Money as Dream, Money as Nightmare.

New College was a long-time member of the Briarpatch Network and received the benefit of many consulting sessions with the consulting team and other Briar members. This essay is a summary of that experience from the point of view of Briarpatch Coordinator Claude Whitmyer.

What lessons can be learned by looking at the failure, after nearly forty years, of a promising counter-culture alternative to traditional college while doing so through the lens of the Seven Laws of Money, a book that has been called “the bible for counter-culture business”?


Founded in 1971 by Franciscan Father John Leary, former president of Gonzaga University, New College of California initially offered an alternative to traditional law schools. Soon it added an undergraduate humanities degree as a feeder to the law school.

Accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges from 1976 until 2008 New College expanded its offerings to include undergraduate degrees in humanities, math, poetics, writing,  consciousness, and media studies, as well as master-level degrees in poetics and psychology.

Outstanding Accomplishments

Arguably, the good that New College brought into the world far exceeds the suffering it may have caused. There are far too many examples to include without a book-length treatise. Here are just a few:

The Law

New College was first and foremost an alternative to traditional Law School. The law school offered undergraduate and graduate law degrees with daytime, nighttime, and weekend classes. Hundreds of practicing attorneys owe their initial credentials to the New College Law School.

Masters in Poetics

Founded by poet, Duncan McNaughton, this program was experimental and the first accredited program in the U.S. to attempt the integration of interpretation, historical study, writing, and performance in a single degree program.

Its founding faculty included well-known West Coast writers such as Tom Clark, Lyn Hejinian, David Meltzer, and Robert Duncan.

Its first graduate, Aaron Shurin, is a great example of the impact the program may have had. After graduating with his M.A. in 1982, Shurin taught at many schools in the Bay Area, including City College of San Francisco, New College of California, San Francisco State University (where he was associate director of the renowned Poetry Center from 1991 to 1995), Sonoma State University, and the University of San Francisco (where he was co-director of the Master of Fine Arts in Writing program). Along the way, he received grants from the California Arts Council, the Wallace A. Gerbode Foundation Fund for Poetry, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1998 he received the Bay Area Art Award in literature from New Langton Arts.

Computers and Computer Skills

New College was an early adopter of computers and provided training to faculty and staff every step of the way.

A computer resource and training center was created that offered training in both academic uses of computers and job skills training in both English and Spanish.

Other Notable Examples

Along the way, New College also assembled a media broadcast studio; a program in “Culture, Ecology, and Sustainable Business;” and an “Institute for Experimental Performance.”

Degree Completion and English as a Second Language

New College was also well known for its Weekend Bachelors Completion Program, among the first in the nation. Many adults who had left college before completing an undergraduate degree could finally complete their Bachelor’s degree on weekends.

New College was equally well known for its courses in English as a Second Language (ESL). Foreign students provisionally accepted by local universities such as Stanford or UC Berkeley would enroll in the New College ESL program to bring up their TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores and gain final admission.

It’s easy to see how much value New College brought to the community and to learners.

The New College Sunset and the Laws of Money

Eventually, the shadow side of the New College experiment had its day.

New College was on a weak financial footing from its inception. There was never enough money to do any of the many things decision-makers went ahead with.

One might expect an experimental school like New College to be all about democracy and consensus-building. Of course, plenty of lip service was paid and a few actual efforts were made to implement these ideals. However, authentic consensus building takes time, and managing the exigencies of being underfunded can make it seem like there just isn’t the time available.

To “make ends meet” and “save the day” there is always a temptation to improvise last-minute solutions, rob Peter to pay Paul, or get into other hinky relationships with the dynamics of cash flow.

Key decision-makers at the College made the mistake of evolving an autocratic style of governance that favored improvisation and rapid decision-making over consensus and fiscal common sense.

Regardless, they were able to keep the school accredited and expand programming, keeping New College open most of the time and granting degrees for nearly 40 years.

In the end, the goddess of democracy demanded her due, faculty and students, rightfully but naively, organized into a power base, forced a review by the accrediting agency, and insisted on the ouster of the leading autocratic improvisers.

Once these administrators were out of power, those who remained hadn’t the ability, perseverance, or, perhaps, even the desire to solve these nearly 40-year-old cash-flow problems. New College experienced a quick and inevitable financial collapse. As a degree-granting college, they were gone by June of 2008.

In the final analysis, New College had floated along for nearly 4 decades by applying the first law of money:

The First Law of Money

“Do it! Money will come when you are doing the right thing.”

The thing they were doing was seemingly right enough as the money did come. But there was never enough and it was never on time. So maybe they weren’t quite “right” enough. In the end, the institution collapsed less from insufficient funds than from too much reliance on the third law of money:

The Third Law of Money.

“Money is a dream: a fantasy as alluring as the pied piper.”

New College also suffered from insufficient application of the second law:

The Second Law of Money

“Money has its own rules: records, budgets, saving, borrowing.”

The financial statements were held close to the vest, but when shared with knowledgeable advisors it was repeatedly clear that administrative costs were proportionally too high for a school of this size and kind. The greatest potential for cost-cutting was in the record-keeping and administrative side.

Evidence is often ignored if it threatens one’s livelihood. The top decision-makers couldn’t get behind a significant cut in admin expenses, so it remained a cost center that was never in alignment with the rest of the school—and a cost center that also couldn’t be directly tied to revenue generation. 

The institute’s leaders also chose to not practice “open books” which is key to the survival of small, experimental projects like New College. Keeping the fiscal challenges hidden meant fewer options coming forward to help solve the dilemma. In the end, it also meant that the power base formed by faculty and staff wasn’t sufficiently aware that the situation was so bad their demand for justice would lose them all their jobs.

In the end, the entire community was caught up in a clear-cut case of manifesting the fourth law of money:

The Fourth Law of Money

“Money is a nightmare.”

When one’s aspirations for money and one’s success in accumulating it are radically different it can lead one into many nightmare possibilities.

Luckily, the New College situation did not lead anyone into the nightmare of jail—at least, not yet.

The sudden death of a 30-plus-year-old institution doing powerful good in the world is plenty nightmare enough. There are ramifications for all those involved.

  • Faculty and alumni suffer embarrassment by association.

  • Former board members and administrators must go the rest of their lives wondering if they could have done more.

  • The local community loses an anchor of learning, a social center, and an environment conducive to self-exploration.

That’s more than enough nightmare without adding jail into the mix. In a scenario like this, jail would mostly be a way to create a scapegoat for the failure of the organic system that was New College.