A Mission Statement for New College of Florida

The revitalization of institutions like the New College of Florida (NCF) provides us with an opportunity to step back and consider the purpose of elite colleges—their telos. NCF has provided a draft mission statement. However, outside some welcome references to a classical liberal arts education, it lacks all specifics. There is nothing measurable, no metric by which we might judge whether the college is succeeding or failing. A mission statement without detailed goals is like a ship without a sextant, sailing aimlessly in an ocean of platitudes.

Consider my proposal for a mission statement for NCF, followed by a line-by-line analysis.


Our mission is to be the best college in the world. New College of Florida enrolls the smartest students and educates them toward excellence—Arete—by increasing their odds of getting the future they want and by making them think harder about the future they should want.

Eros: Cultivate lasting love.

Philia: Forge deep friendships.

Techne: Learn skills that others value.

Sophia: Gain wisdom from the Great Works.

New College graduates demonstrate excellence in love and friendship, vocation and wisdom.


Analysis, Line by Line

Our mission is to be the best college in the world.

Ambition is good. Given that NCF is a state institution, it might be reasonable to aim lower and seek to create the best college in Florida or America. But why go through all the trouble of revitalizing NCF if you don’t want to make a dent in the universe? The best college in the world is also an excellent motto, especially in Latin: Optimum collegium in mundo.

New College of Florida enrolls the smartest students and educates them toward excellence—Arete—by increasing their odds of getting the future they want and by making them think harder about the future they should want.

A good mission statement describes that mission in snippets of three different lengths: phrase, sentence, and paragraph. As a phrase, we have the best college in the world. It’s five words that describe our ambitions. As a sentence, we have the above concise summary of NCF’s goals. As a paragraph, we have the entire statement, including more detail than the one-sentence version, but with an overall organization—Arete as manifested in Eros, Philia, Techne, and Sophia, which ties the entire vision together.

We make clear the type of student we seek to attract. We either succeed at this task, or we don’t.  We are failing to accomplish this mission if we aren’t convincing scores of smart students to turn down elite colleges like Williams and Harvard.

We provide measurable goals. Either students are getting better internships and jobs than they would have, or they are not. Either students are thinking harder about the fundamental questions than they would have if they had gone to school elsewhere, or they are not. It is not easy to measure these counterfactuals, of course, but a difficult-to-measure goal is better than one that can’t be measured at all.

Using Greek terms is a bit of an affectation, but doing so helps to tie NCF to a vision that transcends the contemporary. Arete meant something 2,000 years ago. It will mean the same thing 2,000 years from now. An educator from the 1700s would understand—and mostly agree with—every element of this mission. Timeless missions last longer.

“Excellence” is nonpartisan. Nothing in this sentence would upset a democratic governor or legislature—Florida will have both someday. We want NCF to flourish under any political regime.

Arete alone is not enough for a full mission statement. We should specify excellence more precisely. So, at this stage, we switch to addressing—potential and current—students directly.


Eros: Cultivate lasting love.

Almost no college in the world includes love as a goal. And yet, what is more important? Our graduates are much more likely to lead fulfilling lives if they find a partner to share that life with, and the sooner, the better.

One might phrase this more formally, less of an instruction to the individual as a responsibility of the institution. Instead of instructing them to “cultivate,” we could specify what NCF will do, just as in the summary sentence. However, I think that, rhetorically, this framing works better. We want students to take ownership of their education right from the start. We can’t make you a worthy spouse. We can just provide an environment where you can become the person you ought to be.


Philia: Forge deep friendships.

Other than a family, nothing matters more than friends. Of course, friendships develop naturally at every college. But not always and not enough. We don’t provide you with friends. We help you become the sort of person who merits friendship.

I can not find a single elite college whose mission statement mentions the goals of family and friendship. Even “conservative” colleges like Notre Dame and Hillsdale say nothing about these topics. Isn’t that absurd? If you could give any single gift to your child, wouldn’t it be a loving spouse and life-long friendships? What more important task is there for a young person to accomplish between 18 and 22?

If NCF believes that family and friends matter to a life well-livedone of the few matters on which classical authors and people around the world agree—then the mission statement should explicitly mention Eros and Philia.


Techne: Learn skills that others value.

Motto: “No college does more to increase its students’ odds of getting the future they want.” Very few elite colleges make a promise like this, and even fewer make meaningful attempts to make this promise a reality.

It helps to separate Techne from Sophia because the former is outward-directed while the latter points inward. Techne is about learning something that someone else values, a skill that the market rewards via employment. Many college graduates don’t have any of the skills that employers value. They have trouble getting jobs that pay well.

However, the “future” students want is not merely one of career success, as important as that might be. Students come to us wanting success more broadly. They want love and friendship as well as worldly accomplishments. Nothing could be more natural. Yet the central mission of a classical liberal arts education is not just to provide the tools for success in these worthy endeavors; it is to teach wisdom.


Sophia: Gain wisdom from the Great Works.

Motto: “No college does more to lead its students to think harder about the future they should want.” We want students to, week-in-and-week-out, confront the fundamental question: What is the good life? How can I live virtuously? What makes for a just society? One could replace “Works” with “Books” or could add “Western” as an adjective, but I recommend this more ecumenical wording.

Hillsdale interprets classical liberal arts as high school biology, chemistry, and physics. That is, obviously, pathetic. So, the mission statement ought to be more precise. “Great Works” means the greatest works of human civilization. No mission statement can go into much detail. Still, this two-word phrase, especially when used in conjunction with a Greek word like Sophia, makes it clear that NCF will ensure that every student studies the greatest works of politics, philosophy, and art.


New College graduates demonstrate excellence in love and friendship, vocation and wisdom.

First, implicit in the mission statement is that we measure these outcomes. Our incoming first years should be smarter than the students at other schools. Our graduating seniors should be more likely to be engaged, married, and live with or near college friends after graduation. They should have more success in getting the internships and jobs they seek. During college, they should think more often and more deeply, as compared to students at other schools, about how to live an examined life and how to contribute to a just society.

Second, the mission statement begins with the “smartest students,” the ones we seek to enroll. Four years later, they graduate. We want those “graduates” to be prepared to live lives of excellence. We define excellence in terms of love, friendship, vocation, and wisdom. We want them to be better off in terms of these virtues than they would have been had they attended Stanford or Yale instead.

Third, conciseness is a virtue. The mission statement is 80 words. You could shrink it into a single—longish—sentence: New College of Florida enrolls the smartest students and educates them toward excellence—Arete—by increasing their odds of getting the future—Eros, Philia, Techne—they want and by making them think harder—Sophia—about the future they should want.

Or just 13 words: We enroll the smartest students and nurture Arete: Eros, Philia, Techne, and Sophia.

Fourth, the mission statement is a dialogue. It begins with a simple goal we can all agree on: creating the best college in the world. It, then, in a single sentence, makes its core promise to students—this is what we will do for you. Then, in discussing the specific aspects of Arete, the frame switches to that of the individual student—here is what you must do. We conclude with a simple summary of what we will have accomplished together, a statement to the world about who we are.

Photo by Lawrence G. Miller — Flickr


  • David Kane

    David Kane is the former Preceptor in Statistical Methods and Mathematics in the Department of Government at Harvard University.

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One thought on “A Mission Statement for New College of Florida”

  1. I’m curious what the good preceptor would make of these as principles for a mission statement for a small, state-run honors college aiming at attracting intelligent, curious students:

    1. Each student is responsible in the last analysis for his or her own education.
    2. The best education results from the active confrontation of two first class minds. The emphasis here must be on “active” and “first class.” A former president of Fisk University said that to put a second rate teacher into a small class results only in the passing on of mediocrity under conditions of intimacy.
    3. The greater the degree of flexibility, the greater is the likelihood that students will reach the highest levels of which they are capable.
    4. Student progress should be based on demonstrated competence and real mastery rather than on the accumulation of credits and grades. Too often, students are permitted to proceed with only C-minus competence or 75 per cent mastery.
    5. The best liberal education derives from such mastery of a small number of vital ideas, principles, and modes of analysis. Higher education’s stables are urgently in need of a Hercules to clean out the accumulated debris, what Whitehead called “inert ideas.” Since no one can know everything, it is better to teach little but teach that supremely well.
    6. Liberal education requires an appreciation for the unity of knowledge.
    7. Students should have from the very outset opportunities to explore in depth areas which are of interest to them. Some will have a good idea when they enter of what they want to study; others will need a period of exploration. Basic to this assumption is opportunity.

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