The “null set” means literally nothing. But over the past 25 years, the abstract mathematical concept, indicated by two empty brackets, has been imbued with meaning for students at New College of Florida, the Sarasota public university at the center of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ drive to reform education. top in Florida.
Serving as the school’s subversive mascot, the Null Set began as an oversight that became an inside joke among bookish liberal arts students. More recently, it has served as a symbol of opposition to a new administration. The two brackets have appeared on T-shirts, protest posters, and even on the skin of New College students and alumni.
That changed Thursday, when the school’s board of trustees voted to replace the mascot with the “Mighty Banyan,” a bendable cartoon tree based on a design by freshman Anna Lazzara. The banyan tree “encapsulated the spirit of New College,” Lazzara told the trustees, as she still held the null-set brackets like the tree’s furrowed brows.
The updated mascot coincides with Interim President Richard Corcoran’s push to make the school a destination for students interested in athletics. At Thursday’s meeting, Corcoran stressed that New College’s aggressive recruiting of athletes would “almost certainly” lead to record fall enrollment.
In March, the school hired an athletic director and announced its plan to launch an intercollegiate sports program, beginning with a baseball team. Weeks later, school officials announced that “New College is looking for a new mascot” to replace the Null Set and released a survey with suggested alternatives. The poll was removed early after community backlash over options that included “Pathfinders” and “Rebels”.
In May, the school announced that it planned to field five more teams, including softball, men’s and women’s basketball, and men’s and women’s soccer, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported.
Students, alumni and parents have started an online petition asking the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the organization that oversees small college athletics, to deny the school’s membership application.
“We are not against athletics,” said Mike Sanderson, a student who started the petition. “But like everything else the administration is doing, they are sweeping through changes with no transparency and little planning and thinking.”
That sentiment was echoed Thursday by trustee Grace Keenan, the student representative on the board. “This could have been a really fantastic opportunity for the trustees, for our interim president, to build relationships with students, and it just didn’t happen,” she said.
The now beloved emblem of the school’s wacky sense of humor began by accident. The Null Set dates from 1997, when the school’s student alliance updated its constitution, according to The Catalyst, New College’s student-run newspaper.
The organization was tasked with deciding on a mascot, but when the committee couldn’t agree on an idea, it left a placeholder: “[ ]”.
“The decision was made to put empty brackets in there until a new mascot was chosen, because no one knew of any other way to accurately reflect the effect of the amendment in print,” said alumnus Matthew Grieco, explaining the origins of the name in a name now removed. New College website.
The nickname has since been adopted by students as “an intentional and ironic nod to their bookish nature and lack of competitive (sports) teams,” the site said.
Pushback against pets by school administrators is nothing new. “It wasn’t especially liked by everyone,” New College professor David Rohrbacher told The Catalyst in 2019 when he led a campaign to design a physical costume for the school. That plan fell apart when the school’s costume designer left. And without the support of the New College marketing team, the idea languished.
“Still, I think it’s a very good idea, maybe now more than ever,” Rohrbacher said in a recent interview with The Catalyst. “He will always be the mascot for me, for the students, for the people who value the tradition of the school.”
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