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Bob Kerrey's Ivory-Tower War

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So I start talking over him, telling him my sole point was that the faculty were under the impression he’d broken a promise to them. “If they can find one quote where I promised it,” he says, “I’d look them in the face and say that’s one promise I’m breaking.” He exhales and looks out the window. Then he turns back at me, smiles, and changes the subject.

If you’re the CEO of McDonald’s, it helps to like burgers. And if you’re the president of a university, it helps to like academic culture. One of the most frequent complaints about Kerrey is that he doesn’t. “He seems bored when he has to officiate at some academic setting,” says Arien Mack, who’s edited Social Research since 1970. “I don’t think what we do matters to him.”

Kerrey himself admits to a certain disconnect. He never taught a course, never cultivated a kitchen cabinet of faculty confidants. “In some ways,” he says, “it’s too late for me to acquire a detailed knowledge of the culture of higher education.” I tell him a knowledge of academic culture probably isn’t necessary; a simple appreciation would do. Does he attend student events?

“Yeah!”

How many?

He’s quiet. “Jesus. I don’t know.”

Does he host receptions?

“Yeah.”

How many?

“I have one big one every year, and two smaller ones each semester.”

Compared to his predecessor, though, that’s peanuts. Do you ever have faculty over to dinner?

“Yeah.”

How often?

This time he’s silent for quite a while. He looks directly at me. “Maybe I should do it more.”

“Being a president of a university is like being a bus driver for a group of people who are all probably better drivers than you are,” says Leon Botstein. “They’re not doing this for the stature or financial reward. Their reward is that they’re at the center of the enterprise, in the sense that they’re treated with respect and honor.”

Prewitt says Kerrey never grasped this simple, crucial fact. “He read the graduate faculty as two things,” he says. “First, as an economic drain, and second, as institutionally selfish—they want their leave, they want their tenure, they want low teaching loads.”

The problem, of course, is that this assessment contains more than a grain of truth. Professors do want all those things. They are also famously unshy about picking fights. (One thinks of the line commonly attributed to Henry Kissinger: “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”) Prewitt concedes as much. “I’m not defending them,” he says. “I find faculty everywhere are smart in general. But that doesn’t mean they’re sane.”

Here’s what’s strange: In the Senate, collegiality is the coin of the realm. Without a high threshold for stubborn, fragile egos and an ability to work with people whose ideas are different from your own, senators would get little done. Kerrey understood this well. During his twelve years on Capitol Hill, he established himself as a warm and affable part of the club. Then he got to the New School and drew the curtains around himself. How could one of the best politicians in the business forget the simple value of politics?

To some extent, the answer may boil down to a fundamental mismatch of sensibilities and temperament. “Academics never met a meeting they didn’t like,” says Miller. “But Kerrey has a very short attention span. He likes to be amused and entertained; he shoots from the hip. He’s at his best when he’s at a meeting and people are sententious and pompous. He just punctures that.” Kerrey’s old friend the retired U.S. Army colonel Jack Jacobs adds that Kerrey’s experiences in Vietnam probably made his impatience with academic process all the more acute. “When your life is annealed in the intellectual crucible of war,” says Jacobs, “you have a tendency to focus on crap that’s important in the overall scheme of things.” Sure, he says, Kerrey could have spent more time having the faculty to dinner. But if they weren’t his friends, why bother? “Bob’s a very sociable person,” says Jacobs, “but he doesn’t like faking it. He’s the one who looks at Cyrano’s nose and says, ‘You’ve got a hell of a hooter on you.’ ”

But there’s probably an even simpler, if counterintuitive, explanation for Kerrey’s failure to connect to his faculty: He finds the New School less respectful of intellectual difference than is the United States Senate. “Part of the problem I have with the faculty is, I like to argue,” he says. “And particularly here at this university, where we pride ourselves on critical thinking, we ought to be able to have an argument. You want to take a position on the Iraq War, fine, let’s have an argument!” Kerrey was in favor of the Iraq War, to his colleagues’ dismay. “But if you begin by saying, ‘Oh, your argument is unacceptable,’ what kind of university is that?”


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