a micromanager but would ensure that Student Affairs stayed “in line” with the values of the institution. Furthermore, when asked about his views on Title IX, Shao admitted that he was “not proficient” in the law to discuss it critically.
More broadly, Shao was also asked during the interview with faculty and staff about how he would connect with the current campus culture if he were to be elected. He was also asked during the student Q&A how he would allocate the $4 million donation NCF received this January. In both cases, he said that he did not “know much about the community,” and so wasn’t able to determine an answer.
Even so, a recurring theme in all of Shao’s interviews was the importance of communication between students, faculty and staff, and how the New College community needed to “[get] all in one room,” as it were.
“A lot of what he talked about in his responses was communication, we just need the community to communicate,” third-year Hannah Gatof said outside of Sudakoff after the student Q&A had finished. “The idea that we as a college campus of 800 to 1,000 students and staff don’t already communicate face-to-face on a first name basis is kind of ludicrous.”
The lapses in understanding between Shao and the student body and campus culture, however, do not stop here.
Equity Versus Equality
Police presence at New College has been at the forefront of the student consciousness time and time again. Questions about how Shao might take action against specific issues revolving around the Campus Police Department (CPD) came up at three different interviews. In both the Zoom meeting with students on March 29 and the interview with faculty and staff, Shao did not seem to have enough prior knowledge on police brutality to give any specific answers.
“I looked at his Twitter earlier,” thesis student Alexandra Andrade said after the student Q&A. “I saw that he did tweet after George Floyd was killed, so I don’t understand how he can claim to not know about these things.”
By the time the student Q&A rolled around, Shao said that he had spoken to his daughter on the subject and learned that issues with campus police pervaded her campus as well.
“The picture that has been painted to me is that this campus would be safer without the police structure,” Shao said. “There’s a problem with that.”
“His story about just yesterday learning about what police brutality was from his daughter was a huge red flag,” third-year Gabriela Ott said afterwards. “And then he wanted me to believe that he had some sort of awakening in that moment. It just wasn’t what he thought he was saying and it was very concerning to see that he didn’t seem to understand these very basic components that make up New College.”
Along the same vein, students quickly grew concerned with how Shao spoke about issues related to people of color (POC) on campus. Matters of diversity were a common talking point throughout Shao’s interviews and he suggested that hiring representative faculty and “enhancing [New College’s] image” would be a good first step forward.
“[NCF] is not attracting people of color,” Shao said during the Zoom interview with alumni. “That’s going to take a lot longer than a few minutes to talk about on a Zoom call. We have to give them compelling reasons to come here.”
However, Shao was less clear when it came to actionable ways to support minority students. During the student Q&A, Shao was questioned directly about his colorblind approach to diversity, and how his means of support towards students involved speaking directly with them but no specific policies or resources.
“I am not oblivious to the challenges of people of color at all,” Shao responded. “I have gone through intensive training [and] thirty years of applied experiences.” Shao continued, “For example, my associate dean is an African American woman.”
Shao made regular reference to Associate Dean of the School of Business at the College of Charleston, Jocelyn Evans, throughout his on-campus interview process whenever POC issues of diversity were brought up. However, these were usually one-off references that did not tie back to any specific action Shao would take were he to be elected.
It all seemed to culminate when Shao asked Lombardi to define an equity-based approach to POC issues versus an equality-based approach during the student Q&A after he was asked a question that used this phrasing.
“I’m not oblivious to the challenges of certain groups who are being unfairly treated,” Shao said once Lombardi had explained. “I’d be a fool to think that everyone is treated equally.”
Even so, some students were still not impressed with this response.
“I really wish he could have talked more about palpable examples and ways that he has in the past and in the future plans to actually help our community,” Gatof said. “I also think there was a lot of disillusionment about the actual struggles that some of our students on campus—and particularly POC students—face. I think there’s a really big problem with shifting conversations from POC students to, ‘It’s every student, not just POC students.’ It gets away from the point that POC students experience different things than the rest of the campus does.”
“I thought it was really problematic when he was specifically asked about his color blindness because it’s really hard to not see that,” thesis student Niko Zamora added. “It’s really frustrating, especially as a person that’s not white and not cis to hear a potential presidential candidate be so dismissing and so condescending to our needs.”
The students were briefly cut off once they noticed that Shao was leaving the Sudakoff parking lot in a red convertible with Vice President for Finance and Administration Chris Kinsley to go to lunch together.
“He was definitely trying to distance himself from his relationship with Nikki Haley because of our feedback,” Andrade chimed in once the dust had settled. “But he tweeted, ‘Former UN ambassador and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley is one of our most courageous women in recent history.’ That’s a strong opinion.”
Shao’s comments on the controversial politician also caused students to worry about his views on the LGBTQ+ community and what kind of support he could offer them. In regards to Nikki Haley specifically, Shao asks that students “judge [him] as a person and not who [he’s] had relationships with in the past.”
Like the topic of POC issues, Shao responded to questions about supporting the LGBTQ+ community during the student Q&A by ensuring students that he treats all people equally. However, when he was asked a follow-up question about how he has advocated for LGBTQ+ people in the past, Shao was once again unable to provide examples.
“A big thing we were very frustrated with when he was talking, was when questions were specifically asked about how to support POC students or the LGBTQ+ community, he didn’t seem to have any ability to identify what that was,” Ott later said.
What Have We Learned?
Ultimately, most students’ apprehension towards Shao seems to come back to his strong business background, and how his prior associations could color how he views and interacts with New College.
“I understand how to run things as a manager, and that’s what a president is,” Shao said during the student Q&A. “He or she is the manager of a university.”
“When asked how he would engage in the surrounding community, he just spoke about how he could find donors and started talking about companies and didn’t talk about engaging with the community,” Andrade said.
After the student Q&A, a Catalyst reporter was able to catch Shao before he left and ask how he thought the interview went. Shao said that he thought it went well, even with the signs.
“I think it went fantastic,” Shao said. “I think it’s so passionate when students get to voice their opinions and their feelings personally. I hope I addressed all the questions. I know there’s still a lot of questions to be answered. But if anyone wants to send me any [emails], I’ll be happy to answer those. I feel privileged to be in front of the students to share my thoughts with them.”
The signs in question, however, did spark a statement from Dean of the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence (OOIE) Bill Woodson, Lombardi, and current president Donal O’Shea condemning their racist and xenophobic overtones, which included mispronunciations of Shao’s name and phrases such as “go home.”
“This is something we hoped our campus would have more sensitivity towards, particularly given the kind of intersectional curriculum students engage with here daily,” said Woodson, Lombardi and O’Shea in an email sent out on April 5. “Hard, probing questions on any topic related to Dr. Shao’s possible presidency would have been, and were, welcome. Cowering behind a rude sign neither respects our guest nor yourselves. This is not what New College is here to represent, and we do not condone this rhetoric—neither should you.”
For the final question of his last Zoom interview with alums and community members, Shao was also asked about what surprised him or what he felt he learned about NCF during his time on campus.
“What I’ve learned more than anything is that the students are passionate,” Shao said. “I’ve had the privilege of being in front of a lot of students. Some of them hold signs up, a lot of them want to talk about concerns about the police force or about areas of study. They’re very passionate about what they’re doing and I admire that. That’s one thing that I will leave here remembering.”
“So many people have been [concerned] that I have a business background,” Shao continued. “In some cases, it’s been construed as a negative. I’ve had 12 years at a wonderful liberal arts institution. I have two children that have liberal arts degrees out of three, and that third one has a marketing degree with a liberal arts minor in Chinese History. I wouldn’t be at this wonderful institution if I didn’t believe that I could help this institution climb to the greatest of heights.”
The first of the five presidential candidates sparked intense discussion and rattled campus for the two days he was with us, both on camera and at the less-publically available indoor dinner on March 29. Even so, he left the New College community with something important to keep in mind throughout the presidential search process at the end of his interview with faculty and staff.
“If I’m not the optimal candidate, then I shouldn’t be considered,” Shao said. “But find the optimal candidate, because these students, faculty, staff and community deserve the best.”
Catalyst Editor in Chief Anna Lynn Winfrey and Catalyst Online Editor Ky Miller contributed reporting.