The New School Convocation
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Welcome back. Welcome back to The New School.
Our students and faculty have come back. During the summer The New School is vastly diminished. We may occasionally breath a sigh of relief at the tranquility of things, may enjoy the quiet of our hall ways, and may even celebrate the ease of riding the elevators, but we know that we don't really become The New School again until all our students and faculty return.
While most of you were gone this summer a lot of things have been accomplished. One major achievement has been to strengthen the capabilities of the Provost office. This effort involved both the academic and administrative leadership of the university. Also included in this work was the establishment of several new mechanisms for shared governance across the university.
Our Provost office, now under the direction of Tim Marshall, has new authorities to manage the improvement of the quality and the collaboration of the New School's faculty. More changes will be needed before our provost can continue the work of creating a more unified and distinguished university.
Work has also continued on the improvement of our physical campus. We have made this a much more inclusive and transparent process thanks to Provost Tim Marshall and Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Jim Murtha who co-chaired a new University Facilities Committee. This committee included faculty, students and administrators and has helped us ensure that we have heard from as many people as possible as we plan the future campus of The New School.
We have new library space in Arnhold Hall at 55 West 13th Street, along with new study and gathering areas, a new cafeteria and a cafe for students. We have a new welcome center at Fifth Avenue and 13th Street. Our fundraising has remained strong and the generosity of our Trustees and many friends enables construction of our new University Center at 65 Fifth Avenue. Hazardous material abatement will soon begin, we are proceeding on the development of a detailed schematic design, and we continue to keep our elected and community leaders informed of our progress. And in response to concerns raised by faculty and students we are actively pursuing new accommodations to make up for the spaces we will lose during construction.
So, back from our summer break and duties, we are gathered at this convocation to mark the beginning of another academic year. We are The New School: 10,000 degree and diploma seeking students, 350 full and 1,800 part-time faculty, 900 staff, and a broad community of adult non-credit students, men and women who value the opportunity to learn and engage in public issues. So we come together to celebrate the academic, creative and research foundation of this university.
We are The New School: men and women determined to hold fast to the traditions which make us unique and important, committed to the change needed to improve the quality of our work, and excited about the possibilities of our future. That excitement begins with our faculty, four of whom we recognize today.
The faculty we honor have been selected by their peers and by their students as deserving of special recognition for their success at making it possible for students to learn, to create new knowledge through research, and to apply the results of that knowledge to individual and collective efforts.
Knowledge has a horizontal and a vertical axis. On the vertical there is surface knowledge. Little real effort is required to reach this level. This knowledge is largely derived from others. It is lazy knowledge, public relations knowledge, and so thin it qualifies for little more than waging an argument on talk radio. Give me a few phrases and I might persuade you I understood quantum mechanics.
Below the surface is knowledge that I acquire on my own. I must make the effort to learn the subject and, if necessary, practice until I have acquired the skills needed to demonstrate I have the knowledge. It is unlikely I will be invited on either Keith Olberman or Bill O'Reilly because they probably won't be interested in what I know or because my way of expressing myself is insufficiently entertaining.
Below that level of knowing is the world of the scholar, that man or woman who sustains the effort of learning through research, dialogue, and critical thinking. A few of these acquire the distinguished reputation of having profound erudition.
These scholars don't just acquire knowledge they create it. Their research leads to discovery of things previously unknown. At The New School these scholars help us understand who we are, how we organize our societies, and how our experiences affect our interpretation of places, people, things, and events.
On the horizontal plane is all knowledge, a body of facts, figures, stories, and explanations that, thanks to mechanical computers and algorithmic search engines, appears to be growing far faster than humanity's capacity to keep pace. For many reasons, human scholars and non-scholars alike need to categorize knowledge. We create categories in the hope that order will arise from the chaos. We create categories because we know that we must choose what it is we want and need to know well. We create categories because it helps us organize the work of passing on the knowledge either through institutions such as The New School and libraries or more informal means.
There are two special categories of knowledge of great importance to humanity and The New School. The first is art. Some amongst us choose to become artists. These brave ones choose to master technique, work to develop a personal style, and seek to express something, which can only be expressed through a painting, a song, a poem, a story, or a long riff on a saxophone or Rachmaninoff in a symphony.
The second category is design. The designer creates, collaborates and builds. The designer must master technique and must gain an understanding of the people and community for whom the design is meant. Even in a global society design has a local context. Good design inspires us, allows us to remain healthy, protects our environment and sustains us economically.
Among the traditions which guide our current actions and our future planning is the belief that we need to break out of the rigid confines of knowledge disciplines and explore the connections between them. Long before interdisciplinary education became cool The New School was exploring connections between the arts and social science, between the humanities and design, between philosophy and urban planning.
At The New School we believe the most important reference for knowledge is inward. Each of us must acquire the capacity to seek answers to deeply personal questions or our knowledge will be at best unsatisfying; at worse it will become destructive. Honest examination of ourselves is most likely to give us the humility, sympathy, and restraint needed to keep us from using our knowledge in ways that hurt rather than help advance the central cause of The New School: A more just and equitable world.
So, welcome back. Whether your search is to gain knowledge of the world around us or to create new knowledge; whether your search is to acquire the technique and discipline necessary to earn the title of artist; whether your desire is to design buildings, places, and things; whether you want to have a queue of employers lining up to hire you at graduation; or finally whether you are a part of our neighborhood community hoping that our public programming and continuing education will add value to your lives we welcome you back to The New School.
The New School belongs to all those who are a part of it. The trustees who contribute their time and immense experience to guide us; the faculty, deans and academic leadership of the provost office who shape our curriculum and have the most direct experience with our students; our administration who handle so many of the behind the scenes operations without which we couldn't even open the doors in the morning; and the students who come here to learn with the hope and expectation that we will do all we can to make them glad they chose to come to The New School.
The New School has always been known for embracing controversy, not only in allowing for differences but encouraging them. As a university we have, from the very beginning, engaged in the great political, social and economic debates of the times regardless of how contentious or uncomfortable they were. We continue to serve as a safe haven for endangered scholars, having opened our doors to two such families this past year. We have hosted several naturalization ceremonies to continually reinforce the message that freedom begins in the mind. We will continue in this tradition in order to give voice to those needing to be heard.
So welcome back to school, I am glad you are here. I hope you will join us, speak up in a fruitful way so your ideas can be heard and considered. Vote in the Student Senate elections, attend their meetings, be a part of their voice as they strive to speak for the student body. For faculty members, I ask the same, be involved with your peers, attend meetings and allow your thoughts, your wisdom, and your contributions to be collected in an effort to continue to make The New School a unique and amazing place to teach and learn.