Posted by: ntrpadmin on Apr 17, 2012
That attitude may explain one of the lingering questions about O'Shea's recent appointment as the fifth president at New College: Why would a top liberal arts college known for creativity and free-thinking, where graduates dress in period costumes and strange get-ups as they matriculate, choose a math man to lead it into an exciting yet uncertain future?
Yet those who know O'Shea and his career arc say he is a perfect fit for New College, where he takes over on July 1. Not only is he a brilliant academic, many say, but he is as adept at discussing higher education funding and charming college benefactors and trustees as he is at working complicated mathematical equations.
Joanne Creighton, former president at Mount Holyoke College, where O'Shea is leaving to come to Sarasota, said he possesses a combination of passion, warmth, enthusiasm and brilliance that wins people over.
"Sometimes he's so bubbling over with ideas, he starts many sentences and doesn't finish them, but he has a charm in that process," Creighton said.
Plus, O'Shea, 59, has a look that should mesh well with the relaxed campus on North Tamiami Trail in Sarasota.
His bald pate nested in the center of a fluff of unruly white hair is reminiscent of the eccentric but intelligent "Doc" Emmett Brown from the "Back to the Future" movies.
The internationally renowned mathematician admits he is "clothing challenged," not noticing if his shoes are scuffed and sometimes forgetting when he needs to wear a jacket and tie.
But the leadership style of the Canadian-born academic is likely to usher in major changes at New College, with O'Shea keen to grow enrollment and possibly add traditional classes to the school whose hallmark of no grades or prerequisite classes has made it a mecca for wildly independent students.
While some, including Gov. Rick Scott, have questioned the relevance of some liberal arts degrees, O'Shea is passionate about the education that colleges like New College offer, arguing that the creativity they inspire produces not only academics but entrepreneurs and CEOs.
"It would be a terrible tragedy if that was to disappear; it would hurt the United States very badly," O'Shea said. "New College is very central to that."
The son of working-class Irish immigrants, O'Shea was born in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada.
Neither his father, who worked in a department store, nor his mother, a seamstress, attended university but they both revered education.
O'Shea fell in love with math and science at an early age, a focus so intense his father worried he was ignoring other subjects.
An outstanding student, he was fast-tracked through several grade levels, eventually ending up in 10th grade at age 10.
"I was the only one in the school who hadn't hit puberty," he said. "It was miserable."
But his academic prowess earned him a transfer to Calasanctius Preparatory School in Buffalo, N.Y., a school for gifted students, where he excelled.
After graduating with many advanced-placement and honors classes, O'Shea was accepted to Harvard in 1970, where he earned a degree in math.
In an era of student protests over American military involvement in Vietnam, Harvard was not the vibrant, free-thinking ferment of ideas O'Shea expected. The school was mostly populated with pre-med and pre-law students.
"There were fewer free spirits," he said. "I liked it more in retrospect."
He found the college environment he was seeking at Queens University in Canada, where he earned master's and doctorate degrees.
Unlike at Harvard, he could devote himself solely to math, and he fell in love with teaching.
"If I hadn't gotten around to having a couple of children, I might never have graduated," he said. "It was an idyllic existence."
Finding a way
His first job was teaching math at Mount Holyoke College, a prestigious, private liberal arts school for women in South Hadley, Mass.
His academic adviser warned him about the move: "You're going to work with a bunch of women; you'll sink without a trace."
Instead, O'Shea prospered.
O'Shea joined a "somewhat sleepy" Mount Holyoke math department in 1980 and soon the department was hosting seminars that attracted faculty from other colleges. It boosted research and attracted more grants.
Progress was not always easy. His request in the early 1980s for the college to buy computers for math faculty was denied by then Dean of Faculty Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning academic who still writes with a fountain pen.
O'Shea, who was not even a department chair at the time, found funding elsewhere, and soon the math department was the only one at the school with computers.
"He doesn't ever believe that something is impossible to do," said Penny Gill, a politics professor and former dean of the college who worked with O'Shea for about 25 years. "Instead of having a fight, he went out and raised money — he is brilliant at finding money."
By 1993, O'Shea was department chair, helping to secure more than $1 million in endowments, mainly for undergraduate research.
He remained a scholar, publishing several books on math, including in 2007 "The Poincaré Conjecture: In Search of the Shape of the Universe," which was translated into 11 languages. His work exploring Singularity Theory earned him invitations to speak around the world.
He has translated more than 130 Russian-language mathematics articles into English and conducted research into mathematical analysis of MRI medical images. Yet, he remains extremely approachable.
"He's the smartest man I have ever known by leagues," Gill said. "You would never know that talking to him. He wears it all so lightly; he wears that upward mobility lightly."
The faculty champion
In 1998, O'Shea moved over to what academics jokingly call the "dark side," becoming Mount Holyoke Dean of Faculty, the college's second-highest administrative post.
The application process included a presentation to about 100 faculty members. O'Shea arrived for his presentation straight from a trip to Hawaii without a jacket or tie and had to borrow clothes from a colleague.
Shortly after, a computer science professor gave him two jackets worn by his flamboyant uncle — one had green stripes, another was white with big pink flowers.
"They were the ugliest things you could imagine," said O'Shea, who modeled them at his first meeting as dean. "I think it won me an exemption from wearing a jacket and tie."
O'Shea as dean managed more than half of the college's $110 million budget. He increased diversity among the faculty and helped the college earn more funding from the National Science Foundation over the past decade than any other American liberal arts college. It was his idea to start an international collaboration of women's colleges.
His protection of faculty earned him loyalty, and he served an unusually long tenure of 14 years in that post.
At meetings, O'Shea would report in an entertaining style on the work that faculty members were doing, regularly astonishing his colleagues. Not only had he read every academic publication and paper produced from the college's 40 departments, but he could discuss their merit in depth, even when some of the papers were written in Russian or other European languages.
"He's like a football coach for the faculty and main cheerleader," Gill said. "Sometimes people would clap; they were such performances and totally off the cuff."
A new challenge
O'Shea succeeds Gordon E. "Mike" Michalson Jr., who has served as president of New College since 2001. Michalson is returning to full-time teaching.
College presidents have the challenging role of working with one foot in the world of academia and one in the realm of lawmakers, college donors and trustees.
Colleagues of O'Shea say he will thrive in both worlds.
Gill said it is not unusual to see O'Shea hobnobbing with college trustees and moments later falling deep into conversation with a member of the cleaning staff.
O'Shea, who stands just 5-foot-4, is an opera buff who said he and Mary, his wife of 33 years, are excited to move to a community with a vibrant arts scene. The couple's four children are all grown.
At New College, he wants to grow the school above its 825 enrollment, and possibly join with other universities to offer some post-graduate classes.
He also said the school that has produced top rankings in national magazines and more than 60 Fulbright Scholars can gain even more national recognition.
With the state still struggling to emerge from the Great Recession, he said colleges including New College will need to do more to find other funding sources.
"Every state institution needs to be a little more independent," he said. "It's not clear the money is going to come back."
Here's a quick look at Donal O'Shea, who on July 1 becomes New College of Florida's fifth president.
Born: St. John, New Brunswick, Canada
Education: Bachelor's degree in math from Harvard; master's and Ph.D at Queen's University, Canada
Published books: Calculus in Context; Ideals, Varieties and Algorithms; The Poincaré Conjecture: In Search of the Shape of the Universe
Awards: Queen Elizabeth II Dissertation Fellowship 1978, NSERC Postdoctoral Research Fellowship 1981 (declined) and 1983-85, Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship 1986-87, Council of Independent Colleges CAO Service Award 2007, Peano Prize 2008
Family: Married to Mary for 33 years; four children
Hobbies: Opera, cooking, trying exotic food
Original article published April 16, 2012, by Sarasota Herald Tribune (www.heraldtribune.com).