In Search Of Community – An Open Letter To New College Students

SUBMITTED BU MARK A. JOHNSON, INTERIM DEAN OF STUDENTS

Dear Students,

Having served in multiple roles during three different stints at New College over much of the past 30 years, I’ve engaged in many conversations about community at New College.  Numerous conversations with students, faculty, alumnae/i, staff, prospective students and their parents, high school counselors, colleagues at other colleges and members of the greater Sarasota community, have only reinforced my belief that simply and accurately capturing the essence of the New College community is no simple task. In 1990, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching published a book:  Campus Life:  In Search of Community.  The book featured Ernest Boyer’s six principles of community:

  1. Educationally purposeful – a place where faculty and students share academic goals and strengthen teaching and learning on campus.
  2. Open – a place where free speech is protected and civility is powerfully affirmed.
  3. Just – a place where the sacredness of each person is honored and where diversity is aggressively pursued.
  4. Disciplined – a place where individuals accept their obligations to the group and where well defined governance procedure guide behavior for the common good.
  5. Caring – a place where the well being of each member is sensitively supported and where service to others is encouraged.
  6. Celebrative – a place where the heritage of the institution is remembered and where rituals affirming tradition and change are shared.

When I first read the book a quarter century ago, I recall thinking to myself “why can’t New College be that community?”  But building community at New College has never seemed easy. I probably should not expect it to be.  Developing and nurturing a culture that resembles Boyer’s community is hard work.  Serious communitydevelopment requires community members to act responsibly and even courageously at times. Speaking up when others are being silenced and holding all members accountable for their actions requires a major commitment.  One may be comfortable advocating for civility, but standing up and challenging incivility requires an even greater commitment. The freedom that is so valued at New College, is sadly compromised whenever community members fail to take their responsibilities seriously.  An individual’s obligation to the group can’t be ignored for long without diminishing the fabric of the community.

Today, having recently returned to the community as the interim Dean of Student Affairs, I’ve come to realize that the search for community is a never- ending process. It is a personalized endeavor. Upon reflection, I know that I have experienced a New College that has demonstrated the capacity to be that community suggested by Boyer.  Yet that special feeling of a strong community that I envision, has too often been frustratingly elusive. Clearly, never-ending processes promise to be exhausting.  But the pursuit is too important to abandon.

Few other institutions offer the tremendous freedom and opportunities available at New College.  While individual freedom is regularly touted at New College, (we promote the credo “in the final analysis, each student is responsible for their own education”), that freedom should not be at the expense of the greater community.  Acommunity of bright, motivated, and unique individuals offers such potential.  I encourage every member of this community to vigorously pursue that potential to help build an even stronger New College of Florida.  Throughout my tenure, I’ll look forward to working with you and contributing toward that end.

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