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Bob Kerrey's Ivory-Tower War

The New School president lost his lower leg in Vietnam, fought countless battles in the Senate, even ran for president. But nothing prepared him for the insurrection he now faces.

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One could argue that Bob Kerrey had experienced far worse in his life than the eloquent earfuls he got on the morning of December 16. But the meeting, convened by the former senator on short notice in the New School’s Tishman auditorium, still could not have been easy. Just days before, 94 percent of the full-time faculty had given Kerrey a vote of no confidence. About ten students, all with duct tape over their mouths, had plunked themselves down in the second row and refused to leave. (Two days later, an even larger group would occupy a dining hall for more than 30 hours.) The proceedings themselves were mostly civilized, with faculty standing patiently in the aisles and waiting their turns at the microphones, but there were over 200 of them, and few on his side. Arien Mack, editor of Social Research, told Kerrey he was destroying the university to which she’d dedicated her life; Robert Polito, director of the writing program, told him the fall semester was “the most institutionally difficult, troubling, and simply worst” that many of his colleagues had ever experienced. When the Town Hall concluded, the philosopher Richard Bernstein took the microphone. “There’s been much discussion today about what a no-confidence vote means, Bob,” he told Kerrey. “I’ll tell you what it means. It means the most important thing it can mean at a university. It means you’ve lost the trust of your faculty.”

Weeks later, as I sit down with Kerrey to discuss this vote, he repeats to me, with heartfelt sincerity, what he told his faculty: Yes, he recognizes there are problems with his leadership, particularly his habit of tearing through provosts like popcorn, and he’s working on them. But he also sounds annoyed—and suspicious of, rather than chastened by, the near unanimity of the vote. “There’s tremendous peer pressure,” he says. “It’s impossible not to have significant minorities of the faculty saying, ‘All in all, it hasn’t been bad—pay’s gone up, we got tenure, there’s more of us, we’ve got a faculty senate, we’ve got a student senate, he answers our e-mail … ’ ”

All of which, in fact, is true. “One of the most eloquent persons speaking in that meeting was a woman who’d been here for two weeks,” Kerrey continues. “Two weeks.” A note of exasperation creeps into his voice. “Except for the fact that I was taking the blows, I’d have said to her, ‘What do you know about me? How is it possible that the turnover in the provost’s office has produced problems for you? How?’ ”

When Bob Kerrey took over the New School in 2001, the place was so lacking in structural coherence it’s a wonder the Army Corps of Engineers hadn’t been called in to join him. The university was positively Frankensteinian in nature, an awkward body of seemingly random parts. It consisted of eight separate schools, the most locally well known of which was the New School for General Studies, which includes the continuing-education program, offering night courses in everything from Mandarin to the science of farming. Few seemed to realize that Parsons, the design school since made famous by Project Runway, was a part of its solar system, as were three separate conservatories for classical music, jazz, and acting. Eugene Lang College, its undergraduate program, had little national reputation. Neither did the Robert J. Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy. Only the New School for Social Research, its graduate division with a storied history of sheltering Jewish intellectuals during the thirties and forties—Erich Fromm, Leo Strauss, and Hannah Arendt among them—had a national profile, but it seemed to function in a hoary universe of its own.

And in some ways, this was the challenge facing Kerrey when he arrived, and it’s one he still faces today. As he likes to say, the New School was developed bass-ackward, with the New School for Social Research—once known as the University in Exile—at its heart. Most universities start with undergraduate programs, which, through tuition, subsidize those graduate divisions—no university ever got rich off the study of Hegel alone. But Lang, the undergraduate college at the New School, was minuscule in 2001, with just 662 students. The university has never had a strong tradition of alumni giving; even today, eight years into Kerrey’s tenure, the endowment is a mere $169 million. (In late September 2008, NYU’s was still $2.5 billion.) It’s subsidized mostly by Parsons, a sensation since Project Runway, whose students number more than 4,200, and whose professors work in cramped quarters for little pay. “At the moment,” says Jay Bernstein, another highly regarded philosopher at the NSSR, “we’re living off a TV program.”


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