Geometer Tries a New Angle: Leading a College

Mount Holyoke College

Donal O'Shea
March 25, 2012

New College of Florida, a liberal-arts-and-sciences honors college within the Florida state system, has selected a mathematician as its next president.

Donal B. O'Shea, 59, has been the dean of faculty and vice president for academic affairs at Mount Holyoke College since 1998. He has also enjoyed a reputation as one of the world's best-known geometers.

His arcane specialty, "singularities of high-dimensional manifolds," merges algebra, geometry, calculus, and topology. And—take his word for it—"they're fascinating." Among his field's joys is the famous puzzle he explained in his 2007 book, The Poincaré Conjecture: In Search of the Shape of the Universe, which was translated into 11 languages.

Joanne V. Creighton, a president emeritus of Mount Holyoke, wrote in a recommendation to New College's trustees that Mr. O'Shea had received "the most extraordinary accolades about his creative and energetic leadership." An able fund raiser, he has boosted science education at Mount Holyoke as well as the number of minority students and the representation of women on the faculty.

Born in Canada, Mr. O'Shea studied mathematics at Harvard University and at the graduate level at Queen's University, in Ontario. He took a job in 1980 at Mount Holyoke, the world's oldest women's college, to become less "nerdy," he recalls. As chairman of the math department and, from 1998, the dean of faculty, "I realized I had a passion for liberal-arts colleges and how effectively they educate students."

He takes office at the 850-student New College, in Sarasota, on July 1. Faculty members there seem "to realize that they, like all liberal-arts colleges, need to change a bit" in the way they prepare students for the rapidly transforming "world of work," he says.

But he calls New College, along with so many of the relatively few remaining colleges of its type, "on the side of the angels."