The New School Convocation
Thursday, September 2, 2010
Today we celebrate the beginning of the 2010-2011 academic year. Across the country 20 million men and women are beginning or continuing their study at one of 7,000 U.S. universities and colleges. They have come from every nation on earth because they believe there is something worth learning, worth discovering, worth owning that can only be earned at a university like ours.
Every time I consider the size of this migration, I am in awe of the value we humans still place on the discovery and acquisition of knowledge. The individual and collective effort made and the energy expended by 20 million people traveling to the university of their choosing is just one part of the flow of humanity towards this special learning. There is also a stream of 4 to 5 million faculty who have labored and prepared themselves to organize their research and their classes, plus another torrent of 4 to 5 million administrators and staff who keep these institutions running.
And if you assume that every good university has at least a thousand volunteers including active alumni who give of their time and money, that would be another 7 million or so people who help sustain an institution they believe is unique and vital for their community.
As we gather for the beginning of each academic year, we try to reflect on what makes us unique. The New School founders saw a need for academic freedom and the right to explore and examine whatever it was one wanted to study. They looked at learning as a higher calling and wanted to create a setting that allowed for new ideas unencumbered by traditional rules. They envisioned a place that was a refuge for unorthodox ideas. They set the stage for interest in new thoughts and a commitment to solving the problems of the day, the social issues that required intellectual and ethical learning to spark creative solutions.
In the darkest days of the twentieth century The New School demonstrated it was willing to take the risk of moving from ethical teaching into ethical action by becoming a refuge for German intellectuals who were endangered by the political beliefs of the National Socialist Party. Against the wishes of the U.S. Department of State, The New School became a part of the Emergency Rescue Committee and established a safe home for one out of seven German Jewish intellectuals who were saved from the near certainty of death. This was the most heroic humanitarian effort of any American university and became known as the University in Exile.
We are rightfully proud of this progressive tradition and fight to maintain it whenever we feel it is endangered.
However, equally important and much more at risk today is the central educational belief and innovation of our founders: the need to educate men and women who were already educated. We began as a school for people who already had degrees but recognized they had much more they needed to learn. We began as a school that offered an opportunity to listen and learn from distinguished intellectuals in the social sciences and later the arts. We began without credits or degrees, without tenure, and without endowment. This, our founders believed correctly, ensured a minimal amount of bureaucracy and a maximal amount of organizing freedom.
All of us who have spent anytime in the work of university administration can tell you that there is a direct and powerful correlation between the size and complexity of a university's bureaucracy and the size of its degree-granting program, the nature of its faculty employment agreements, and the size of its endowment. Each of these three produces bureaucracy because each is regulated by an outside entity whose decisions become crucial for our survival.
I give you three examples to illustrate my point.
In the early 1980's the State of New York threatened to de-certify most of our PhD programs. Had we not responded with corrective actions they would have had the power to take away our degree granting authority, an authority they had granted us nearly fifty years earlier following the establishment of the University in Exile.
Seven years ago we were visited by an organization we know as Middle States, created by Federal law to examine the quality of the for-credit and degree granting efforts of universities and colleges in this region. The good news is that we passed with flying colors; the bad news is that they'll be back in three years perhaps with greater intensity on account of growing public concern for higher education quality.
The third example involves student loans. Over the summer the U.S. Department of Education proposed new regulations, requiring us to do more to demonstrate that we are not abusing Federal financial aid programs. This will no doubt generate a few complaints about paper work and bureaucracy.
All of these - and many more besides - add regulatory friction to our efforts and lengthen the time and number of meetings required to convert an important idea for change into action.
In addition to external authorities we have internal rules, created by each of our schools and in some cases academic departments that can feel more like impenetrable barriers than simple friction, and that frustrate the spirit of innovation, make us more conservative, and give rise to angry words and accusations. It also makes you wonder if a group of faculty might some day break away in protest of these conservative tendencies to found a new New School.
We do not want that to happen. We want The New School to remain a place where innovation and excellence walk hand in hand. We believe that being progressive in higher education means a lot more than merely establishing your liberal political bona fides.
That is why we have spent the past several years in discussions about how to re-invent our founding division, The New School for General Studies. That is why these discussions have led to a number of specific and exciting actions.
We have planned and obtained state approval for a number of new undergraduate programs, to be located in this division. We have begun the process of combining two important and successful graduate programs - Milano The New School for Urban Policy and Management and The New School's Graduate Program for International Affairs - and have recruited an exceptional academic and administrator, Neil Grabois, to lead this effort. We have created a new Executive Dean position for the founding division and have just completed a successful search and are thrilled to welcome David Scobey to lead this re-invention process.
In addition to welcoming Neil and David I also want to welcome Stefania de Kenessey as the new Dean of Lang College. She has the talent, enthusiasm, and preference for collaboration to ensure that the work of Neil and David will add considerable qualitative value to Lang College.
Though they are not new I am also pleased that Joel Towers and Michael Schober have agreed to extend their contracts for three years since so much of the success of this re-invention effort depends on the continued success of Parsons The New School for Design and The New School for Social Research.
And - though he is not with us today - I want to welcome Dr. David Van Zandt as the new president designate for The New School. He is very enthusiastic about beginning his presidency on January 1, 2011 and is looking forward to his informal introduction to our community next week.
Successful searches do not occur by accident. Our search committee did a great job and we should all be grateful to them. And we should all recognize that Professor Van Zandt's decision to say yes to this opportunity to lead The New School is because of his high regard for you - the faculty, students, staff, and volunteer community of The New School. This is a remarkable university with remarkable traditions in a remarkable neighborhood of a remarkable city. We are lucky to have been able to recruit him but he is lucky to have the opportunity to lead you.
However, luck alone will not account for our success in the future. That is especially true with the re-invention of our founding division. For in addition to being a pathway to create exciting and important undergraduate programs that more closely align with our graduate degrees, this project hopes to build on The New School's still good reputation as a place where the already educated can learn things they want and need to learn in a world that changes so rapidly that yesterday's education seems wholly inadequate for today's circumstances.
Ten years ago as New School seniors were approaching their last year of college, this year's entering freshmen were in fourth grade. In 2000 there was no such thing as a Global War on Terror. There was little need to be able to understand the world's fastest growing religion, Islam, let alone the differences between Shia and Sunni, or Wahabi and Sufi. Ten years ago it would have been impossible to imagine that a decision of where to build an Islamic cultural center could become a national political issue.
Ten years ago Google was a start-up company with little revenue, no profit, and little impact on our lives. Ten years ago social networking, network literacy, and the nearly ubiquitous presence of broadband and mobile devices were dreams of a handful, not the reality of a majority.
Ten years ago I was certain that Al Gore would become president. We were paying down debt, creating hundreds of thousands of private sector jobs a week, seemed within grasp of confronting great environmental challenges like climate change and great political ones like immigration. Our country was divided but there was a governing coalition in the middle.
Ten years ago biologists announced they had sequenced the human genome, physicists were exploring deep space, and within fractions of a second after a singularity exploded into our universe, engineers were inventing technologies that promised to extend our lives, make us healthier, lower the cost and increase the cleanliness of our energy, and much more.
Ten years ago most of us believed our financial markets were sound and secure, that somehow things would work out for the best, that rising housing values would generate more wealth for us all, and that the magic of the free market could not do otherwise than make certain that excesses would not lead to collapse. It could not be in the interest of the bankers to put their and our futures at ultimate peril.
All these changes are in addition to those things we may not have learned when we went to college but need or want to know now. And they are in addition to the reality faced by today's students of more competition, more uncertainty, and more complexity than those faced by students just ten years ago.
The challenge for today's students is considerably greater than the challenge for those ten years ago. Whether the student is an 18 year-old entering as a freshman hoping that their education will lead to a good job or a graduate student hoping for the same or an adult merely trying to understand what is going on around them so they can participate as an informed citizen. The New School needs to make certain we can change our curricula if change is needed, change our public programming if change is needed, and change the structure of our university if change is needed.
The re-invention of The New School therefore is an economic, social, political, and moral imperative. This re-invention will only happen if we embrace the true values of our founders, values of openness, and a place for adults who were already educated to gather and continue to learn. We have expanded to become a place which excels in the liberal arts, design, performance, and the social sciences, all with a calling and dedication to social justice. We must maintain our commitment to ethical learning, a commitment to addressing the problems of the day, a commitment to grappling with social issues that affect a global and local community, and a commitment to studying and taking action to come up with unique, creative designs to address those issues.
We at The New School are explorers and inventors, whether through design, performance, writing, or academic scholarship, we have looked at the world and asked what is important and how can I be a part of it.
Now that The New School looks to a major transition, a new president to come on board this January, we need to remember what The New School stands for: unbending intellectual rigor, free and articulate expression, and an introduction and exploration of the skills that make democracy work. We continue to be a unified, urban, global university with superior faculty preparing engaged and passionate students to become engaged citizens equipped to take on the needs of the society in which they live.
As we move forward we look not only to remain true to these traditions, but also to making essential change happen where it is demanded by our students, faculty, the needs of our community, and our collective ideas about what The New School should be doing today and in the future. I am confident and optimistic about the future of this university.