The distinctive square brackets of the New College mascot Null Set appear on signs at a protest against the appointment of new trustees by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday, Jan 31, 2023, in Sarasota. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The “null set” means quite literally nothing. But over the past 25 years the abstract mathematical concept, denoted by two empty brackets, has been imbued with meaning for the students of New College of Florida, the Sarasota public university at the center of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ push to change higher education in Florida.

Serving as the school’s subversive mascot, the Null Set started as an oversight that became an in-joke among the bookish liberal arts students. More recently, it’s served as a symbol of opposition to a new administration. The two square brackets have appeared on T-shirts, protest signs and even inked into the skin of New College students and alums.

That changed Thursday, when the school’s board of trustees voted to replace the mascot with the Mighty Banyan, a flexing cartoon tree based on a design by first-year student Anna Lazzara. The banyan “encapsulated the spirit of New College,” Lazzara told the trustees, while still maintaining the square brackets of the null set as the tree’s furrowed eyebrows.

The updated mascot coincides with Interim President Richard Corcoran’s push to make the school a destination for athletics-minded students. At Thursday’s meeting, Corcoran emphasized that aggressive recruiting of athletes to New College would “almost certainly” lead to record enrollment come fall.

In March, the school hired an athletic director and announced its plan to launch an intercollegiate sports program, starting 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 survey was taken down early after community backlash over options that included Conquistadors and Rebels.

In May, the school announced it was planning to roll out 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 overseeing small college athletics, to reject the school’s application for membership.

“We’re not against athletics,” said Mike Sanderson, an alum who started the petition. “But like everything else the administration is doing, they’re bulldozing changes with no transparency and little planning and thought.”

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 the students, and that just did not happen,” she said.

The now-beloved emblem of the school’s oddball sense of humor started by accident. The Null Set dates to 1997, when the school’s student alliance updated its constitution, according to The Catalyst, New College’s student-run newspaper.

The organization was responsible for deciding on a mascot, but when the committee couldn’t agree upon an idea, they left a placeholder: “[ ]”.

“The decision was made to put empty brackets there until such time as a new mascot were chosen, because nobody knew any other way to accurately reflect the amendment’s effect in print,” said alumnus Matthew Grieco, explaining the name’s origins on a now-removed New College website.

Since then, students adopted the nickname as “an intentional and ironic wink at their bookish nature and lack of competitive (sports) teams,” the site said.

Pushback against the mascot from school administrators is nothing new. It was “not especially loved by all,” New College professor David Rohrbacher told The Catalyst in 2019 when he led a drive to design a physical costume for the school. That plan fell apart when the school’s costume designer left. And without support from the New College marketing team, the idea languished.

“Still, I think it’s a really good idea, maybe now more than ever,” Rohrbacher said in a recent interview with The Catalyst. “It’ll always be the mascot to me, to alums, to people who value the tradition of the school.”

Ian Hodgson is an education data reporter at the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

Education data reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.