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Bob Kerrey's Ivory-Tower War

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The Man Security guards escort Kerrey away from the school at the height of the protest.  

Good, I interrupt. You’d have an even bigger revolt on your hands. The University of Phoenix is an online diploma mill.

“Yeah, well.” He throws up his hands. “At the moment, in terms of performance, they’re eating our lunch.”

Talk to the trustees of the New School, and they’ll tell you that some of the complaints Kerrey’s fending off are silly. Like charges that the financial health of the New School is poor, for instance: It’s quite good, in strange part because the board includes a number of World War II refugees who were wary of risky stock investments. Or that the new building is disastrously irresponsible: Yes, Kerrey may be handling it like a clod, and the recession timing may be unfortunate, but a new building, per se, is not a dumb idea. “As a person who’s lived in the Village for twenty years,” says Michael Fuchs, a trustee and former CEO of HBO, “I wasn’t even aware of the ingredients of the New School until I was invited on the board. It certainly needed some unification, both geographically and otherwise.”

Kerrey may also talk with perverse delight about the wonders of the University of Phoenix, but he understands perfectly well that most universities are not, in fact, businesses like G.E. “I have come to terms, comfortably, with what my central responsibility is,” he says, “which is to create an environment where there is a separation between faculty and market forces.” And faculty, Kerrey notes, have gotten their way far more in the last eight years than they might wish to acknowledge. There’s a faculty senate now, though Murtha opposed one, and the number of tenured faculty has more than doubled, though Murtha opposed that, too. The New School endowment has also nearly doubled (it was more than that, pre-recession), which for a university with little tradition of alumni giving is pretty impressive, and the school has seven new dorms. One could persuasively make the case, in fact, that Kerrey has given his angry faculty and students the very means they now have to rebel. “He’s tried to make this institution into a university,” says Franci J. Blassberg, a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton and a vice-chair of the board of trustees. “Has everything been handled perfectly? Probably not. I’m sympathetic with many of the faculty concerns, but as growing pains go, these haven’t been that bad.”

“You know who the angriest students were?” asks Kerrey about the occupation. “The students who wanted to get into that cafeteria to study.”

Just months into Kerrey’s tenure, in 2001, The New York Times Magazine and 60 Minutes II jointly broke a story revealing that Kerrey had led a Swift Boat raid in Vietnam that left some dozen civilians dead. His recollection of the incident differed significantly from that of one of his fellow SEALS—Kerrey claims he thought he was returning fire from the village, whereas the other SEAL says he knew he was slaughtering civilians—but no matter which version was true, the outcome was the same: Women and children were dead, and Kerrey would have to live with this fact for the rest of his life. “I thought dying for your country was the worst thing that could happen to you,” he told the Times, “and I don’t think it is. I think killing for your country can be a lot worse.”

Kerrey’s agony didn’t earn him much sympathy at the New School. Some faculty speculate that the university reaction to this revelation may have been the beginning of the end for Kerrey, souring him early, creating a bunker mentality. (Literally: His office in those days required extra security.) Graffiti started appearing on campus calling Kerrey a war criminal, a moniker students would freely hurl at him when they saw him on the street, and one they still haul out with bitter regularity today. His faculty also started demanding explanations. So Kerrey held a series of meetings where he spoke honestly and emotionally. According to a number of people who attended them, he promised to process this experience through the university itself, by planning seminars on war and memory and sending textbooks to Vietnam. “I remember Bob saying he’d devote a third of his life to addressing the postwar traumas and conditions of Vietnam,” says Prewitt. “And that all faded away.”

Memory and war is indeed a funny thing. As we’re bumping along in his Town Car, I bring up these promises. Kerrey cuts me off. “I’ve heard that from so many people, and it’s not true.” I’ve heard many times that Kerrey is quick to anger, but this is the first evidence I’ve seen of it. “I didn’t talk about … seminars.” He practically spits out the word. “I said I’m going to spend the rest of my life coming to terms with this, and I am. It’s none of their goddamn business any longer. None of their business. This is one where I reserve the right to come to terms with it in a way I choose to come to terms with it, not theirs.” He shifts in his seat, still agitated, and as I try to make it clear to him that I sympathize, he continues talking right over me. “Their idea to come to terms with it is you have seminars and you apologize and put the hair shirt on. That’s not my idea.”


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