He thinks, and brings this point closer to home. “You got a guy here you don’t like, Jim Murtha, and you call him Dick Cheney,” he says. “It’s a demonstration of how we talk about critical thinking but don’t do it all the time. It’s jerky to call him Dick Cheney. Maybe you get a round of applause and people laugh, but how are you different from kids on a street corner harassing a teenage girl?”
Kerrey got to experience this in a different context in 2006, when he invited John McCain to speak on graduation day. Perhaps 200 or so students out of the 8,000 graduates turned their chairs to face the back of the auditorium as he addressed the crowd. “We behaved reprehensibly,” says Kerrey. “I’m not proud of it. I’ve learned my lesson. I don’t invite controversial speakers to this school, especially if they’re my friends. We want to invite people who agree with us.”
I mention what one of the student negotiators during the cafeteria occupation, said to me—that to invite McCain was “to disregard the ideals of the New School.”
“Yeah, I’m sure that’s a persuasive argument to half our students, who are at Parsons,” says Kerrey. “They’ve come here because of the liberal fashion program we have. I’m sure that students at Mannes say, ‘Yes, I want to play the violin, but it’s the progressive politics of the New School that have brought me here … ’ ”
Fair enough, I say. But why provoke the kids who’ve come here for that tradition?
“It’s the minority,” he says. “The majority would like to have those kinds of critical debates, but, as is almost always the case, they get shouted down by a minority. You know who the angriest students were during the occupation? The students who were trying to get into that cafeteria to study.”
If Kerrey has no great love of academic culture, one might wonder why he accepted the New School job in the first place. Kerrey himself hints at a possible explanation—or at least an explanation for why he came to New York. While he was in the Senate, he fell in love with the screenwriter Sarah Paley, who was living in New York City. “And you know, love conquers all,” he says. “She wanted to have a baby, and I didn’t want to raise another kid in politics, so, okay, now I’m coming here.”
Kerrey insists the job of New School president genuinely interested him, and that he still quite likes his job today. And the board doesn’t seem particularly interested in getting rid of him, though the trustees are insisting he balance the power between the administrative and academic sides of the university. Just last week, Kerrey issued a letter to the entire university, announcing a number of concessions to his faculty. But many professors are so angry that they seem obdurately disinclined to take yes for an answer. At an emergency faculty meeting two weeks ago, several senior people raised the possibility that the school might need to schedule a second no-confidence vote. At one point, a student from NSSR, Geeti Das, stepped up to the microphone. If Kerrey didn’t resign by April 1, she said, “We will shut down the functions of the university. We will bring it to a halt.”
By the end of the meeting, it was hard not to sympathize with Kerrey. The gathering had become a de facto faculty-senate session, with people proposing amendments to motions and motions to amendments—just the sort of endless ping-pong that drives him nuts. The room became an accidental signifier of the seventies, a sea of black jackets and Elvis Costello glasses and long hair. For an outsider, it was hard not to look around and think: These are the kinds of people who’ve given Kerrey grief from the moment he came home from Vietnam.
In the final minutes of my last interview with Kerrey, I mention that a faculty member told me the New School could probably make all the changes Kerrey sought if only Kerrey agreed to pack up and leave. “I’ve thought about that,” he says. “The evening I was sitting with my 7-year-old with a bunch of screaming maniacs outside my building, I was thinking, Who needs this?” He recognizes that this situation is tenuous. Just a few minutes earlier, he’d told me as much. “I don’t think it’s ungovernable,” said Kerrey, “but it may be. It may be that they need to find somebody else to run this place.”