The New School Convocation
Thursday, September 7, 2006
It’s a great honor to address the twenty-fourth convocation of The New School as the first university-wide public act of my provostship. Like some of you, I came to The New School from abroad, in my case from Beijing, China where I was on sabbatical leave from another university. But also like some of you, I am from New York City, having grown up about a mile from here. And when I was in junior high school, I remember walking by 65 Fifth Avenue and wondering what The New School was, especially since even then some of the buildings looked rather old.
It wasn’t until I went to graduate school at that outpost of The New School for Social Research, the University of Chicago, that I learned that The New School was a combination of Frankfurt and Paris on the Hudson, the nurturing holding environment for the university-in-exile, the birthplace of structuralism, and a bastion of European philosophy and social science. And when I arrived here two years ago as the dean of The New School for Social Research, I discovered like many of you did, that The New School consisted of many other parts, each with its own history of excellence. I’m sure Parsons students were surprised to learn that they were also connected not only to the university-in-exile, but a classical music conservatory and a drama school.
We also learned that since its founding in 1919 the university has always been at the forefront of education in the United States. During World War I The New School stood for a progressive internationalism in the face of nationalist isolationism. Over the next two decades, The New School would build upon an impressive agenda of the arts, adult education, and women’s’ rights. During the run-up to World War II, The New School responded to the rise of international fascism with the founding of the university-in-exile, thereby adding a graduate school and PhD programs that reinvigorated and updated its commitment to a progressive and international vision of democracy. The addition of the Graduate Faculty laid the foundation for The New School to become a university; in the ensuing decades we would add Parsons, Mannes, Milano, Lang, Jazz, and drama programs. At the same time, we have now gone global; according to a recent survey, we have one of the most international student bodies in the United States and we now have a flourishing program in international studies at The New School, along with an India-China Institute, and a host of international programs.
Not unlike the other transformative moments in our history, we are now facing both a new international situation that challenges what we think education can be in a new global era. Three years ago, Bob Kerrey had the foresight to bring Arjun Appadurai from Yale University and the University of Chicago to become Provost and begin the transformation of The New School from eight divisions into a university. Arjun laid the foundation for a new New School by instituting a system of joint hires between divisions and developing a set of bridge themes to guide the academic development of the university. At the same time, President Kerrey and executive vice President Jim Murtha began creating a plan for the largest expansion of The New School since its founding, to be capped off by a signature university building on 65 Fifth Avenue.
The pieces are now in place for the third major transformation of The New School since its founding and the addition of the university-in-exile. This fall we will initiate a university wide discussion about the new New School and we hope that you will all become part of that larger conversation.
What will the new New School look like? How will it respond to the challenges that higher education faces in a global era? In the United States, there is a growing sense of crisis about what has become known as “general education” at the undergraduate level. In the sixties and seventies, the infamous “culture wars” were battles over what a liberal education should consist in, how progressive it should be. The echoes of these debates can be heard in the rush to prepare students for globalization, which usually means adding some economics or international relations courses and study abroad. One of the lessons from the Harvard debacle was how difficult it is to create a curriculum that meets the challenges of a globalizing world. Almost all of the attempts at general education have been attempts to revise the standard liberal arts curriculum by strengthening pre-professional training, what might be called a “vertical” consolidation of undergraduate education with graduate and professional schools. The diversity of most research universities lies not at the undergraduate level, but at the proliferation of graduate and professional programs: PhD programs, schools of medicine, law, and business, etc.
Our diversity is of a different order. We are a diverse community in a city celebrated for its diversity. Our students come from all over the world, and our student body is one of the most international in the United States. We have students of all types, from high school graduates to senior citizens who bring to the university an amazing array of talents. There are classical and jazz musicians, writers, anthropologists, fashion designers, actors, working professionals, policy makers, traditional and non-traditional scholars and our faculty matches them in their diversity. It is this diversity that makes The New School experience unique among all institutions of higher education.
The key to our creating a unique educational experience at The New School lies in harnessing the diversity of our students and faculty. We therefore intend to take a different course than other colleges and universities by creating a liberal arts-design and performance curriculum, what might be called a “horizontal” consolidation upon which we will build new M.A. programs that will combine the best of the liberal arts with the best of design to prepare our students for the global challenges facing all of us. One of the most exciting developments in education is the interface between design issues and the social sciences; indeed the uses of the word ‘design’ hint at its larger meanings: designing a constitution, designing a product, designing a financial instrument. In the new New School, a freshman would have the full range from design to liberal arts and performance to choose from to create their own educational trajectory. One of our goals will be to provide an educational environment where someone interested in cognitive psychology, computer games, and the piano can flourish.
Not all the innovations will be curricular. The plans for the largest space expansion in the university will allow us to make our new structure of innovation a part of the built environment of the university. In addition to renovations of our twelfth street facilities, we will have new spaces for Parsons and NSSR on Fifth Avenue and refurbished spaces for our all of the university divisions. There will also be a new academic building at 65 Fifth Avenue which will be a microcosm of the new New School. Soaring some fifteen stories over Fifth Avenue, the new academic building would house our major inter-divisional, university-wide programs. It will contain a new library, auditorium, and athletic facilities and be the information commons for the whole university. As you entered the library, you will enter the information structure of the university, radiating outwards to the divisions located at their specific sites, all of which will be connected by state of the art digital media and information resources. The auditorium will also be the gateway for performance and the arts, thereby fulfilling a long-standing dream of The New School by bringing performance to all the students.
New curricula and new buildings by themselves do not make the great and distinctive university we aspire to be. The key, of course, is the faculty. And here our diversity also makes us unique. In most of our counterpart institutions, part-time and adjunct faculty are considered to be necessary evils. Our mix of full-time, part-time, adjuncts, and visiting faculty matches the diversity of our student body and has always been a potential source of strength. With the greater security that our breakthrough union contract gives our part-time faculty, we will now be able make this potential strength into an active component in shaping the future of direction of the university.
At the same time, our commitment to double the full-time faculty over the next five years gives us a rare opportunity to create the academic infrastructure for our future. Two years ago the Provost’s office instituted a system of joint hires to encourage the divisions to work together. One unanticipated result was that deans became aware of each other’s problem, thereby laying the foundation for an unprecedented situation in which the deans and officers of the university have been able to work smoothly together on the strategic planning for the new New School. It is clear that these changes are making a difference. There is already a national buzz among prospective faculty that The New School is a place to come to. In most of our joint hires we have been able to secure our top candidates, despite fierce competition from other institutions and application pools that sometimes topped a hundred applicants.
We intend to build upon the system of joint hires to create university-wide faculty appointments in five areas: 1) urban design; 2) media studies; 3) international studies; 4) management and policy studies; 5) capitalism and democracy. Each of these new programs builds upon existing strengths and will become the core for the academic and administrative reorganization of the whole university. As representatives of the new spirit on interdivisional university-wide collaboration, they will also be the anchoring programs in the new university building at 65 Fifth Avenue. We intend to create programs that will make The New School the most exciting place for young faculty in the United States, a place at the cutting edge of innovations in design, liberal arts, and performance.
We are all proud of what The New School has accomplished and what it means to all of us. As you move forward in your lives, watch us, help us, and support us. We’ll be changing with you.