The New School Convocation
Thursday, September 3, 2009
It is a pleasure to welcome you to this academic year. Whether you are new to the University or have some history here, thank you all for being part of this enterprise.
It is a privilege and a unique challenge to serve as the chief academic officer of this complex, contradictory, messy and wonderful culture of creative scholarship, rigorous inquiry, and critical action.
It has been a little tricky to know exactly how best to frame this talk. What is clear is that we have both a rich opportunity and an obligation to move decisively and progressively forward to articulate our present and future identity as academic institution. Yet in my view we don't need a 'new' vision. After all, a "New...New... New School" might be a bit much. The fact is that each past Provost has advanced the discussion and planning toward a more cohesive and dynamic New School. There is a history of plans, concept papers, blue prints and diagrams.
The issue now is one of focusing The New School's intellectual and creative project and moving it forward. To do so will require that we deploy appropriate resources, establish open dialogue informed by reliable data, design processes that will enable successful implementation, and continue to embrace, in the right balance, stability and change.
The last decade at least - and especially during President Kerrey's tenure - has seen us iteratively try to establish a kind of meta narrative that resonates with the origins and mission of the divisions while rising to become more than the sum of the parts. We must continue to aspire to a narrative that honors the rich, idiosyncratic histories and identities of all of the parts that make up The New School, while finding new ways to connect and leverage them.
At the end of the day when one strips away brand and divisional names, The New School is formed from three principle faculty cultures: cultural and creative practices; the liberal arts through the disciplines of the social sciences and humanities; and a dedication to a deliberately balanced integration of theory and professional practice.
Through these cultures run some common themes: a commitment to progressive academic inquiry and academic freedom. Interdisciplinarity; Democracy; Urban and Global perspectives. Innovation; Collaboration; Art and Politics. Social, cultural and environmental sustainment. Civic Engagement. And so on.
We are still figuring out how to build a singular University around this mix. I am optimistic that with a bit of give and take, imagination and creativity, rigor, and courage this overarching goal is achievable. The optimism I have does not come from reading plans, documents or designs for the future of The New School. It comes primarily from the people that make up this place. It comes from the commitment and generosity of our Trustees and donors; the dedication of our staff; and most especially, it comes from our students and faculty.
The sense of higher purpose our students possess is in evidence throughout the university. The conversations I had last year with the leadership of the Student Senate revealed individuals who were entrepreneurial, idealistic, and committed to bettering The New School even as they were preparing to graduate from it. I've been equally impressed by the smart and enterprising students who run the New School Free Press; by opportunities I've had to meet aspiring musicians, or to talk to students from a range of schools and learn about their projects in New Orleans, China, Guatemala, or Africa.
The New School is also blessed with a wonderfully eclectic and renowned faculty. When I began in the Provost role this spring, one of the first jobs that awaited me was to review promotion dossiers that had built up. It was daunting, as there were over 30 of them and the deadline was looming. But once I got into each dossier it became a real joy. The range and the substance and extent of achievement across so many practices was intriguing and exciting. In every case I found myself wanting to spend more time getting to know the work: to read the books, listen to the music, experience the designs and artwork.
Students and faculty are so clearly committed to being part of The New School not simply to being at The New School.
This plays out in forums like the Socially Responsible Investment Committee, formed by the President in response to the appeals of students to uphold the ideals of a progressive institution in our investment decisions.
The Space and Facilities Committee is a group of faculty, students, and administrators who are active in the conversation about the kind of social, academic, and working spaces that will best serve our community for the future. Faculty and students worked over the summer to produce a 3D integrative map of the campus and to research the study and social spaces and propose improvements that are progressively being implemented.
An NSSR post-doctorate fellow is now working with us in the Provost's Office - in the Office of Institutional Research - doing statistical analysis that directly relates to his scholarship at the same time it provides important data for our academic planning.
Undergraduate students are continuing the work they began last year in partnership with The New School's Director of Facilities Management to establish an ongoing research project that is resulting in sustainability initiatives on campus. Graduate students have completed the latest design build project transforming the 2nd and 3rd floors of 25 East 13th Street and demonstrating how good design can create more space without adding 'net assignable square feet'.
So, in conclusion: We talk a lot at New School about legacy. But there is an irony at work here. Surely the real legacy of the New School is embedded in both the optimism and the burden of our name - to be new and therefore regularly renewed. This is a compelling and challenging legacy! And certainly the world is giving us no shortage of complex challenges that we, as an academic institution, can address in ways that are utterly unique, and as true to our history as to our future.
Thank you for being here, and for being part of this enterprise.