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Bob Kerrey's Ivory-Tower War

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Riot of Their Own A banner in the New School dining hall during the occupation last December.  

But the problems with the New School aren’t only financial. They are also existential. The University in Exile served a purpose, absorbing academics that couldn’t be absorbed elsewhere, who in turn offered their distinct brand of radical thought. Today, Jewish intellectuals can find employment wherever they like. There are still departments of the former University in Exile that are highly regarded, like psychology and philosophy. But the NSSR doesn’t define the school in the way that it once did. The place needs to redefine itself, to find the next frontier. It’s a tall order. Though as Leon Botstein, the polymath president of Bard College, points out, it’s not an insurmountable one. “The advantage the New School has,” he says, “is that it’s not hamstrung by its overwhelming prestige and success.”

In some ways, Kerrey, 65, seemed like the right guy to revitalize the New School when he took over in 2001. In Congress, where he served as a Democratic senator from Nebraska for two terms, he had a reputation for being more charming than most senators, and far funnier, and possessed of a much lower threshold for fakery (he once called Clinton “an unusually good liar”). One sensed he didn’t have quite as much invested in politics, because he’d seen much worse horrors, having lost the lower part of his right leg in the Vietnam War. He spoke with fluency and confidence about policy matters. As a former businessman, presidential candidate (he ran in the 1992 primaries), and head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, he was well connected to the worlds of finance and real estate. He seemed to have the idiosyncratic sensibility to pull the place together—his hometown paper called him “Cosmic Bob” for his far-out ideas—and there was no doubt he’d draw publicity, given the glamorous company he keeps and his facility for repartee. In his single days, he dated Debra Winger, whom he met when he was Nebraska governor and she came to Lincoln to film Terms of Endearment. Kerrey managed to silence all press speculation about their relationship with just ten words: “What can I say? She swept me off my foot.”

But there were ways in which Kerrey was a nonobvious and risky choice. He was not, for instance, an academic himself. He was also a bit of a flake and preternaturally restless, always looking for the next thing. During his tenure at the New School, he’s contemplated both rerunning for a Nebraska Senate seat and throwing in his name for New York City mayor. How attentive can a man be to his day job if he’s still got an oar in the political waters? “I had to seriously look at the Nebraska Senate seat,” he says when I ask about this. “I don’t apologize for that.”

Fine, I say. And mayor of New York? “I do apologize for that,” he says, smiling. “That was dumb.”

Perhaps more than anyone, Jim Miller has been the public face of the New School faculty’s discontents. As a professor of political science and co-chairman of the faculty senate, he’s got a keen understanding of university Byzantium. Talk to him for five seconds, and you get the professors’ concerns in a nub. “Bob gets what’s fucked up about the New School,” he says, “but he doesn’t get what’s special about it, its special anarchy and founding moments. He just sees it as an economic puzzle to be solved.”

Miller and I are sitting in a café, and he’s trying to prepare me for my first meeting with Kerrey. “One way to look at this, which Bob may try to spin,” he says, “is that this is about the conservative, stubborn faculty trying to sandbag crisp new attempts at efficiencies and synergies.” He bears an unnerving resemblance to Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, a fact that may be explained by his old life as a rock critic for Newsweek and Rolling Stone. “But our university is not one size fits all,” he says. “You have these bozos telling us that admissions should be centralized. Or advising. Which was really bananas … ”

From the very beginning of Kerrey’s tenure, the New School faculty have complained that he has privileged business over scholarship, especially those who teach at the NSSR. The school has always cost more than it’s generated in income. A former NSSR dean, Kenneth Prewitt, tells me he became so self-conscious about his role as the head of a money-losing operation—“it was as if Bob wanted to stamp a big D on my forehead, for deficit problem”—that he eventually drafted a proposal to sell the division to Bard. (Kerrey didn’t want to go that far.) Prewitt quit in March 2002, after Kerrey proposed cash bonuses to deans who increased their enrollments by a certain percentage, an idea Prewitt found totally distasteful. “The funny thing is, I found myself in agreement with Bob 70 or 80 percent of the time, including on political matters,” says Prewitt, now a professor of public policy at Columbia. “But when he got university matters wrong, he got them so wrong I didn’t quite know what to do.”


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