After nearly three decades of facilitating thoughtful discussions on Christian ethics in the classroom and shaping the future of a newly independent college, Professor Gordon “Mike” Michalson retired at the end of spring 2020. He will be remembered by his colleagues and students for his gentle leadership, wry wit and unrelenting dedication to the liberal arts.
High tensions and low salaries: New College of USF
Michalson taught for 15 years at Oberlin College before moving to Sarasota in 1992 to accept an offer for the newly minted position of Dean and Warden. He and his wife wanted a change of pace from a stifling small-town environment.
“I looked around and I said, ‘If I stay another 15 years here, is there anybody on the faculty I’d like to be like?’ and I thought, ‘No,’” Michalson recalled. “If you stay too long at a liberal arts college you become a caricature of yourself.”
Michalson also received an offer to direct the religious studies program at Penn State, but decided to come to New College instead. His friend from graduate school at Princeton, Professor Douglas Langston, was the chair of the search committee and the academic program seemed compelling.
However, like many new students realize within their first few weeks on campus, one’s perception of New College can seriously differ from reality.
“I’m not saying anybody misled me,” Michalson said. “I thought, ‘Well, there’s bright people there, the students seem eager, I like the idea of no grades, the contract system seems interesting, my friend Doug teaches there. What’s not to like?’ And I didn’t dislike that other stuff. I simply felt challenged by it.”
“That other stuff” included reporting to a boss 60 miles away, extensive fundraising, high tensions with USF students and low faculty morale.
New College was founded as a private institution in 1960, but financial struggles beset the fledgling college. In 1975, at the brink of insolvency, it was folded into the University of South Florida (USF). The current USF-Sarasota Manatee (USF-SM) campus did not open until 2006, so both institutions shared most facilities and resources for decades.
As Dean and Warden, Michalson was expected to provide leadership and vision for New College while the dean at USF had the ultimate authority over the police and the grounds. He frequently drove to Tampa for dean’s council meetings at 8 a.m., “the kind of content of which had little or nothing to do with life at New College.”
Although Michalson was told that he would be involved with some fundraising efforts, he did not expect how much he would be drawn into the plethora of social events to woo deep-pocketed Sarasotans.
“I knew I was in trouble when I had to buy a second tuxedo because my tuxedo would not be back from the cleaners in time to go to the next black-tie event,” Michalson said.
Although they shared the campus, New College students found little in common with their commuting counterparts at USF.
“Outside of class, students were always on the warpath, sabotaging the coke machine in the USF buildings and not cooperating very well on occasional efforts to get the two student bodies to work together,” Michalson said. “Much of it was humorous and tongue in cheek, but it created genuine tension.”
For example, USF’s campus newspaper was—and still is—called The Oracle. However, one of New College’s weekly newspapers at the time was The Orifice. (The Catalyst ran between 1965 and 1979 but was restored in its current form as an academic tutorial sponsored by Professor of Anthropology Maria Vesperi in 1994. Michalson was also an initial co-sponsor of the revival.)
In addition, faculty salaries were low after three consecutive years without salary increases and system-wide cuts to the State University System (SUS) budget.
“He was in the right place at the right time as Dean and Warden to take New College out of a slump that it had gotten into with the very low morale and low faculty salary,” Suzanne Janney said. “The college owes him a great deal.”
Janney moved to Sarasota in 1993 and started as a national grants consultant. She worked as a special assistant to Michalson and President Donal O’Shea before retiring last spring.
Michalson also taught every year after his first one. “I think that, more than anything, helped me understand the place. Understand the faculty. And it was enjoyable,” he said.
He thinks teaching also sent a message to the faculty about his values.
“If you say, even as an administrator, [that] you’re too busy to teach, you’re really making a comment about your priorities. And the silver lining of all this in addition to that was teaching was fun and did all those constructive things.”
Third-year Ella Rennekamp wrote in an online form shared with alums and current students that Michalson’s “Varieties of Religious Experiences” class profoundly impacted the rest of her academic career.
“He approaches the content from a place of learning, rather than teaching, and was somehow able to pull off numerous discussions about the ‘ineffable’ and other religious/mystical states of mind that can’t be explained,” Rennekamp said. “He’s such a grounded, easygoing and open person to talk to about anything, whether or not it relates to class.”
Michalson decided to return to full-time teaching once his five-year contract as Dean and Warden expired in summer 1997 after a yearlong sabbatical. His wife gave birth to their son a few weeks before his job ended on August 1, so Michalson spent the next year caring for his newborn baby and writing a book.
“In some ways [it] was the very best year of my life ever,” Michalson reflected.
“The Little Place That Was Sprung Loose”
In January 2001, Michalson accepted a visiting teaching position at Brown University for that spring semester. He was planning to return and teach for one more year at New College then move back to Providence permanently when he started getting calls from other professors about New College’s sudden independence.
Emancipating New College was never part of the legislative agenda until a state senator from Pinellas County proposed giving more autonomy to USF’s regional campuses in Sarasota and St. Petersburg. He was reminded of New College’s status as a precarious subsidiary of USF and decided to fold institutional independence into the bill.
“We weren’t really anybody’s target to begin with,” Michalson remarked on the similarities with this spring’s failed bill that would merge New College and Florida Polytechnic with the University of Florida. “We were sucked into the situation because somebody else was the target who had some institutional similarities with us.”
In May 2001, some senior faculty called and asked Michalson he was interested in a top leadership appointment, which Michalson thought would be a provost-like position. When he came back to Sarasota in early July and started meeting with some members of the new Board of Trustees, he discovered that they wanted him to be the interim president.
The faculty had voted for Michalson to be the interim president at a special meeting in June, which Michalson described as a “genteel way of expressing no confidence in the person who was then the Dean and Warden.”
“I had been replaced, after all, as Dean and Warden and the faculty didn’t want that person to become president,” Michalson said. “And yes, it was awkward.”
The chair of the Board of Trustees (BoT), Bob Johnson, took the faculty vote seriously, which sent a strong message of support for the college’s academic core.
“The board could have said, ‘Who the hell are you to tell us what to do?’” Michalson recalled. “There were some members of the board who took that view and Bob Johnson respected the view of the faculty. That was a very strong signal of support for the academic core of our mission, as opposed to a kind of a corporate model for running the school.”
Michalson’s relationship with Bob Johnson had been tense in the past but they became closer and “developed not just profound respect, but profound fondness for one another” during Michalson’s tenure as president.
At a retirement party for another colleague approximately five years later, Bob Johnson remarked that he wasn’t sure that New College would make it, which he had never divulged to Michalson.
“If I’d known that in real time, I would go into the fetal position and never come out,” Michalson said. “He didn’t think we were going to make it but he hid that—he never let on with me. Never let on.”
After about a month of working as the interim president, the BoT voted to remove “interim” from Michalson’s title to give him more legitimacy within the state structure.
“For a minute I panicked,” Michalson said. “I thought, ‘Holy crap, they’re making me president for good,’ but they were also planning a national search.”
However, the BoT delayed starting the national search until the end of Michalson’s first year, which meant that he had to stay on the job for another year.
“We were pretty much planning to go back to Brown, to be honest, which was an advantage because I was tougher-reminded that first year than if I was expected to be running for something,” Michalson said.
At the start of his second year as temporary president, he eventually put himself in the running for the permanent position when the difficult work of transitioning to an independent institution was complete and they “began to see the light at the end of the tunnel on the big chores early our second year.”
“When I watched what was going on with the search and the candidates being named and the salaries being named, I realized, ‘Wait a second, I’m setting myself up here to damn near kill myself, only to walk out the door when you might get to the point where you could begin to do some things you really want to do, and see somebody come in totally from the outside, suddenly making more money,’” Michalson said.
Also, returning to teach graduate students at Brown no longer seemed as appealing: “The notion of spending the next period of my career helping people get Ph.Ds in philosophy of religion, to go out and face a very mixed job market, just didn’t seem as compelling to me as committing myself to staying at the little place that had just been sprung loose. My hair had turned white, my beard had turned white in the previous 18 months from the stress, but all for a good cause.”
“If you get a position like president you feel like a big shot for about two weeks and then you realize the rest is stress and you better have the vision,” Michalson recalled about the early years of his presidency. “The real enjoyment after that point isn’t feeling like a big shot, the real enjoyment is seeing people work together for a common purpose that you value. Well, your role as leader is to get that sense of common purpose out there.”
One of Michalson’s early hurdles as president was securing the leasehold for the bayside campus from USF-SM. (The Pei campus is on a 99-year lease from the airport that expires in 2063.) The State of Florida owns the land, but the institutions function as stewards. The administration of USF-SM did not think that New College would survive as an independent institution, so they treated New College as an occupant of the bayside campus in their master plan. After a series of unsuccessful negotiations, New College had to instigate legal action to secure the land rights.
“Since I’m basically an amiable person, I think some people tried to take advantage of my good nature, and they forgot that I was smart too,” Michalson said. “Well, it had a successful resolution, but it was very unpleasant and I thought this stuff just didn’t need to happen.”
Another hurdle was the legislative session every spring. Michalson described regular travel to Tallahassee as “a total pain in the ass,” but was pleasantly surprised by the quality of legislative staffers and helpfulness of New College’s lobbyists.
“That was quite an eye opener for me,” Michalson said. “That was something I never would have experienced if I simply been a college professor for my entire career.”
Michalson’s job also entailed frequent collaboration with other Florida university presidents, including an endeavor called “president for the week” where at least one of them would be in Tallahassee at all times during the legislative session.
“Sometimes you had to go up for a whole week to be the presidential face at any committee meeting that had anything to do with State University System business,” Michalson said. “I felt a little goofy being the guy when the business has to do with things for UF and FSU and all the big places, but I did my best.”
Suzanne Janney recounted what happened when then-governor Jeb Bush inquired about New College’s football team at a meeting with the other university presidents.
“Mike said, ‘Still undefeated,’” Janney recalled. “So when he retired as president, [Bush] gave him a football engraved in a glass case with ‘still undefeated’ on it.”
Michalson continued to teach seminars each fall while he was president and he also learned crucial lessons about leadership.
“I learned the importance of in those positions being able to do planning and visioning and communicate that to the community, so people across different constituency lines have a sense of where you’re going, and they don’t get a sense that you’re just throwing patches of spaghetti against the wall and hoping that one of them stays,” Michalson said.
Though the college has experienced many crises through its history—one could say that the only constant at New College is institutional precarity—Michalson said that the type of student and kindness of the faculty have remained constant.
“Just think of the kind of student who is attracted to a small residential place that doesn’t have grades that gives a lot of latitude to how you design your course of study,” Michalson said. “We’re attractive to students who are kind of skeptical about those almost parody-like notions of what it means to be a college student.”
However, groupthink among the students has always been an issue.
“We have this chronic problem on campus of some people thinking they own the New College culture and that there’s really only one way to be a New College person,” Michalson said. “Thinking that is the worst possible way to be a New College person.
In whatever free time he had, Michalson took solace in fishing, spending time with his family and socializing with non-New College people.
“I started limiting the number of times I took out New College related people [on my boat] because they just wanted to talk about business where they’d want to complain, and there we were stuck on my boat,” Michalson said. “I could’ve thrown them overboard but that would have probably end up [looking] bad. So I had other fishing buddies who could have cared less about New College and my wife and I formed good personal friends through our son’s baseball.”
After over a decade of leading the newly independent college, Michalson returned to full-time teaching in 2012.
Urban vibes? Not yet.
Michalson and his wife had planned on moving to the Washington, D.C. area this summer, but they will remain in Sarasota for at least another year.
“We love living in a neighborhood where you walk out the door and you have your choice of restaurants and bars and cafes and museums,” Michalson said. “That’s our goal, but seeking out an urban vibe right now seems a little misguided, so we’re having to reassess that goal.”
He will continue his academic research and writing and has a strong sense of community among the world’s other Kant scholars, but “believe it or not,” he will miss teaching the most.
“I’ll miss the animation, give and take, sense of discovery in the classroom and the moments of humor when I really feel connected to students here,” Michalson said. “I will genuinely miss that and I think I’ve anticipated missing that. So that makes the conclusion of my career being done online especially odd.”
Katie Thurston (’15) recalled a moment during class her third year when she was so stressed out that she got up from class and left to cry in the library. On her way back to collect her belongings, she ran into Michalson himself. She was still distraught but “he just looked at me and smiled and told me to go and do something off campus, for myself,” Thurston recalled.
“When I checked my emails later that day, I had an email from Michalson that I still have saved, asking me to come talk to him if I needed anything and reminding me that I was one of the most capable students he had ever met, in class and out,” Thurston said. “Michalson is an absolute legend, and while I’m happy he gets to retire and play squash full time, New College will miss him. I know I do.”
To read more stories from students past and present about Michalson, click here.