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Bob Kerrey's Ivory-Tower War

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Students stayed in the dining hall for 30 hours during the occupation last December, leaving after Kerrey agreed to some of their demands.  

Kerrey has had a lot of ideas about how to increase the New School’s solvency and raise its profile, some nuttier than others. (“He has an idea a minute, which can be frustrating, because they’re half-baked,” says one trustee, who declined to speak for the record.) But one idea the board liked was to replace the somber NSSR building at 65 Fifth Avenue with a splashy signature building. Unfortunately, even that caused its own mini-scandal, with the renowned architect Frank Gehry publicly complaining that Kerrey had offered him the commission at a dinner in 2004, then withdrawn it. (“I don’t know what Frank Gehry was smoking, oh my God,” Kerrey later tells me. “There were like 100 witnesses at that dinner.”) Nor were the faculty especially thrilled with the idea of a new structure: That’s what Kerrey wants to do with the New School’s money? Invest in a building, rather than professors and student aid? “What I’m laying out to you is a saga of monumental academic mismanagement,” declares Miller. “You can’t have coherent academic planning when the financial side is driving itself into a ditch. In an academic sense, it’s analogous to what Bush has done to America.”

As a rule, Kerrey doesn’t have a lot of patience for Bush analogies, and he didn’t appear to have a lot of patience for questions about the building, either. The NSSR faculty was asked to pack up its offices and move to new quarters. More important, he pressed on with his plan to keep expanding the university—the number of students at Lang has already doubled since Kerrey’s arrival, to 1,347, and the Parsons student body has already grown by almost 60 percent—so that the building might be paid for, along with the university’s other money-losing operations. Professors would likely have to teach more classes, and larger classes, probably for no extra money. Yet most faculty say they would have been fine with all of Kerrey’s proposals (and then some) if he’d done one simple thing: Consult them. “He saw us as employees,” says Prewitt. “And senior faculty don’t think of themselves as employees of the president.”

“Bob gets what’s messed up about the New School, but he doesn’t get what’s special about it,” says a professor.“He just sees it as an economic puzzle to be solved.”

At most universities, whenever major academic adjustments, like the ones Kerrey is proposing, are in the offing, the provost, or chief academic officer, spends hours talking to deans and professors, trying to figure out what they need. But the New School has never been a traditional university with a traditional provost’s office, and Kerrey, the faculty complain, wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to empower a provost even if it were, because he’s a business guy at heart. Under Kerrey, power has mainly been exercised by a closed loop of New School administrators. They give orders, and faculty are expected to follow. And to faculty, the guy with the most academic power—including the power to help decide who gets hired and fired, and how to manage enrollments—is a fellow named Jim Murtha, the executive vice-president. In conversation with professors, he tends to earn comparisons to either Iago or Dick Cheney. (“Even I’ll admit Jim’s very difficult,” says Douglas Durst, a trustee and the real-estate developer in charge of the new building. “But everyone I deal with on the private side in that role is difficult. They have to be.”)

So in December, when Kerrey announced that his fifth provost, the much-beloved Joseph Westphal, had resigned, and gave a dubious explanation, the faculty flew into revolt. “He doesn’t realize that the provost is the symbol of the academic community and its values,” says Jay Bernstein. “And that’s why the whole series of firings, no matter how justified any single one of them might have been, felt like an assault on the heart of our academic life together.”

“If you asked 100 people what the No. 1 problem is in higher education today,” says Kerrey, “my guess is that 80 would say, ‘The costs are going up at a higher rate than the rate of inflation.’ ” Miller was right. Kerrey is talking about synergies and efficiencies. In fact, he’s talking with gleeful, provocative enthusiasm about synergies and efficiencies. “But in higher education, you can’t talk about productivity,” he continues. “You’re not allowed to have metrics. It’s anathema.” He mentions that tuition will go up 4 percent this year. “And we’re at the lower end of the scale! And there’s still going to be a ten-point margin between our rate increase and the standard of living in our customers.”

These are sympathetic, reasonable points. But he’s just referred to his students as “customers.”

“So, to steal a health-care phrase, I want the New School to start organizing high-quality affordable higher education,” Kerrey says. “And the only way your prices can stay below the rate of inflation is for productivity to go up.” Which means his faculty will have to teach more and bigger classes. “Go talk to the University of Phoenix!” he tells me excitedly. “They have metrics. I’m not talking about transforming the New School in that fashion, but … ”


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