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New College professor explains the controversial online project he leads

Written by on Saturday, March 16, 2024

Faculty voted 25-1 to censure their college administration over the billionaire-led ‘Great Books’ program.

By Florence Fahringer

Original Air Date: Mar. 15, 2024

Host: In January, New College launched a new online program, using content produced by a foundation controlled by billionaire Joe Ricketts. In response, professors voted 25-1 for a resolution criticizing the administration over what they see as the creation of a new academic program with little faculty input. Faculty Trustee Dr. Amy Reid has criticized the launch of the online program this Spring term as precipitated, risking the college’s academic accreditation. One New College professor is not only helping the administration implement the online program, but the administration also appointed him to head a new “Center for the Study of Western Civilization”. Florence Fahringer talked to Professor of History Dr. David Harvey.

Florence Fahringer: Harvey surprised many with his move to collaborate with the new administration earlier this year. This surprise came as an appointment: Harvey had accepted the position of dean of the newly-minted Center for the Study of Western Civilization.

Here’s Harvey elaborating on the purpose of this new facet of the college. 

Dr. David Harvey

David Harvey: The idea was to give this an institutional home, and appoint me to an administrative role that would allow me both the flexibility and the institutional support to build this out. And so I structured it, and I was actually kind of able to craft my own job description for this since it’s a new role, obviously subject to administrative approval. But, the idea is that this would be at least initially primarily focused on the online Great Books program. But the mandate is broad enough that we can include some additional things, too. We could include some speaker series; we could include some visiting fellows; we can include some on-campus programming as well.

FF: With this position came a task: to put together the Ricketts Foundation-sponsored online program in about a month. What Harvey managed to produce instead was a sort of “pilot program.”

DH: So one of the problems with doing a pilot in the Spring is that we really … the timing didn’t allow us to recruit new specifically online students. So the population for those courses wound up being our own on-campus students. The courses that we’re offering are not exactly the same as what we’re going to start offering regularly beginning in the Fall. But, there’s a lot of overlap and more than anything else, it’s just kind of an opportunity for us to see how all of this works, and beta-test some things, and make some modifications.

FF: Harvey was hard-pressed to find professors willing to pitch into the program for the spring semester. Aside from the short notice, many took offense to the way in which the administration went about creating the program, as detailed in a resolution passed by faculty in a 25-1 vote, “the proposed online program at New College did not arise from any vision or strategy to make the College thrive but from a process that lacked transparency, excluded the faculty, and acceded to the conditions of a donation from a self-interested outside party.”

Harvey had a few more details about the origins of the program. 

DH: This grew out of some outreach from a group called Ricketts Great Books College to the New College administration last fall, to develop and offer jointly a community online Bachelor of Arts program in great books. And the Ricketts developers, Ray Revalia and Jeff Scarborough, have put together at least the framework for a curriculum. It’s essentially made up of 32 thematic seminars, each of which has a reading list and a video that they put together as a resource for the course.

FF: As for the team Harvey assembled for the pilot program: One class is taught by a visiting assistant professor of Economics, Andrew Humphries, who Harvey was already familiar with. The other two classes are taught by Jeff Scarborough.

DH: So the other two are being offered by Jeff Scarborough, who is one of the two developers of the Ricketts Curriculum. He has a Ph. D. in Philosophy from University of Pennsylvania, and most of his professional experience has been in the online space. He and Ray, before coming to this, developed the Stanford Online High School Program. For that purpose, he was hired as a visitor. Though, I kind of think of his role, really, as being like a consultant, in that, as one of the people who developed the curriculum, he knows it better than anyone. And he’s sort of here to help us, you know, with our implementation. Right. Getting things up and running. And it’s a little anomalous that he’s a visitor … who’s not actually visiting here. He’s based in Colorado. He’s only teaching online. 

FF: Would he be coming here? 

DH: I don’t think his plans are, but I mean, this could change. And again, I’m not sure. I’m happy to have him have some sort of a continuing affiliation with the college. I don’t know that he necessarily wants to be a full-time faculty member here, because his role is working with the Ricketts organization and curriculum development. 

FF: Next semester’s roster is looking a little more varied. Four courses will be offered: Intro to Classical Humanities, which will be taught by a visiting professor Harvey anticipates coming on board, but who he cannot yet announce; Intro to Classical Philosophy, taught by Scarborough; Medieval Studies, taught by long-time New College Professor Thomas McCarthy, who Harvey described as coming on board as a sort of “personal favor” to Harvey; and Foundations of Math, taught by Humphries and a visiting late-career natural sciences professor, Milo Schield. 

DH: So what we’re going to do is, we will have this Fall our first online entering class. Students can now, as they apply to New College, there is sort of a box to check, you know, in the regular application, that they’re applying to the online program. Now they will, in their first two years, do essentially an online AA, and then they will have the option of continuing their studies online for a BA in Great Books, or coming to New College to finish their education in person, and ending with graduating with essentially a joint concentration that would combine Great Books with any other AOC offered at the college. So there will be some students, presumably, whose personal circumstances don’t allow them to come in residence to Sarasota, and this will still give them the opportunity to get an education. But, my strong preference would be for this to serve as sort of another gateway for students to come into New College and experience the full range of what we have to offer on campus. And so I think this track with students doing online Great Books for two years and then doing two years in residence at New College will really, hopefully give them the best of both worlds.

FF: Though the full launch is anticipated in the fall, some kinks still need to be ironed out. One of the bigger question marks is the border which separates the online program from the broader New College curriculum.

DH: I do think at some point, and we’ll have to see how all of this goes, I can envision a future situation in which we might also be offering on-campus versions of the History of Ideas sequence, you know, that is the eight courses in the first year, and the plan is that any students who complete those eight courses will have a Great Books certificate that they’ll earn through that. So eventually, I would like for on-campus students, even if they’re not doing the full Great Books experience, to have the opportunity to earn the Great Books certificate, and have that as part of their education. Sure. And ideally, if they’re on campus, yeah, I’d like for them to be able to take those courses in person so that they get that experience. 

FF: But it’s unclear if the scholarship would carry through. 

DH: I don’t happen to know that. It may have been decided. 

FF: And, that’s a possibility. That students here could take maybe a small number of courses and that could count towards the New College degree?

DH: They would count towards the … I mean, essentially they count as electives. It’s not going to count towards a specific AOC on campus though. If students were to take the full eight-course sequence, it would count towards a certificate in Great Books.

I mean it’s not impossible that … because these are going to be, you know, sort of good core liberal arts courses. They’re kind of pre-disciplinary is how they’re envisioned, it’s meant to be just sort of a general introduction to the Western tradition, for lack of a better word. I think that individual AOCs could decide to count some courses in their area towards an AOC credit, but that’s not something that we’re mandating. That’s something that … they would make that decision on their own.

FF: Another question mark, more existential to the program — how much control does New College faculty really have over it? Harvey insisted on New College’s final-cut privilege when it came to curriculum, but also acknowledged the program’s financial foundation as out of New College’s control. 

DH: [Vice Provost] Brad Thiessen told me that, you know, the arrangement we have with Ricketts gives us control over the curriculum. We use as much of what they’ve generated as we want, but any changes that we think are necessary, we can make. So the way Joe Ricketts — who is the the founder of this and the primary benefactor — he envisioned a sort of scholarship program by which, it’s sort of performance funding for students, but the idea is that if students are making good progress through the curriculum, the scholarship will refund most of their tuition payment. If they’re in good standing, they’ll get a good part of it reimbursed. And obviously they won’t be paying room and board since they’re not here. So it will be a very good deal for students in terms of low cost. And a lot of this stuff in these courses is pulling from that blueprint that the Ricketts Foundation made. I mean we’re not bound by it, but you know, they’ve put a lot of effort into developing this and, you know, it’s got a lot going for it. So I think it would be foolish of us to think we have to build everything from scratch, when you know, we’ve actually got some good materials here that we can pick and choose from.

FF: As our interview drew to a close, Harvey offered up his point of view on the change of administration. 

DH: Sadly, I think a lot of members of our community just see the gloom and doom here, and I don’t want to deny what a lot of people are feeling, you know, it’s definitely a moment of transition. And some people feel a sense of loss that I understand. On the other hand, I think that there’s a possibility for new beginnings, if we do this right. That’s an important caveat, right? If we do this right, we have the opportunity to get significantly more state support than we’ve had in the past, and you know, we really need that. We’ve got the potential to grow to sort of a broader market. New College has always been a very niche program, in that we serve a fairly narrow slice of the potential student population. I’ve really relished that role, I mean, I’ve enjoyed it, but sadly, it’s sort of a diminishing Market, you know? I think our circumstance has sort of forced us to adapt or potentially disappear, which I certainly don’t want to see. We’re trying to adapt. 

FF: This is Florence Fahringer, reporting for WSLR News. 

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